I have been a fan of Formula 1 ever since I first played a F1 game for Sega Mega Drive II back in 1994. And yet, during all these years it has somehow never really occurred to me to watch the Formula 1 Grand Prix live. It just seemed like a waste of money. After all, why sit in one place and miss out on all the action elsewhere on track, when you can see it all for free from the comfort of your couch? Well, it all changed last Christmas when my girlfriend had given me as a present two tickets to 2018 Formula 1 German Grand Prix in Hockenheim. So now, a few weeks after the race and as we find ourselves in the middle of the summer break, is a good time to talk about what that experience was like.
Let me start by saying that watching the Grand Prix in person is a completely different experience than doing so on TV. Sounds obvious and cliché, but it is actually true. Sure enough, you only see a part of the circuit, but that isn’t nearly as huge of an issue as I thought it would be. There are huge screens setup in front of all the grandstands, so it is very easy to follow what’s going on. On the upside though, you get to experience Formula 1 in a way you would never be able to on TV. It just feels completely different. What immediately stroke me is how insanely fast these cars really are. Obviously, I knew that already, but you can never get a true sense of it when watching the race at home. I can almost guarantee that if you have never seen Formula 1 live before, your very first thought would be something along the lines of “Whoa, that is CRAZY fast!”
It is also very loud. Sure, we all know the sound of the Formula 1 engines these days is a far cry from what it used to be in the pre-turbo era. But let me assure you that it is still plenty loud. Not so loud as to warrant the headphones, but loud enough to not be able to hear a person sitting next to you or follow the commentary (there is commentary in both German and English through the entire weekend).
But above all, it is the irrationally, almost childishly, exciting to watch all the teams, all the cars and all the drivers I know so well right there in front of me. To be there and witness it all unfold together with all the other fans around me. That alone is worth the cost of the ticket in my opinion. What’s even greater is that this excitement never goes away. On the contrary, it builds up steadily during the weekend in anticipation of the main event. We got extremely lucky in Hockenheim this year with a very hectic Grand Prix that delivered everything a true fan could ask for – rain, numerous battles, crashes and a completely unexpected ending – but I’m fairy sure that even the boring race would still be fun to watch live.
For the best experience, I do recommend getting a full weekend pass. You can save a bit of money buying a Sunday-only ticket, but the difference is not that huge and you miss a lot of the action. Also, Friday is generally less busy and with a grandstand ticket you can freely pick any place on a number of grandstands (on Saturday and Sunday you are locked into a dedicated seat). This makes Friday a great day to explore the racetrack and see the action from various viewpoints and thus a perfect day to do some sports photography, but more on that later.
I don’t have a strong opinion on the grandstand ticket versus general admission, but in Hockenheim in particular I feel like grandstands provide a far superior view of the track, so for the first experience I’d probably go with that, despite it being more expensive. Just do the research on the best places to witness the action from on a particular circuit. Our tickets were for Südtribüne C and that turned out to be a fantastic choice with a view from the end of Parabolika all the way to turn one. In other words, we got to see the start, the finish and lots of action in between including all the pit entries. All the main events of the race – Vettel crashing and Hamilton cutting the pit corner in the last moment to subsequently claim the win – happened in the direct view of our seats.
While the race itself was excellent, I do feel that the organizers could have done a far better job making Hockenheim more visitor-friendly. A lot of things that would have made the weekend a smoother experience overall were not taken into account. For example on Friday we spent quite some time figuring out where the parking lot was, since there was not a single sign pointing in the right direction (by the way, it’s here). Also, don’t trust Google or Waze if you arrive via the A6 from the south. For some unknown and stupid reason it will attempt to lead you through a huge detour with lots of traffic, where in reality there’s a much easier and faster way directly from the rest stop on A6. Again, this is something that could have easily been put on the website under driving directions for the benefit of everybody instead of us having to find it out on our own. I also got a feeling that the venue just wasn’t prepared for the amount of people that showed up. There weren’t enough toilets around the circuit and all the food carts and merchandise shops had huge lines throughout entire weekend.
However, the most frustrating thing for me was the overall lack of information on the events. After extensive digging on the internet all we got was a short schedule of practice sessions and support races. There was nothing in it about all the extra activities that happen during the weekend in Hockenheim, such as interviews, driver autograph sessions or evening parties. Some of it we picked up on the track, but I’m sure we missed a lot too, because it was never properly communicated. The website had none of that listed and the email I sent to organizers before the event to request this information went unanswered. Interestingly, as I checked the website prior to this article publication, the program has now mysteriously appeared. Oh well, better late than never I guess?
