The Big Price

As you probably know, 'Grand Prix', is French for 'Big Prize', today it should more correctly be known as the 'Big Price' ... In all of my (now considerable) lifetime, I have been a fan of Grand Prix, or more correctly, Formula 1 racing. Despite both of my parents' total disdain for the sport, and a complete lack of any form of transportation, I managed to attend my first of several British GP's at Silverstone in 1971. I paid for the ticket out of my 17 year old 'pocket money' and also managed to contribute to the 'petrol' cost for the ride down and back in a friend's Mini. My guess is that the complete trip probably cost in the order of 5 GBP or less, with admission probably 3 GBP. For my money we managed to negotiate the traffic jams and arrive (just) in time for the race, and then stand at the inside of Abbey curve while Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell ran away from the field; finishing an easy winner from Ronnie Peterson's March and Emerson Fittipaldi's Lotus. For me the highlights of the race were a rare appearance of the Lotus 56B, 'wedge', turbine powered car (which only raced 3 times), with it's distinctive whine, and the thrilling, hair raising sound of the two works V12 Matra's passing by at full chat, the clear memory of which still gives me chills to this very day. As a side note, I have now seen the Lotus 56B twice in the last few years. It was displayed at the Goodwood festival of speed in 2012, the year that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Lotus. Then, this past week, I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum, and there it was again, displayed in a special exhibition of turbine powered cars. It's one of those strange coincidences in life, only made a little more strange that in my working life I have spent the vast majority of the last thirty-five years around the aviation version of the engine that powered that car, the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop engine. Which, in a roundabout way brings me to the present. If we take that 3 GBP general admission of 1971 and double it a generous 3 times, we end up with 24 GBP, or roughly $40 in today's money and look at what that would buy you today at the upcoming US Grand Prix in Austin TX, just 200 miles down Interstate 35 from here. The answer, unfortunately, is nothing; lowest raceday general admission is more than $150 which, by my math, is 4 times the equivalent 1971 price. So, for my 4X money, is the value better? Well that's a matter of perspective, certainly the track is much safer and the amenities are streets above the porta-potties, dirt spectator banks, endless traffic jams, muddy car parks and marginal food of 1971 Slverstone. But is the racing any better, probably not, it's the history of Formula 1 to be dominated by the best car, with few exceptions, that turn races into processions. Access to the cars and drivers today is nonexistent, even if you could get into the paddock, for the average spectator; whereas in 1971 a paddock pass was a modest incremental price, drivers were open, friendly and willing to chat, you could walk up to and touch the cars. And if you were to look at the cost of decent seats today ... well, as they say, OMG, this is a wealthy person's privilege only ... Today, as much as I find the idea of the hybrid engines technically exciting, they will never, ever replace the visceral thrill, of the screaming sound, of a French V12 passing by in a blue flash at 180 mph. Try it for yourself ... just Google 'Matra V12 sound', and listen to that glorious noise ... So, come Sunday November 2nd, I'll be watching this race, not from the stands at the Circuit of the Americas, but from the comfort of my living room ...

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