The unfiltered sound. The re-contextualized speed. The seagulls.
Formula 1 is a great spectator sport, mostly because you can watch it while drinking in your underwear on a hungover sunday morning, free to make bad jokes about Finnish people on Twitter and get into arguments about which millionaire European playboy throws bigger tempter tantrums off screen.
But there are certain things that never come across in the TV broadcast, things you only get when you go to a race yourself.
I lucked into Montreal this year. The last time I was here, I nearly got the shit kicked out of me and I ended up missing most of the race when another reporter walked off with my camera and I had to spend a good hour trying to track him down. In my first F1 race, I never made it past the pits, with my Red Bull media handlers whisking me off to a plane back home almost before the race was over.
This time was different. A coworker had handed me a seat at the turn one grandstands and I got to take the subway and walk to the track like everyone else, sit like everyone else, get drunk and cheer like everyone else.
Hundreds of us gasping together as a Force India driver made a tire-squealing pass right in front of us. We laughed as four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel had to dodge a pair of seagulls standing on the racing line, losing some of his buffer to three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton chasing after him. As the race wound down, Hamilton had leapfrogged Vettel by steadily and relentlessly outlasting him on his tires. From the stands, I could see how Vettel drove each corner a little bit harder than Hamilton did. Vettel always let the car run out to the rumble strips; Hamilton never strayed off the smooth pavement, gentler on his car and just as fast.
I felt keyed in to the race, which might have been why I felt entitled to stream through the holes in the security fences with the rest of the crowd after the race, running out on track and swarming the podium.
I walked the whole track, too, along with thousands of other people milling around what had minutes before hosted the fastest and most technologically advanced road racing cars on earth. I watched as kids stripped advertising banners off the walls and rolled them up like bedroom posters. I listened to the wind run through the trees hanging over the track, like this park in the middle of the Saint Lawrence was reclaiming the circuit for the city.
There’s a sense of technical mastery when you see the cars, one that’s matched by the best drivers to harness it. Of course this doesn’t square with the Jolyon Palmers and Manor Racing Teams of the sport, but you gloss over that when you see Hamilton and Rosberg fight for position at the start of the race, each trying carve the most speed out of their split-turbo Mercedes machines.
So it’s not only that these cars’ speed is more vivid to the naked eye, or that their sound can’t be trusted to television microphones. It’s this sensation that you’re just one of thousands who are more bearing witness to a human achievement than merely watching a rich kid’s sport. It’s a mob feeling, a communal triumph, a sensation you never come close to reaching on TV.