Ground zero: inside the Formula One Paddock Club

T3 visits the Paddock Club at the Spanish Grand Prix to see what you get for your money

If you’re into Formula One then the Paddock Club has to be one of the places to aim for. A visit to this exclusive ‘backstage area’ lets you see plenty of behind the scenes stuff that regular race goers don’t. There’s a slight downside, in that it costs a few grand for the privilege (a three-day pass is about £100 shy of £4,000, while a two day one £3,288) but if you think how much other hobbies cost over the space of a year then it’s bad, but not that bad.

Besides, over the three event days at something like the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, a Paddock Club pass will get you loads of great motor racing, plus as much food and drink as you can handle. Best of all though is the fact that you get a superb vantage point of the track, right above the pits, so you can witness first-hand those dramatic tyre changes, along with all the other action. And, on top of that, you’ll see plenty of racing drivers, well-known commentators and celebrities circulating.

There’s plenty of stuff to try for yourself too. For example, we got a good hands-on look over a genuine F1 driver’s steering wheel. This high-end piece of kit has a price tag of about 15 grand and packs a lot more buttons and knobs than your average gaming equivalent. Taking a clockwise tour of the superwheel, things kick off with the slightly worrying ‘Fail’ button, which puts all systems into failsafe mode. Next to that, the ‘Software options’ button changes programming modes by increments of one.

Meanwhile, the ‘Speed limiter’ button maintains legal speed in the pit lane, while ‘Torque’ allows a driver to alter power settings and delivery. A magnesium paddle shifter located at three-o-clock lets you shift up – there’s another one directly opposite – thereby allowing for those lightning-fast gear changes, while a multi-functional rotary switch controls less frequently used functions.

The ‘Clutch’ button only needs to be used when pulling away from the garage or at the start of a race and ‘Brake bias’ buttons, on both the left and right sides, are used to adjust the electronic brake bias. A big button along the bottom, on the right, allows the mapping of the engine to be changed, next to that clutch settings can be tweaked and the big circular button under the computer screen gives an overview on tyres. Fuel mix has a button too while up towards the top on the left side is a ‘Differential’ control that allows tweaks to the diff.

Finally, and rounding things out back towards the top, is a ‘Neutral’ button for the gearbox, more ‘Software options’ buttons and a ‘Team radio’ switch that lets the driver communicate with his crew. On top of all that, there’s a digital screen in the middle. It’s a sobering array of controls, which might be the reason why Heineken used the recent Spanish race to unveil its new zero alcohol beer. 

Mind you, the Formula One Paddock Club has an ocean of regular beer on offer if you’re that way inclined. 

At the same time, it’s a bit of a tech lover’s dream with lots of other experiences available including real cars with virtual reality headsets that put you in the racing seat. There’s no corner cutting either, so you’re not queuing up for hours to get a go in an F1 simulator. Plus, you can even get your picture taken next to the race trophy for posterity.

Head downstairs, scan your pass at a state-of-the-art turnstile, and you can take a pit walk. The tour is a real highlight, although it’s very popular and quite busy as a result. You get a chance to connect with the 66-lap race track and really appreciate just how much the startline straight drops away as it goes through a series of twists and turns over 4.655 kilometres. You certainly wouldn’t get far even after half a shandy driving round this deceptively hilly track. Anyone with 25 grand can do a lap for a cool 25 grand in a twin-seat F1 car driven by a pro.

Heineken’s message is loud and clear when they say don’t drink and drive. ‘Zero alcohol at the wheel’ is hard to miss as it’s shouted from an advertising banner on a bridge over the track. And, according to Willem van Waesberghe, Global Craft and Brew Master at Heineken, their decision to launch a brand new product at a motor racing event makes total sense. “Removing alcohol from regular 5% Heineken would have been easy,” he says. “But it wouldn’t deliver the best tasting non-alcoholic beer. Heineken 0.0 is brewed from scratch and has a perfectly balanced taste with refreshing fruity notes and soft malty body.”

The high-tech brewing twist to what is a very conventional process has got the attention of the professionals. Ex-racing driver turned commentator David Coulthard is on board as a very entertaining ambassador, particularly when he interviews Dutch driver Max Verstappen after qualifying. He looks mildly stunned when Max explains that he’s single and happy with things being that way, which isn’t the sort of answer you’d expect from a driver in this very exclusive club.

Meanwhile, out around the site there’s loads of other stuff going on over the Grand Prix weekend, with live bands, DJ sets and, naturally, quite a lot of drinking too. However, the obvious benefit with a no-alcohol beer on hand is that your mind is always sharp and ready for another trip round the circuit, even if it is only behind the wheel of a virtual reality racing car. Unless you’ve got a spare 25K of course.

Rob Clymo

Rob Clymo has been a tech journalist for more years than he can actually remember, having started out in the wacky world of print magazines before discovering the power of the internet. Since he's been all-digital, he has run the Innovation channel for a few years at Microsoft, as well as turning out regular news, reviews, features and other content for the likes of Stuff, TechRadar, TechRadar Pro, Tom's Guide, Fit&Well, Gizmodo, Shortlist, Automotive Interiors World, Automotive Testing Technology International, Future of Transportation and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International. In the rare moments he's not working, he's usually out and about on one of the numerous e-bikes in his collection.