Days 110 -112 – Belgian F1

Each season the Formula 1 has a summer holiday in August. In fact, this is traditionally the time that Europe goes on holiday. I can tell you from personal experience, for instance, that every Matrix hair salon in Arrondisements 6, 7, and 15 in Paris go on holidays in August. My increasingly visible ‘natural highlights’ are testament to this.

So we have had no racing since Daniel Ricciardo’s win in Hungary at the end of July. It is always a tough four weeks for me with no races to watch, but I hang in there. This was just one of the reasons that I was looking forward to the Belgian F1. I approached Spa with a deal of anticipation. This is, after all, one of the iconic F1 tracks.

Located in the middle of plantation forest (about 50 kilometres from Liège), Spa Francorchamps is the longest and, arguably, the most picturesque F1 track. At seven kilometres long, it is more than twice as long as the shortest circuit at Monaco. It is spectacular! Looking across the track from our grandstand, you see strips of tarmac running through the forest. In fact, much of the public access is straight through the middle of the forest. If not for the sound of race cars, you would not know you were in the middle of a race track.

Without his usual camera equipment, I found I had Paul for company when he would usually have been off finding good spots for photography. On Friday we walked anti-clockwise from our grandstand at La Source on turn 1, up to Eau Rouge, the most famous corner in F1.

Eau Rouge is the first of a series of very fast uphill turns, more a kink in the road really. It is iconic because it is in the middle of one of the longest straights in F1, heading uphill, from turn 1 to the Les Combes chicane at the top of the hill. The drivers are flat out along here, and don’t lift for Eau Rouge. That takes guts.

We watched it from the bottom, on both the outside and the inside of the track. I imagine, from Eau Rouge grandstands with the cars coming towards you at full throttle, is adrenalin-pumping. It certainly would be for the drivers.

It looks pretty darned good from our grandstand too, to see the cars accelerating up the hill.

Past Eau Rouge we continued up the hill along Kemmel Straight to Les Combes. This end of the track is all general admission. I left Paul there; he had decided to join the general admission crowd to watch the second practice session sitting on the side of the hill. I opted for our grandstand seats, and continued my exploration of the circuit.

I would rank this circuit up there with Silverstone for general admission. Though there is no general admission access near the ‘gold’ grandstands, being such a long circuit, there are ample opportunities to see the race.

As I have walked around the circuit over the three days I have seen people sitting on the hills overlooking Eau Rouge; all the way up the hill along Kemmel Straight; around the top of the hill at Rivage and down the steep slope to Pouhon and around to Fagnes Chicane. They congregate again towards the Bus Stop Chicane.

It is a good circuit for general admission. With so many hills most people are able to get a good vantage point either at the fence (at the bus stop they have their deck chairs set up four to six deep), or perched on the steep slopes above so they can see over the fence. Where the vantage points are closer to the track behind the fence, there are holes in the fence for viewing and photography.

Unlike Silverstone or Hungary, there is no general admission in the vicinity of the grandstands (except for at the Bus Stop). As Paul said, “We are separated from the great unwashed.”

But people with general admission tickets show tremendous initiative. They have their trolleys set up, carrying eskies, chairs, and other race spectator necessities. At Spa that would, or should, include serious warm clothes and wet weather gear.

Apart from grandstand seating and, in the case of ‘gold’ grandstand ticket holders who get access to walk around the outside of the paddock, your ticket gets you little else.

This is one of my gripes with Spa.

In Australia you can walk amongst the Porsches and historic cars; as GP Gold Advantage ticket holders, we even have access to the Paddock Club viewing deck on Thursday as well as the V8 pits; there are free concerts for renowned (if ageing) performers; you can watch motorbike stunt shows; ride a Segway; and walk freely through the V8 paddock. In Belgium there is none of that. In fairness to Belgium, that’s how it is at all the European races.

It was similar at Hungary and Barcelona. At Hockenheim, except for the Mercedes grandstand where there were many off-track activities and displays of Mercedes cars (which was only accessible to holders of Mercedes grandstand tickets), there was also no access to anything for other ticket-holders. There is a car museum which you had to pay to get in to. Silverstone had some extra on-track entertainment with the historic cars, but you had to pay £30 to see them and the support race pits up close.

