Neil has been a McLaren fan since the late 70s when he was given a McLaren toy car that he could change the wheels on and his fascination has been with them ever since. He and his wife Claire, have been well and truly hooked on watching F1 races at the track since their first experience at Silverstone 2008, watching Lewis Hamilton winning a home race for McLaren.
“Having been to a few overseas races in recent years to slowly start ticking them off the F1 calendar we decided back in November to take the long trip from the Midlands to Sepang for the 16th hosting of the Malaysian Grand Prix.
‘It’s a long way to go and watch cars go round a track!’ was usually the response by friends and family when we told them where we were going on our next trip. We agree it is a long way to go to watch cars go round a track but we knew our visit would be so much more than that.
Arriving in Kuala Lumpur on the Monday we had a few days to enjoy the sights of the city and to get accustomed to the heat but above all the intense humidity. Our first thoughts of F1 were how the heck do the drivers cope with the demands of driving in these conditions let alone be competitive in a race.
Approaching the entrance to the circuit there was a lovely display on a grassy bank that this was Sepang! We’d arrived and we had to pinch ourselves not quite believing we were here at a track we’d only ever seen on TV. Friday is roaming day so we were free to go where we wanted and normally we would walk the track on the Friday but not in this heat, we were going to stick to the main grandstand.
We headed for the pit straight to get our first look at the garages to see what was occurring. The first thing that struck us was how long the pit straight is. Unlike what you see on TV, from Turn 1 for the start of a race it is tremendously long indeed. The pit lane looked quiet so we strolled down and took a look to see what was going on in the McLaren garages of Jenson and Kevin. A few mechanics tinkering on the cars but otherwise very quiet.
Free Practice 1 was soon underway with the usual installation lap and a systems check before the cars quickly headed out on track - no doubt helped by the extra set of tyres. A good move by the FIA and very welcomed by the fans. Checking out the McLarens we could see they’d got a new front wing with an obvious more droopy snout than previously deployed. Jenson was running a bank of pitot tubes no doubt testing the airflow from the new front wing.
Other than seeing how the new cars looked in the flesh, the other talking point amongst fans has been the noise with lots of disappointment from TV viewers. The sound is different however, track side rather than on TV, it is a very guttural noise on the corners and quieter on the straights but it is a more complicated sound. If we’re honest we like it, especially the turbo winding down as the cars approach the pits. From our vantage point, braking into the final corner you could hear the turbo’s whining and the squeal of the tyres during lock up (not on the McLarens mind, they’d got their braking points nailed from the off). On the exit of the final corner it was just as good as last season with a rasping cacophony as the drivers employed full throttle. Music to our ears.
Leaving the circuit we had a very moving moment, there was a huge board of remembrance that was crammed with signatures of race fans showing their respect for the passengers and crew of flight MH 370. It was very humbling to see race fans taking a moment out to remember and reflect on the tragedy during the mayhem of an F1 circuit.
Qually day was on us and with a later start there were many more fans about. We love Saturdays at the circuit you can feel the excitement growing, there were more fans around all decked out in their teams colours, we met McLaren fans from all over the world but Australia and the UK were well represented. For me this is one of the best things about F1, I have met some wonderful people and made some lifelong friends because of F1, cheers to you all!
It was noticeable there were lots of Europeans attending with quite a few Danish flags about for Kevin with vast amounts of Jenson t-shirts and flags. Our first order of business was a photo of us with our Union Flag with our village name on it outside the main entrance. We spotted a pro photographer who was more than happy to help. Lots of people were taking their own photos of us too!
Our prayers for a rain delay came to fruition when the heavens opened big style. Thunder and lighting the likes of which I’ve never seen surrounded the track and torrential rain made the track undriveable for nearly forty minutes from the scheduled start time. Time was ticking on and finally the qualifying session got underway. Our eyes were fixed on the McLaren garage fingers crossed that we’d see our boys exiting their garages. With nerves jangling a sigh of relief as both drivers emerged and we thanked the mechanics for their exceptional hard work.
At home it is easy to think what a glamorous and exciting job working in an F1 team must be (we do, we often offer my services as a team nurse!) but with the heat and humidity of Malaysia the teams were working in very demanding and difficult conditions.
Sunday started off with an early arrival at the circuit as we made a beeline for the driver signing session. The queue was already long when we joined and with the sun beating down on us we settled in for a couple of hours wait.
Eventually security lets us onto the podium and there they were. Jenson in his renowned ice vest and Kevin looking cool in his shades. Jenson was up first and I wished him congratulations on his engagement as he signed our programme, cap and a poster. Kevin next congratulating him on a sterling job in Australia and to go do it again here. We tried to be really cool but we were very excited at meeting the chaps! It turned out we were the last ones to get their autographs as it was time for them to go. But not before Jenson stopped to have his photograph taken with a wheelchair bound fan which was a lovely touch. All those hours waiting in the sun really were worth the effort.
More relaxation and fan interaction (and a cold beer) and it is grid formation time. From our vantage point, pole position was a stone’s throw away and we could see the cars taking their grid slots and the circus that surrounds them as the worlds media and stars buzz around. The klaxon sounds and the grid empties as the cars make their way on the parade lap. The tension is building by the second, the cars return to their grid slots and it seems an eternity as the back of the grid forms up. I have never felt so nervous prior to the start of the race, you can feel the anticipation and the tension, it really is a fabulous experience.
The red light start sequence begins and I hold my breath as time seems to stop. The engines roar to a crescendo as four, five lights come on and in a blink of an eye disappear. The cars are unleashed and they quickly speed past us and down to Turn 1 and out of sight. What a champagne moment that was!
The McLaren mechanics were in their usual imperious form delivering perfect pit-stop performances at every turn helping the boys to do their job out on track. The race stretched out and despite his penalty Kevin was battling for points and JB was doing a great job of holding off the Williams all the way to the finish and a well earned 6th place with Kevin coming home in 9th place. A job well done.
The podium awards and celebrations ensued and although it wasn’t our favoured driver on top it was great to hear the British National Anthem being played. It was time to say our goodbyes to those seated around us we’d enjoyed the race with and having witnessed the Finnish Kimi fans who were a little too worse for wear on the grid we met up with Twitter friends for a post race chat and of course a couple of cold ones - Ana and Tony from Australia and Graeme and Alison from the UK.
Well done team, I am really looking forward to the rest of the season and seeing how the car develops. I hope Jenson continues to show the way but I think in Kevin we have a future world champion he is the real thing and the future is safe in his hands.
Thanks for all your follows on twitter, it was great to hear from so many F1 fans from so many different countries; it has been brilliant to share my experience with you. This really was a trip of a lifetime, Malaysia is a wonderful country and I would urge anyone who can, to go, it doesn’t cost the earth. We have paid less for accommodation and race tickets than what it costs us to go Silverstone, so go on be adventurous!
Visiting countries for F1 enables us to have some wonderful adventures and see some countries we probably would never have visited. F1 gives us the opportunity to meet F1 fans from around the world and fly the flag for McLaren. I really hope we have many more F1 adventures in the years to come. Our next planned race is Hungary, so hopefully see you there!