Of course, sunshine helps and there was plenty of it pouring down on that record crowd at Le Mans a couple of weeks back. Good weather is the perfect start to encourage big crowds to witness Grands Prix first hand but there are so many other factors which have changed during the 74-year battle to lure spectators through the gates at circuits throughout the world. Admission prices, quality of racing, facilities, parking, and camping are the obvious ones but over the last seven decades politics, combined Grands Prix with Formula One cars and motorcycles, tradition and national pride have played their part
The 280,000 weekend and 125,000 race day crowds at the Shark French Grand Prix was generally regarded as the biggest in the MotoGP™ era, but a Grand Prix 71 years previously is still regarded to have attracted the largest ever attendance, and the reasons are not hard to identify. On the weekend of July 20, 1952, a crowd estimated at over 400,000 flocked to Solitude for the West German Grand Prix. It was the first Grand Prix to be held in Germany since the end of the Second World War and the first World Championship event to be staged in Germany. British rider Reg Armstrong won both 350 and 500cc races riding Norton machinery.
The World Championship was in its fourth year and promoters were already looking at new ways to attract fans. At the very first Swiss Grand Prix in 1949 at the 7,280km Berne circuit, they staged a joint race meeting with Formula One cars, who started their World Championship a year later. Les Graham, who went on to become World Champion, won the 500cc race while Alberto Ascari brought Ferrari to victory on four wheels. The success of the double act encouraged the promoters to continue with the theme. Combined World Championship Grands Prix were held at Berne from 1951 – 1954. What a weekend for spectators, but impossible and dangerous in the modern day however, what a dream.
While spectators in West Germany celebrated the new post-war era, it was a different story for the population of East Germany and Czechoslovakia as the Iron Curtain separated them from the Western World. Grands Prix motorcycle racing proved their salvation at the Sachsenring and Brno. Vast crowds were allowed by the authorities to flock to these legendary road circuits to catch a rare glimpse of the world outside. I will never forget the pictures of the manmade grandstands with fans perched high in chairs at the top of a pole above a sea of faces. Authorities were never comfortable with the influx of Western riders to compete.
Prize money was paid in local currency and not allowed out of the country resulting in a few beer fuelled clashes between celebrating riders spending their prize money and the local police in Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) and Brno. Phil Read once drove to the Sachsenring in a Rolls Royce which caused a right old commotion. In 1971, 125cc World Champion West German Dieter Braun won the 250cc race, and the Police (the Stasi) prevented the West German national anthem from being played over the loudspeakers to the East German crowd although, to their disgust, they had to play it at the podium
There is nothing a patriotic nation loves more than a national hero. The likes of Valentino Rossi, Barry Sheene and Wayne Gardner brought a completely new audience to Grand Prix racing in the World Championship-winning years. The success of Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) has sparked enormous interest in France. The Le Mans Sunday crowd was reported to be the largest one-day sporting crowd of the year in France. The former World Champion played a massive part in attracting so many people but there are many other reasons. MotoGP™ fans are a savvy lot, and they appreciate and will support Grands Prix that provide value for their hard-earned money and Le Mans did just that in every way. Of course, that wonderful sunshine did help.