Sunday, 4 June 2017

A First Timer's Impression of the F1 Grand Prix of Barcelona - Catalonya

Note: This post was written after the 2016 race but for a lot of reasons, I couldn't post it until June 2017. Things may have changed, but probably not.

While I have certainly not been to a lot of F1 races -- a dozen or so, and mostly in Montreal -- there are things that I wish I would have known about the Barcelona Grand Prix that I couldn't really find out before travelling. Maybe this post will help someone else.

How To Get to Montmelo, near the Circuit du Barcelona - Catalunya, by public transport:

You can take a direct bus, from Barcelona or the R2 train. We opeted for the train, and aside from noting a LOT of people take the bus, can't really comment on it.

We went to the Barcelona Sants station to catch the train to Montmelo (the closest station to the track). The R2 train you want (part of the efficient Rodiales local train network operated by Renfe) doesn't originate at Sants; it's the R2 that starts at the Airport (or at Casteldefels or at Sant Vicenc de Calders). In short, it's a commuter train that passes through Sants (and Passeig de Gracia, and El Clot-Arago) on its way to Montmelo and beyond. And it's a BIG train, that can carry +2,000 people. Getting on the train to get to the track is therefore never an issue even on race day.

On our first day, we got to Sants and stood around waiting and watching the monitors for the track to be assigned for the train. It never happened. A nice Renfe lady was wandering around telling people to head to Platforms 13/14. An ad in rotation on the TV monitors was saying to go to "Vias 13/14", but I missed that "vias" is "platform". My fault, not theirs. Still, with 10 min to the train, there was no platform assigned. By Sunday, there were sandwich board signs around the station pointing to the platforms for Montmelo.

The platform was crowded; the train, not so much. The 40 min ride out was comfortable and simple. Most people heading to the race get on at 
Passeig de Gracia.

Note that the Rodiales trains are part of the integrated transit system. So if you buy, say, a 2 zone T-10 card, you can ride the metro to one of the train stations, then hop on the R2 to get to Montmelo. You MUST have a 2 zone T-10 card, though, because Montmelo is in Zone 2 and Barcelona in Zone 1.

If you're at the track for all 3 race days -- and you should be -- it's cost effective to buy a 2 zone T-10 for the 6 trips you'll make out and back to the track. Be aware you can't actually buy a single ride ticket that covers the metro and the R2 (and the local bus at the other end; more on this in a moment) to get you to the track and back. There is no such ticket. Assuming you just want to go to the track Sunday for the race from somewhere in Barcelona, you need to buy:
  • A metro ticket. In 2016, that was €2.15. That gets you to the train station;
  • An R2 ticket. Out & return ("ida i vuelta") to Montmelo is €5;
  • A local single ride ticket (€2.15) for the bus from Montmelo to the track.
Add it up, that's €13.60. Per day. A 2 zone T-10 is €19.60, so it pays for itself in 2 days. That, and you don't have to visit 2 ticket machines and fuss with the bus driver in Montmelo.

Getting between the track and the Montmelo station:

Upon arrival in Montmelo, the "fun" begins. The station is between 3 and 6 km from the track entry gates, depending on where you are sitting.

We had heard here that there were shuttle busses to take you from the station to the track, to avoid the "45 min, unpleasant walk". The walk isn't that unpleasant and is well marked. But it's undeniably long. If you're where we were in Grandstand B or G or H, count on an hour walk or more.

We stepped out of the train station expecting busses. Nope. But very nice, and very helpful, and well marked, information folks from the town of Montmelo were there to tell us we had to walk about 500 m into town to catch the bus. There were signs to follow, and we wandered along the pleasant streets of the pretty town to the bus stop.
The pretty and pleasant (if busy) streets of Montmelo
Along the way we passed:
  • Endless numbers of shops selling track stuff on the sidewalk, such as earplugs, cushions, and stuff;
  • Endless numbers of tents selling F1 related stuff, like shirts and toys;
  • Endless numbers of tents selling beer (at 9 AM), coffee, sandwiches and bottled water.
We got to the bus stop, and found out your T-10 ride 2 zone ticket is good for the Sagales bus that goes from from Montmelmo to the "vicinity" of the track IF you are within the 90 min, 2-zone transit window. We got on our metro at 8 AM, and on the bus just before 9:30 AM, so it was good. If you don't have a ticket, in 2016 a single ride ticket on the bus cost €2.15 to get to the track; the drivers had change.

