Jane Bleach is one of the lucky fans that actually got to witness Formula 1 live in 2020. Here’s what she thought of her experience in the Paddock Club at the 2020 Portuguese Grand Prix.
Images © Jane Bleach.
Where do you come from and why do you like F1 so much?
I’m a Londoner who now lives in the heart of motor-racing country, not far from Silverstone, Brackley and Enstone. I’ve loved F1 for as long as I can remember. I finally attended my first race at Monza in 1997, became more hooked than ever and have been going to races ever since.
Why did you decide to attend the 2020 Portuguese Grand Prix?
Obviously, we have all been starved of opportunities to see Formula 1 live in 2020. I went to all six days of pre-season testing in Barcelona in February; I was so glad I had done so when it became clear with the pandemic situation that it may be difficult to attend a race this year. I had planned to go to Vietnam and Canada, which were both cancelled. When the chance arose to go to the race in Portugal, it was (almost) a no-brainer. Not only had we not been able to go to a race this year, but this was a new track for everyone. F1 had never raced there and none of our group had ever been there. And the track looked awesome! Someone I know had raced a Porsche there and I watched an onboard lap which made me even more excited to see Formula 1 cars tackle the circuit.
Did you organize the trip yourself or use a travel agent?
We organized the trip ourselves, as we tend to do now for all our F1 travels. In our early days of attending F1 races, we would use specialist F1 and motorsports travel agents, which is a great way for people to do it if they’ve not been before. But we are quite seasoned travellers now, so we mostly do our own thing. z
Who did you fly with and how was the travel experience during a global pandemic?
We flew with BA from Heathrow into Lisbon (more of which later). The travel experience was fine. To be honest, this was the thing I was most worried about, but it all felt very safe. The airport was relatively empty, and the plane was only around half full, both of which helped to make the experience feel safer.
Did you stay longer in Portimao before or after the race?
We arrived in Portimao on Thursday afternoon and left on Monday morning. We actually flew into and out of Lisbon rather than Faro, arriving on Wednesday and flying home on Tuesday. This gave us Wednesday night/Thursday morning and Monday afternoon/Tuesday morning to see a bit of the Portuguese capital. We hired a car and drove back to Portimao, which took about 3 hours. Lisbon was really lovely and the drive to the Algarve is not too far so this was a really viable way of doing it and something we would recommend and probably do again if F1 went back to Portimao. If we had the time, we would probably also stay in Portimao for a day or two longer, if only to chill by the pool!
Where did you stay and how did you get to the track?
We rented a villa near Lagos, about 20km from the circuit. It was really good value, partly probably because it was inland and not by the sea, but also because COVID-19 meant that lots of holiday accommodation had been empty for much of the summer, which had an inevitable impact on prices.
We had a 7-seater taxi to and from the circuit each day, organised in advance by the people who manage the villa. This was a brilliant way of doing it. Having a local driver, who was known and trusted by our hosts, meant that we could relax and not worry about the circuit transfers. We had Paddock Club car park passes and we bought a chauffeur pass for our driver so that we could be dropped off by the Paddock Club entrance. Getting into and out of the circuit on Friday was quick and easy. On Saturday morning, there were a few delays. The local police only allowed one lane to go onto the penultimate roundabout even though the roundabout itself had two lanes, which caused an unnecessary delay but nothing too bad.
However, getting out of the circuit and back to our villa on Sunday after the race was a bit of a nightmare. The police had shut most of the exit roads sending all of the circuit traffic onto one road. This wasn’t just limited to the roads in close proximity to the circuit but for quite a wide area. Our driver knew the area very well but was unable to find any sensible route that took us in the direction we wanted. What had been a 20-minute journey earlier in the weekend took over an hour and a half on Sunday afternoon. I know we should expect some traffic delays after a race – I was at Paul Ricard in 2018 and also remember many horrendous Silverstone trips in the days before the A43 bypass. However, this was a race with massively reduced spectator capacity so there really shouldn’t have been traffic problems like this. If F1 is to race at Portimao again, with spectators at full capacity, they would have to sort out the traffic issue otherwise fans would take hours to get back to their accommodation, even if they are only 20km away in Lagos or Portimao.
How was the Paddock Club experience different to normal, considering safety measures for COVID-19?
The Paddock Club experience was obviously a bit different because some of the usual activities that form part of a Paddock Club weekend couldn’t take place due to COVID-19 restrictions. Most importantly, though, we felt safe in the Paddock Club and that was the overriding concern for everyone attending. There was a QR code check-in and temperature checks at the entrance. Masks were required in all areas other than when eating or drinking, all of which made complete sense. Hand sanitiser was widely available. Capacity had been kept at a level where social distancing could be maintained. What wasn’t different was the quality of service and catering which was up to Paddock Club’s usual exceptionally high standard.
The main suites were in the usual place on top of the pit building which meant that we had a fantastic view of the pits and pit-stops, the race start and the run down to Turn 1. We could also look down into the Paddock from the back of the suites. The Paddock Club also took over the ground floor and top floor of the VIP tower at Turn 5, and shuttle trains were available to take you there and back. This meant you could get fantastic views and photographs, at ground level, of the run down the straight from Turn 4 into and around the hairpin and, from the roof, not just of Turn 5 but also the sweep around Turns 10, 11, 12 and 13, which was awesome.
Because of COVID-19, there were no pit-lane walks, no visits to the Paddock and no driver appearances in the suites. However, the F1 hospitality team had worked really hard to still provide great experiences for Paddock Club guests. We were still able to watch some of the Sunday morning pit-stop practice from the back of a flat-bed truck on the grid and they did interviews with current drivers like George Russell and legends like Mika Hakkinen, which were streamed onto screens in the suites.
We were still able to do the track tour on the back of the truck. This was brilliant, especially as this is such an undulating track and one that none of us had been to before. They had hosts providing commentary on the tour, including local racing drivers who knew the track well and were able to provide great insights into how best to approach a lap of the track.
One of the things we didn’t have was the F1 drivers’ parade, presumably because it just wasn’t possible to organize it in a safe way with COVID-19. The drivers did come out into the pit-lane in front of their garages for a period on Sunday before the race but you could only see the drivers in front of the area where your suite was and while fans in the main straight grandstand would have been able to see them, the fans in other grandstands around the circuit would not have been able to.
What did you think of the Algarve International Circuit and the race location? Do you think it should be added to the F1 calendar?
I thought the circuit was awesome – really old school with sweeping corners and huge changes in elevation. And it gave some fantastic overtaking opportunities – Kimi’s first lap was a sight to behold! It should definitely be added to the F1 calendar. It’s brilliant and any F1 fan who loves the classic tracks like Spa would love it. The race location is great too, giving people the chance to stay at various places in the Algarve. They would have to sort out the traffic issues though!
How was the trackside experience in general?
I can’t really comment on the trackside experience outside of the Paddock Club areas. Whilst we would normally want to explore the circuit a bit more and check out support race paddocks, the COVID-19 situation meant that we stayed in the various Paddock Club areas. Despite the restrictions, there was plenty to keep us entertained and the three days flew by.