America's Cup, Formula 1 and the Pope, Valencia is proving a big draw. Matthew Sheahan reports

Clearly it would be heresy to suggest that Fernando Alonso is more popular in Valencia than the Pope, but as his Vodafone sponsored McLaren F1 car screeched around the streets of an ambitious city that’s desperate to please, the many thousands that lined the streets for the evening confirmed the local boy’s popularity. Others suggest the entire display was more to do with Valencia’s desire to hold an F1 grand prix, preferably one in the streets, Monaco style. But, for the few hours that this show was on the road, the spectators simply took it all in for its spectacle alone.

In the last six months Valencia has hosted both Pope and F1 pilot. In the middle of the summer last year the visit of the head of the Catholic church brought Valencia to a standstill for days. Alonso and his British team mate Lewis did the same, but for just one evening. On this occasion temporary crash barriers replaced the continuous rows of plastic Portaloos that had lined the same roads last summer. (Rumour had it that several were reserved in case his Holyness needed a pit stop of his own.)

During the early evening Alonso and Hamilton performed their staccato display around town, ripping up the streets as they hung their tails out around the corners, before laying some serious rubber with a series of dummy starts. Apparently, every manhole on the route had been fastened down to prevent the lids being sucked into the under side of the cars.

As the plumes of vaporised rubber drifted down towards the America’s Cup port, the sideshow got underway. But this was a sideshow with a difference.

If it’s attention grabbing entertainment that you’re after, then they don’t come much bigger than the Cirque du Soleil who performed an outstanding private show, albeit with plenty of pseudo tribal symbolism for the 1000 assembled guests of Vodafone and McLaren.

From stilt walkers and contortionists, whose spines were clearly assembled in reverse or made of rubber, to men in giant hoops whose gyroscopic meanderings across each of the three stages brought them perilously close to the water’s edge time after time. Yet for all of this, the display had nothing, repeat nothing, to do with the new F1 car, until that is, it rose from beneath the central stage to the accompaniment of a typical Valencian pyrotechnic welcome.

Then, after the half hour display to rival the opening of the Sydney Olympics, a sit down dinner for the 1000 guests and a speech celebrating three key points, a new pair of drivers, new cars and a new sponsor, brought the talk back to business.

The following morning, hours before the sun had risen, the BMW Sauber F1 PR ladies were assembling several bus loads of red eyed journalists for their own F1 launch of new drivers and car.

For this team the theatrics were passed over in favour of a more conventional blend of press conference and thrill seeking at Valencia’s grand prix circuit. Here, to get us all in the mood, we were offered ‘taxi rides’ around the circuit in a pair of BMW M5s driven by talkative Mediterranean sounding young men who were yet to start shaving and who could power-slide at three figure speeds while talking and gesticulating to their car loads of passengers.

At one point as we approached the 90 degree left hander at the end of the finishing straight and with the car still accelerating past 210 kph, I could have sworn our driver had a different, larger circuit in mind. A second later it was clear he was indeed looking at the same one as me, but considered braking as a purely binary affair, full on, or not at all. Some taxi ride!

Having got to grips with the track, the real testing began with the new car driven by BMW Sauber’s top man, Nick Heidfeld.

Both fascinating and tedious in equal measures, once you’ve managed to wedge the ear plugs in and close the eardrum splitting noise out, F1 testing is similar to that in the AC world except that the ratios of downtime to run time seem reversed. In a car, a single two minute lap is often all it takes to figure out that all is not as it should be.

But whether your thoughts are with F1, or the America’s Cup, it’s clear that Valencia is pushing the right buttons when it comes to attracting the big players. There isn’t a grand prix in Valencia this year, but there is an America’s Cup. As the final build up to the 32nd America’s Cup takes a hold, it’s difficult not to wonder how the Cup will compare in stature to F1. Few could answer that question, but given how the start of the last Cup brought downtown Auckland to a standstill on a fraction of the budget and with no pyrotechnics, the chances are that come the start of the Louis Vuitton Round Robin 1 in mid April, Valencia will put on yet another ear splitting, eye popping display.

In the April issue of Yachting World sailing correspondent turned F1 commentator for the Times, Ed Gorman compares and contrasts AC & F1. Don’t miss it. The April issue includes our America’s Cup preview and guide.