As my half-empty flight from Munich made a harrowing descent into Madrid Barajas, the green flag dropped on the 2011 Spanish Grand Prix and the drivers were off. I was back in Spain, not two years after my last visit, and I was arriving just in time for the nation to cheer on its most successful product in F1 history from 4th on the grid. Little did I know that after the first turn, the very same Fernando Alonso would be in 1st place. Surely, this would galvanize Madrid into a furious spectacle of uniquely Spanish exuberance, despite being 600km away from the race.
My expectations of the atmosphere were higher than Yuri Gagarin’s expectations of the atmosphere. I envisioned Ferrari and Santander banners festooning Gran Via with Nando’s chiseled mug slapped on everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts to billboards. Confetti would be snowing down from rooftops, fighter jets ripping by overhead, fireworks illuminating the sky – it would be absolutely over-the-top in a way that no F1 celebration in Canada could ever be.
Boy, was I in for a surprise. By the time I made it to Gran Via, where our hotel happened to be, the race was half over and I was in desperate search of a bar with a TV. Tougher than it sounds, as it turned out. The locals and tourists seemed more interested in enjoying the idyllic weather and picturesque scenery than planting their bottoms in air-conditioned rooms in front of the big screen. To throw salt in my wounds, not a single bar nor restaurant along the strip appeared to have a TV showing the race. WTF! Where were the fighter jets?!
I finally found a T.G.I.Friday’s, of all things, that was showing the race on a hand-me-down 20’ projection screen from the early 1990’s. The colour was washed out, there was no audio, and not a single person in the demographically young bar was paying any attention to the race. The other patrons were more interested in eating undercooked burgers, wilted salads, over-sweet mojitos, and enjoying the faux-American ambiance. The ‘youf’ that surrounded me were decidedly middle class and appropriately apathetic to the world around them. Not only were they disinterested in the pinnacle of open cockpit racing, but they were also detached from the political demonstrations happening just blocks away in Porta del Sol Square.
Down the street from Friday’s was an anti-government, anti-EU, anti-establishment protest that was capturing the world’s attention. BBC, CNN, and CBC had all been covering the demonstrations over the past week. Hundreds if not thousands of young Spaniards had filled the Square for weeks leading up to the nationwide, simultaneous municipal elections, which also happened to be on that Spanish GP Sunday. The amassed citizens were unified, if struggling for a unified message. They wanted such significant reform, revolution even, that achieving any of their myriad objectives looked unlikely. Rather than focusing on a single, or even a few, issues, the protestors were demanding everything from more libraries to independence from the EU to health care reform – all while rejecting any of the official political parties and candidates in the election.
But it was still an impressive reaction to the 20%+ unemployment rate, stifling European Union, and corrupt elite class who continued to abuse the working class for their own personal gain. Compare this to the actions of Canadian youth leading up to our recent federal election and the processes couldn’t be more different. Sure, Canada has a much, much lower unemployment rate, no external body in Brussels controlling our monetary policy, and our bankers aren’t nearly as corrupt, but we would rather create viral websites like ShitHarperDid.com than get off our iPads and take to the streets. Activism in Canada doesn’t look like it does in the rest of the world, primarily because our lives are so good that we’re a fairly complacent bunch. In a way, we should be thankful for that.
Madrid didn’t care to watch Alonso fritter away his lead and ultimately take 5th, nor watch Sebastian Vettel cruise to his 4th victory in five races this season. Nor was the capital city in a heated debate over DRS or KERS, they were too busy making a stand for their democratic rights.
I had high expectations of the atmosphere in Madrid. In the end, it was Porta del Sol Square, not Catalunya Circuit, that was the real show.