The bus travels all of 1.8 km (in about 4 minutes) before dropping you off at a traffic circle sort-of near the south track access (which I call the Transit Hub), marked here with a black star. The direct busses to Barcelona also stop at the transit hub.  Most custom charter tour busses stop or park at/near the Transit Hub.
The "transit hub" marked with a black star
Note that the Transit Hub is a long way from most of the track. What we didn't find out until late Friday is that there is a free (small) shuttle bus that does laps of the outside of the track running about every 15 min. It stops at Gate 6, 7, 1, 2, something relatively close to Gates 3, 4 & 5, and the transit hub. There were exactly 2 signs up advertising his little shuttle, and no one was on it (it's primary purpose is to take VIPs to the Accreditation Centre, then onto their gates, but it's open to the public to use).

Do note, however, that this little free shuttle only runs Friday 8-5, plus Saturday and race day 8-noon. We spent 45 minutes waiting for it at 5 PM on Saturday before finding this out.

So it's easy to get to the your grandstand on track despite the Sagales bus dropping you nowhere near the track. It's harder to get back to the Transit Hub.

Note: On our arrival at the Transit Hub on the first day, I asked the official Circuit reps at the Transit Hub how to get to our Grandstand, marked B in the above map, as far away from the transit hub as you can get. I was told by official Circuit de Catalunya staff we had to enter through Gate 3 and walk the whole way. WRONG. The correct answer was take the free track shuttle to Gate 1, 50 m from our Grandstand.

Getting home at the end of the day:

Getting there is half the fun. Getting back to Barcelona is another adventure.

I mentioned that the shuttle bus will get you to the Transit Hub Friday -- but not Saturday or Sunday. On these days, you're walking. From Grandstand B, we tried several routes, and all took almost an hour. Don't forget you MUST enter and exit the track using one of the 6 entry gates.

On the way back at the end of the day, most Sagales busses  heading for the train leave the Transit Hub and take you back to the centre of Montmelo, still 500 m from the train station. Once per hour, the regularly scheduled Sagales #510 bus comes by the Transit Hub and actually goes to the train station itself, using the route you can see here. There are other stops, so stay on the bus until you get to the station. Don't count on getting the #510 bus. Punch in your T-10 2 zone card when getting on any Sagales bus and you should be good to get to Barcelona and a metro station within the 90 min window so long as you don't loiter in Montmelo (have your beer before you leave the track area).

It bugs me that Sagales charges a regular transit ticket price of €2.15 for the ~2 minute, 1.8 km bus trip that doesn't take you where you want to go.  The track should have chartered busses that run continuously from the train station to a lap of the track entrances, and it should cost €1. They would make a fortune. The fact that the bus doesn't go directly to or from the station is especially a pain if you're mobility restricted.  There are a few reasons it doesn't, most evident on Sunday, when the line up for the train itself is more than 300 m long.

Because on Sunday after the race, I don't care how long you hang around the track drinking beer. There are ~50,000 people taking the train home. Even if you rush, there will be a HUGE line to get on the train. And the process of scanning your ticket and getting down the narrow flight of stairs to the small platform will make you feel like a cow in a feedlot. Trust that there is more space on the train than anywhere else. AND the trains after the race run like metros, leaving every 10 min (there's no schedule that says this).

Just a part of the train line up after the race
By the way, there are ~5,000 people taking the direct bus back to Barcelona from the Transit Hub. The lines for those busses were immense. The busses were loading and leaving fast, but they're trying to move a LOT of people.

And there are no taxis. Well, OK, you might be lucky and find one near the Transit Hub on Friday or Saturday, but don't count on it.

As noted, take the opportunity after the race on Sunday (or heck, Friday or Saturday, too) to partake of the awesome, fun and reasonably priced food vendors around the track, like the ones in the photo near the Transit Hub -- which both looked and smelled fabulous.
Mmmm... BBQ

Where to sit, where to sit..
  • On a track that's notoriously hard to pass on, the end of the start/finish straight sees the most action (Grandstand F, but A could work).
  • There are plenty of low speed corners to get good photos; Grandstand H is particularly popular, but I is also good and features views down the start-finish straight.
The view from H
  • The general admission grass-sitters like the straight between corners 7 & 9. I NEVER recommend the General Admission tickets in Montreal, but here, they're pretty good. There are lots of places to sit on the entire backside of the track.
The General Admission area facing Corner 8. Popular.
  • We were in the Corner 10-15 complex (Grandstands B, G & C); LOTS of seat choices all basically the same, cool views but not much "action" other than coming into Turn 10, which no one can see that well. Worse, it's as far away from the public transit accesses as you can get; better to be in the start/finish straight grandstands if you can't walk that well (and they're covered).
  • A few Grandstands are covered, like N, and all on the start-finish straight.
  • The "island" (Grandstands L and M) is more private, but the views seem less interesting (though they had a ringside seat for the Hamilton/Rossberg tussle in M)
Remember that there is a tunnel under the track from entrance 5 starting at Grandstand E and going all the way across to the general admission and island bridge area.