Even finding out something as simple as how to get closer to the podium after the race proved to be an enormous challenge. We tried asking pretty much everybody, including the security guards, stewards, the girls in the information booths and in the main information office, and nobody was able to give us any sort of reply. So if you’re wondering the same thing, here is how it actually works. Every grandstand has the gate that leads to the racetrack. Stewards will open it as soon as all the drivers are back in the pits after the chequered flag. Depending on where you seat you may want to locate the gate beforehand and try to get closer to it during the last few laps. However, from our seats on the southern grandstand it was easy enough to reach the podium by the time national anthems started playing even without doing that.
Now for some practical advice. First of all, come early. Traffic around Hockenheim builds up heavily before the session start times and finding parking becomes increasingly difficult. Also, by being early, you leave yourself enough time to explore all the shops, booths, simulators and all the other activities around the circuit. There’s plenty of food and drink carts that aren’t crazy expensive (around 3 EUR for a hot dog and 4 EUR for a beer), but it is also possible to bring your own snacks and even beer. Just make sure it is in cans, not in glass bottles.
The merchandise sold at Grand Prix is going to be very expensive. Expect to pay between 25 to 40 EUR for a cap and up to 60-70 EUR for a t-shirt or a polo. My advice is to buy it beforehand on ebay, there are better deals there (might not be 100% original, but who cares?). Finally, have a rain poncho or an umbrella in case it rains. Most of grandstands in Hockenheim have no roof and watching Formula 1 under the rain is going to be quite unpleasant. You can actually buy both right there, but at a crazy premium (10 EUR for a basic plastic poncho anyone?).
As you might know, I love photography and I just couldn’t go to a Formula 1 Grand Prix and not take my camera with me. Luckily, Hockenheimring doesn’t ban photo equipment, so here are a few tips on shooting an event like this. Most importantly, you will need a long and preferably fast lens. Anything longer than 300mm is not allowed, but get as close to that as possible (not sure they actually enforce this rule as I have seen people with some serious glass in the audience, but I suggest to not risk it). Most images in this article have been shot with a very affordable Canon 55-250mm f/4-5.6 lens. It is not the fastest lens in the world, but I rarely, if ever, shoot sports, so I had to do with what I have.
The cars move fast, so use the panning and tracking technique and play around with various shutter speeds for best results. I’m not used to shooting sports, so for me it turned out to be more difficult than it sounds. The vast majority of my shots came up blurry or otherwise unusable, so shoot a lot. Having a body with higher frames per second rate would definitely help. Also, don’t think you can shoot the event and actually follow the action simultaneously. It is impossible. If you try, you’ll fail at both and that’s not what you want. Therefore, I strongly suggest to do the majority of shooting during the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday. They are not that exciting to watch anyway. Dedicate some time for photography during the qualifying if you must, but I strongly suggest putting the camera aside for the race and simply enjoying it. Trust me, you’ll be happy that you did.
Lastly, don’t expect to be able to sell your photos. I tried uploading mine to Shutterstock and every single one of them got rejected with the error message that reads “This image was taken at an event requiring press credentials. Please send your press credentials to firstname.lastname@example.org prior to submitting this content.” That’s right, apparently Shutterstock requires press credentials even if you shoot everything from the general admission grandstand and submit it as editorial. Annoyed as I was, I guess that is actually fair as I later discovered that the fine print at the back of the ticket reads that I can only use photos of the event for private purposes (guess I should have read that before uploading!)
All in all, watching Formula 1 live has been an awesome experience that I enjoyed much more than I ever thought I would. It is definitely something any Formula 1 fan should do at least once in their life. In fact, I liked it so much that I think of making this a yearly tradition. After all, both Monza and Spa are not too far from where I live and it’ll be a great pleasure to visit both. And hey, latest rumors suggest that Hockenheim might return as early as next year already, so I hope this article will help you prepare for that. If you have any questions about the German Grand Prix, by all means leave them in the comment section below and I’ll try my best to answer them. And if you are a Formula 1 fan, I want to hear your thoughts on this. Have you ever been to a race? Did you enjoy it? Do you plan to go again? Let me know!