The World’s Most International—and Noisy—Sport

Today’s slide show: French Grand Prix

Michael Schumacher stalks the lead around the Adelaide chicane

MAGNY-COURS, France; July 4, 2004—My original plan for this sporting bonanza included that most incomprehensible of events to American eyes, cricket. Unfortunately, I trekked to Manchester, England, only to have the match rained out. So I’ve substituted another sport with few devotees in the States—Formula One racing. It will be my first race. It will also be my last.

Today’s race is the French Grand Prix. I always assumed that the race was held at the famed Le Mans track. Actually, it takes place in the Burgundy region, 150 miles south of Paris, at a place called Magny-Cours that doesn’t appear on most maps. Getting here overnight from the Tour de France in the Bastogne region of Belgium was extremely difficult, a road journey approaching nine hours (all undertaken by my indomitable girlfriend Lorie, due to my stick shift ineptitude). It is often a gorgeous drive, winding through sun-dappled vineyards, giant swaths of sunflowers, and gently sloping valleys. After the dire weather in England, the bright sunshine reflecting off the grapes is a blessing.

F1 is considered the most cosmopolitan of motor sports, and it has a Euroflash reputation. This is invisible at Magny-Cours, which feels more like a county go-kart track in a dusty field in the Midwest. The remoteness of the track has its benefits—we stumble upon a shortcut that slices through miles of farmland on a single-lane road and manage to drive right up to the entrance without a hint of traffic. I hop out of the car (Lorie is massively uninterested in the event and its price tag) and immediately find a scalper. Unlike such transactions in the United States, furtive and vaguely sinister even when perfectly legitimate, this one is refreshingly easy. My man hands over a ticket, points to an official brochure showing location and prices, and asks for the face value. True, it’s 120 euros (about $140), but the lightening of my wallet is offset by the ease of entry.

Most of the “seats”—actually stone slabs on a dirt hillside—are filled an hour before the race. There are clumps of color everywhere, each representing a different car manufacturer. The royal blue of Renault is particularly visible, and the fans of top driver Fernando Alonso of Spain are especially vocal. Alonso has taken today’s pole position by qualifying fastest. The Renault posse believes this is the day they will actually beat Michael Schumacher.

“Schumi” is the unquestioned master  of this discipline, having won six overall titles and all but one of this year’s races. The combination of his Teutonic efficiency and the mechanical genius of Ferrari, Schumacher’s team, has dominated so thoroughly that F1’s masters are planning to change some of the sport’s rules next season in an effort to bring a little suspense back to Grand Prix racing. As it is, U.S. fans tend to see Formula One as boring, with little passing and even less “swapping paint,” the macho hard-charging that has made NASCAR America’s choice.

Formula One is the most international of events. Upon entering the grandstand, I hear 10 languages in 10 minutes. Italians, Germans, Brits, Brazilians, Finns, Aussies, Belgians, and of course French are well represented—even a handful of Yanks have made the trek. All of us are piled into the stands along the main straightaway. From here, we can see about a fifth of the nearly 3-mile track. The start/finish line, several other straights and turns, and the pit road are hidden from view, the property of those paying up to 250 Euros for the privilege of not seeing our side of the circuit.

It is on the straightaway that the cars get up to top speed, close to 200 mph. More impressive than the mph are the RPMs—no racing vehicles in the world rev as high as these open-wheeled monsters. I have prepared myself for the view (or lack of it), but not for the noise. F1 cars in top gear are deafening even by motor sport standards. The sound is a high-pitched scream, more hyperelectric than internal combustion. The only comparable decibel level I’ve been subjected to is when shooting close footage of F-16 fighter jets streaking low overhead.

That was only a few seconds; this unholy racket continues for a solid 90 minutes. At first, the noise is overwhelming yet exhilarating. I swiftly depart my decent vantage point looking up the straightaway and get down low, right next to the fence, a mere 30 feet from the track. The sensation of speed combined with the power of the engines is intoxicating. The part of my brain not rattled by the roar is sorting out an itinerary to get to the rest of the Grand Prix circuits.

But after a few laps, I begin to desire the stuttering rumble of the downshifting as the drivers approach the turn, because it means the beehive whine of the racecars softens. It’s only been about 25 minutes, but I fear permanent auditory damage. The single accessory Grand Prix fans cannot be without is a set of earplugs.

The turns * are where the action is as far as I’m concerned. Passing on the straights or after a rapid pit stop is team and technology. Passing on a tight turn is driving. The hairpin I can see is called the Adelaide Turn, and it is appropriately shaped like a boomerang. Schumacher and Ferrari’s advantage can be witnessed clearly here. Where the other drivers work doggedly around the bend, Schumi glides, hardly seeming to turn the wheel. When it comes time to accelerate down the ensuing straight, his car blasts off, where others struggle for a moment to cleanly grip the track.

Schumacher starts second **, but by Lap 33 (of 72) he has taken the lead from Alonso, and the once rabid Renault fans have gone quiet, their moods now matching their blue flags and jumpsuits. Meanwhile, the Red Passion banners of Ferrari, replete with checkered flags and rearing thoroughbreds, are waving throughout the track. Yankee fans, take note—there is no surer thing in sports at the moment than pulling for Ferrari and Schumacher. Even the team’s No. 2, Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, will shoot by a Renault driver to steal third place.

By that point, the cacophony and monotony of the event has leached much of my interest, so I concentrate on the fans. Most are busy finishing off the remnants of their coolers before heading to the car or camper. I was expecting a fancy European crowd stacked with beautiful people, but in that respect too, F1 has let me down. Shirtless gents who shouldn’t be and chain-smoking ladies wearing hideously bright colors abound. All the fashion models and polo-playing princes must attend the Monaco race ***—this crowd could transport from Burgundy to Talladega without attracting much attention.

That’s not to say they aren’t fun. About an hour into the race, with the result a foregone conclusion, I find myself next to a group of Finns who have come a long way to cheer for Kimi Raikkonen, a driver with little chance of winning. I’d love to ask them about their Sisyphean devotion, but it’s far too loud, and we don’t share a common language anyway. We fall back on some international male bonding—we club one another over the head with those balloon noisemakers that have spread like kudzu through sport around the globe. It’s great fun, and it makes about as much sense as the doings on the track. When we shake hands farewell, it feels like the true conclusion of the day’s events. Schumacher’s inevitable victory comes a little later, a result I can only see on the giant-screen television in the infield.

Nevertheless, no complaints. In a tidy span I’ve seen Schumacher, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Martina Navratilova, and a horse called Monsieur Bond perform live. Not a bad stretch in any country.

Corrections, July 12, 2004: * The article originally and erroneously suggested that turns and chicanes are identical; in fact, the term “chicane” refers to both a kind of barrier and a quick succession of turns. (Return to the corrected sentence.) ** Michael Schumacher started the French Grand Prix in second position, not eighth, as this article originally stated. (Return to the corrected sentence.) *** Due to an editing error, this piece originally contained the phrase, “the Monaco or Monte Carlo races.” Monte Carlo is a section of Monaco. (Return to the corrected sentence.)