On-Track Info worth noting:

Once on the track, here's some stuff you should be aware of.

On Friday, you can sit anywhere. Other than 3 isolated grandstands, you get to sit in any grandstand with any view, even if you just have a General Admission ticket. There just aren't enough people around, so you won't bother anyone sitting anywhere. They should do this in Montreal.

There are almost no food services open on Friday, other than the numerous Aramark operated restaurants that are located around the track. Hot dog vendors: wrapped in plastic and closed. Ice cream guys: closed. Ham guys: closed. The much touted "Paella" place: closed. The much touted Tapas place: closed.

The food at the Aramark restaurants is (a) overpriced and (b) may not be available, especially on Friday. Hotdogs are €5.50. Water (available for €0.40 off the track) is €3.  A 500 ml bottle of Coke is €4.50. Really awful bacon sandwiched are €5.50. They can't make fries; expect a 15 min wait. They won't serve Patates Bravas on Fridays at all. Fridays seem like "practice" day, though the service isn't much better/faster/more organized on the other days.

The track is dry -- no alcohol is allowed on track at all. They do sell alcohol free beer, but it's awful. Unlike Montreal, you can't buy beer or wine on the track; you can leave the track and get it, but you can't bring it back, and you can't bring your own. They could learn from Montreal on this one. Surrounding the track's gates are places selling "real beer"; it's about €3/can that would cost you €0.60 in a store. One enterprising shop in Montmelo on Sunday after the race had ALL drinks €1. Good deal.

All drinks €1 -- and he's near the end of the train line
You cannot bring canned anything onto the track. No Red Bull, no Coke cans. But despite info on the website saying max 500 ml bottles of things, I saw folks with 2 litre water bottles and juice bottles, plus I saw people with coolers, especially in General Admission area. We brought snacks; they didn't care.  Could you pour red wine into a plastic 500 ml Coke bottle and get away with it? Maybe. We didn't try, but I didn't see a lot of folks doing anything like that.

The Paella is awesome; the paella "menu" a rip-off. Paella alone is €12.50 and TOTALLY worth it; the paella plus a coke plus ice cream is €29. Ice cream is only €4. The Tapas place has 40 items for various numbers of tickets; tickets were €3. I heard it was good but pricy.

Three chicken thighs hide in that pile of paella
The seats in the grandstands are great and generally comfy; individual plastic bucket seats with backrests, unlike Montreal's hard aluminum seats with no back. There are a LOT of grandstands. We had just over 80,000 people at our race, and many grandstands in our corner were only full on the top half. They could probably seat 120,000 with ease. The track is magnificent from a spectator's perspective. Lots of grassy hills to sit on. The track sits on a hillside, so you're looking down onto the track a lot.

The track is just beautiful. Lots of grass, lots of trees to find shade under, permanent washrooms without lineups, large pedestrian areas. The shopping is only "OK"; overpriced team gear from Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and a bit from Force India, plus some good Barcelona track gear. As you can read here, my friend was pick-pocketed on the track and had his wallet stolen; according to the Police, not common but not unusual (the thieves took the cash and ditched everything else, and broke into his backpack to get it).

Some F1 traditions are better in Montreal. The driver parade, for instance. In Montreal, each driver is in the back of an Austin Healy convertible with their name on the car. They putter around the track as a parade, and it's easy to tell who's who. In Barcelona, they are all together on the back of a semi-truck, and they whip around at 30 mph, so you barely get to see them, nor figure out who's who.
The truck's a commin!
In Montreal, in a few corners (the hairpin, the Senna corner) one or two drivers stop during the driver parade and are interviewed. Not in Barcelona. In Barcelona, the typical support races of GP2 and GP3 occur; in Montreal, thouse GP guys are nowhere to be found, and it's  typically F3000, Ferrari Challenge and maybe a Sport Car race (like last year when they raced Nissan Micras). The start of the Montreal GP is always accompanied F-18 fly-bys. In Barcelona, the start is a non-event; no one even stands for the national anthem.

The on-track loudspeaker sound system is miserable and you can't hear any commentary, even when it's quiet and no cars are anywhere. They do. however, broadcast it on FM in English, French and Spanish. They do that in Montreal, too, but I've never been able to get reception of the low power station on my little pocket radio. The TV monitors at Barcelona are few, far between, and much smaller than Montreal's. I recommend bringing binoculars to see them. And just like Montreal, the chiron (all the on-screen graphics) are miserable. They don't show times, running order, who's on what lap, or any other useful info -- especially annoying on Saturday for Qualifying, when they show the times of the top 10, but NEVER the times of the bottom guys actually being eliminated from rounds 1 & 2. 

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