An afternoon at Donington

My latest exploits sent me to Donington Park for an afternoon of Formula E testing. Blog readers may remember that I went to Silverstone last year to watch the opening round of the World Endurance Championship. I may not have watched any actual racing on Monday, but the day was still enjoyable, albeit for different reasons compared to Silverstone. Monday marked day three of six of the Formula E testing season, and with free entry, it was a fairly easy decision to head up to Donington (and to use a day of annual leave, he says). In the days before the test, I did ask a few non motor sport fans what they thought of Formula E, given that they knew that I liked it and was going to the test. One pointed out that Formula E isn’t Formula E “without the EJ”, a reference to Formula E’s music. Another, who watched the London ePrix on TV, liked the use of the battery graphics and how it played into the strategy of the race, a point I made during the lunch break to Formula E commentator Jack Nicholls (more on that later).

On arrival, I didn’t anticipate the size of the queue considering it was testing. I did use the moment to get a look at the demographic that had turned out. Walking around it was quite clear that there was a real mix of people, from kids experiencing their first sight of motor sport to those who had been to the circuit year in, year out. It was great to see families in their droves there, especially during the pit walk. I’d estimate around 2,000 people were there on Monday, not that the number really matters, the main thing is that Formula E successfully engaged with the fans that did attend, which they did. Whilst the gap between testing and race one is long, you can see the benefits of holding the tests during the school holidays in order to get a broader demographic attending. I didn’t speak to fans as I walked around the circuit, but you got the feeling that for some of them, even older people, it was their first time here.

Sam Bird in the Virgin tackles the chicane on day three of Formula E testing at Donington Park.
Sam Bird in the Virgin tackles the chicane on day three of Formula E testing at Donington Park.

The only place I could start was by heading up towards the Melbourne Loop. Comparing Formula E with different forms of motor sport is difficult. You walk into most motor sport events, and you know the sound will blow you away, as the 6 Hours of Silverstone did last year. Formula E gives you a different sensation. Whilst the sound of the cars did not make the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, it did bring a different element to proceedings. Readers who have watched Formula E on television will notice how you can hear every squeal, and a multitude of different sounds as the drivers tackle the machinery. The same is true here. The rumble across the kerbs on the exit of Melbourne Loop was one example, or the locking of the brakes into the hairpin, as many drivers experienced on Monday afternoon.

As I did at Silverstone, you can not go to a motor sport event or test day without taking a stroll down pit lane. I was surprised, again, at the size of the queue given that it was £5 to get in, but it was fantastic to see the interest that people had. Being alone did give me the freedom to stroll down the pit lane, which may have been a slight mistake, because what followed in the half hour was a series of ‘selfies’ with multiple drivers: Bruno Senna, Nick Heidfeld and Nelson Piquet, Jr to name a few. Don’t worry, I won’t republish the selfies here! Alongside the selfies, I did chat to Formula E commentator Jack Nicholls (thankfully we made contact earlier in the day, so it was not an awkward introduction!). Nicholls was great on the circuit commentary throughout the day… I should probably plug the Donington museum at this point, but I’ll resist. Seriously, it was great to chat to Nicholls, to walk down pit lane and to have a moment with the stars. If anything, it served as a reminder of the fan-friendly nature that Formula E brings, that you can easily get to interact with those in the spotlight. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Mahindra mechanics at work during day three of Formula E testing.
The Mahindra mechanics at work during day three of Formula E testing.

After the lunch break, I briefly went towards the infield section near the Craner Curves. The first thing that stands out is the sheer elevation. The elevation does come across on TV, but that whole sequence looks much more impressive in real life. The only problem is that the Formula E cars probably look the least impressive going through here due to the lack of speed. Which wasn’t surprising at all, but it did mean that I went back towards the Melbourne Loop and The Esses quicker than I expected. The moment of the afternoon running that I witnessed came from Jacques Villeneuve locking up, and avoiding the Esses chicane altogether, heading towards the gravel trap.

I made the point to Nicholls during the lunch break that Villeneuve could well bring new fans towards Formula E because of his F1 World Champion status, but we shall see whether that really happens or not. I do hope that Formula E grows in stature for season two, but I’m writing this and we still have no news about whether ITV have a contract in place for the forthcoming season, which is concerning. The chicane did draw a crowd into the afternoon, as it is probably the best place to get a good shot, and see Formula E cars at a decent pace. Again, I make the point that you’re unlikely to be blown away from the speed, however the cars in the flesh look like beasts, and something that motor racing cars should look like.

A bit like my day at Silverstone, the sun was rarely spotted, although it did make an appearance before the running began whilst I was queueing up. I’ll avoid making a direct comparison between my day at Silverstone last year and Donington this past Monday, because they’re two completely different kettles of fish – last year was witnessing my first motor race; Donington was Formula E testing. Overall though, Monday was an enjoyable day. I’m glad I decided to go to one of the test days! There are still two more days of testing left, so if you’re free next week I’d strongly recommend heading up to Donington. It is not often you can get hours of enjoyment, for very little cost, and it is an easy way to spend a family day out and entertain the kids.

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