F1’s long-awaited return to France last weekend was overshadowed by shambolic organisation, leaving enraged fans demanding refunds and an apology from the race organisers. GPFans' Rob Watts spoke to a few unfortunate ticket holders to provide the fan's view of a frustrating day.
The first ‘new’ race to be held under Liberty Media’s tenure was eagerly anticipated as French fans flocked to the classic Paul Ricard circuit in their thousands, having been starved of F1 action since Magny-Cours slipped off the calendar in 2008.
But as the fans began to arrive on Friday morning, it quickly became apparent that there would be a real problem getting the expected 65,000 strong crowd inside the venue by the time the on-track action was scheduled to begin.
Angry fans on social media reported seven-mile tailbacks as roads surrounding the circuit struggled to cope with the sheer volume of traffic, while disorganised event staff provided incorrect directions to many, leaving some fans furious having missed Friday’s on-track altogether.
Paul Underhay, an F1 fan for more than 35 years, travelled to the Circuit Paul Ricard from London with his brother, but the pair were forced to scrap their plans to attend the Friday free practice sessions having been stranded in heavy traffic for more than an hour and a half.
“We made the painful decision to turn back to Cassis and get some value from our day,” said Paul. “The alternative was spending the day in the car, with no guarantee of seeing any F1.”
Having arrived in time for Saturday's third practice session, Paul and his brother were then directed to a car park an hour’s walk from their grandstand seats and, together with his brother, they made the difficult decision not to travel to the circuit on Sunday - instead opting to watch the race from a bar in nearby Cassis to avoid any risk of missing their flight home.
Scott McCarthy was another fan to make the journey from London for the race, and he too gave up altogether on the Friday after hitting traffic seven miles outside the circuit.
Our “Ditch Car and hike 5 miles” plan worked. We got back to Marseille an hour ago. But we’re lucky that we are fit enough to hike 10 miles in a day. I feel deeply sorry for the people still stuck in the car park. This is beyond farcical. #FRENCHGP
— Scott McCarthy (@MenaceF1) 24 June 2018
Credit: Scott McCarthy
After managing to catch qualifying on Saturday, Scott and his friend decided to head off at 7am on Sunday morning, but having made barely any progress in two hours decided to take ‘drastic action’ as Scott explained, heading off the motorway in an attempt to ditch their car and walk.
“We found a nearby village off the main road, parked on a grass verge and found a walking route on Google Maps to the circuit, still 4 miles away,” said Scott.
“We took as little as we could, and began hiking. The route was up a very steep hill across open countryside, and it was around 27C.
“The views were spectacular! In other circumstances, this would have been a very pleasant walk.”
Scott and his friend reached the circuit at 1pm - six hours after setting off - but their decision to park and walk the final four miles paid off, despite getting ‘utterly drenched’ in the rainstorm that followed the race.
Another British fan to experience problems was Michelle Lillie, who travelled to the race from the UK. Michelle described the scene exiting the circuit as 'chaos', and it took almost 3½ hours for them to make the journey back to their hotel just a few miles away.
“No one had moved for some time. We remained static in the car park until around 9.40pm [two hours after reaching their car], but even then it was slow progress. We made it back to our accommodation at 11pm!
Following complaints from fans and team media personnel, Ross Brawn has promised that F1 will work with the circuit promoters to ensure there is no repeat of the trouble next year.
“There are physical limitations, and it’s a question of whether within the physical limitations it’s being managed as well as it can be,” Brawn told Motorsport.
“[The Paul Ricard circuit] is physically limited, if you have a race in a beautiful part of the world, you’re not going to have a six-lane highway servicing it.”
As Brawn suggests, some of the circuit’s problems are physical, but not all. Feedback from fans appears to be consistent, and the message quite clear - poor organisation and a lack of communication significantly added to the problem.
Entrance and exit points were not suitable for the large volumes of traffic
The policy of filling only one car park at a time added to the bottleneck
More park and ride options should have been offered, and priority given to coaches
Staff gave misinformation, leaving fans with long walks to their seats
Ticket sales should be capped (i.e. Baku) if issues cannot be resolved
London based F1 fan Scott believes F1 should think twice about returning to Paul Ricard in future. “The entire event felt like they were used to hosting events attended by 5,000-10,000 people," he said.
“F1 need to seriously consider the criteria under which they offer a race licence to a track. This sort of thing brings F1 into disrepute and makes them look like a country fair, not a major international brand.
After a decade-long hiatus, the deal for F1 to return to France, and specifically to Paul Ricard, was agreed prior to Liberty Media taking control of the sport from Bernie Ecclestone. With rumours of future races in Vietnam and Miami, it’s crucial that F1 respects its traditional European heartland and core fanbase that made the championship what it is today.
Poorly planned events such as Sunday’s French Grand Prix do little to promote F1 on a global scale and are damaging to the relationship it has with diehard fans who have spent many years, and thousands of pounds, following the sport they dearly love.
For F1 to return to Paul Ricard, it’s crucial they listen to fans’ feedback and implement changes. At the announcement of the race 18 months ago, event managing director Gilles Dufeigneux suggested that the circuit would be able to ‘welcome 100,000 spectators’ - let’s hope he’s joking.
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