These are all permanent tracks, and F1 weekend is probably just another race meeting, albeit a big one. Monaco also had nothing, but this is probably understandable given their space constraints, and there is so much to look at around the street circuit anyway. As well as that, their Friday track walk is great fun.

Every event has a F1 Village with the Gamezone and team merchandise shops. At Belgium, with your official program, you get a voucher for a half price Schumacher cap and miniature replica helmet. I bought the hat.

So on that front, Spa was a disappointment, though by now, not a surprise. Singapore is the only event that comes close to, or in some respects, betters, Melbourne.

On the food front, Spa also fell well short. Unless your tastes include sausages on a roll, burgers, pizza, chips, or waffles, then you’d better take your own, as I did. I had some chips on Friday, and Paul bought his lunch at the track on Sunday. But the quality was rubbish.

But if the entertainment and food were a disappointment, that was nothing compared with discovering that, unless you wanted to use a portaloo with no washing facilities, you had to pay 70c for a pee. I know that you have to pay to pee a lot of places in Europe, but this was the first time I’d encountered it at the six European races we’d been to.

I thought it was a disgrace, and heavily biased against women. Men were amply catered for with portaloos, portable urinals (‘pissaphones’ as Paul called them), and thousands of trees. The portaloos were not nearly as salubrious as ones I had used in Australia so my only other choice was to pay, and in that cold weather, pay I did.

I guess my only other gripe would be that the gradient of the grandstand was so flat that a decent sized man sitting in front of you obliterated most of the view. On Sunday we had four of them in front of us, but thankfully they didn’t sit in their seats for the whole race.

For all these reasons, Spa will probably score quite low on my ‘Race comparison’ spreadsheet.

However, there is one significant factor that has made the whole event much more enjoyable. It was the quality of the racing.

As the race progressed and Daniel Ricciardo was leading for most of it, I began to hope, but not yet to believe, that he would win. It was clear he could win, but whether he would was another question.

We were sitting in Gold 8 grandstand, at turn 1, known as La Source. There was a big gate in the fence in front of us. As the race neared its end the stand started emptying around us as spectators prepared for a swift track invasion. We were also keen to get on the track, but more importantly, we were there to watch the race, and in the final few laps there was still action aplenty.

Spa is a 44-lap race. Daniel Ricciardo had pitted on lap 27 and gone onto the medium compound, which is arguably the more durable, though slower of the two available options. The experts suggest the window for changing on to those tyres was lap 30, so his task was to eke three extra laps from his tyres. Following a completely different three-stop strategy, Nico Rosberg changed to the faster, softer compound tyre on about lap 35. So, with Daniel Ricciardo on old tyres, and Nico Rosberg with a new set of boots, the race was gripping to the end. After his final pit stop, Rosberg had to make up nearly 23 seconds on Ricciardo to win the race. With nine laps to go he was gaining at three seconds a lap. With eight to go his deficit was down to 19.6 seconds. The maths were on Rosberg’s side.

At that rate he would catch Ricciardo on about lap 42. And with such superior grip, he would make short work of passing the Aussie. He was on track to win the race.  But Ricciardo held his own for a couple of laps while Rosberg encountered some traffic and had a minor moment, nothing that would normally be worth a mention, unless of course, it could cost him a victory. So, by the second last lap, Ricciardo’s lead was still 4.3 seconds, and he looked more ‘comfortable’ for a victory. But I’ve seen Felipe Massa miss the world championship due to a passing manoeuvre on the final turn of a race, and likewise, Nigel Mansell’s tyres spectacularly gave out to rob him of victory. So I was by no means ready to give the race to Ricciardo yet.

Away from the lead, the race for fifth position was resulting in some phenomenally close driving between Magnussen, Button, Alonso, and Vettel. A scrap that would cost Magnussen a 20 second penalty which dropped him to 12th place as he forced Alonso off the track; a scrap that also cost Alonso part of his front wing on turn one of the final lap when he got too close to Vettel. For Vettel, he was lucky the touch happened on a part of the tyre less subject to puncturing. Up on Kemmel Straight, a similar incident on lap two between the Mercedes cars had resulted in Hamilton suffering a punctured rear tyre and having to limp six kilometres back to the pits for a tyre change, and Rosberg having a nose change on his first pit stop, an incident that probably cost the Mercedes team a one, two result.

In the meantime, Button had tried to pass his teammate (Magnussen) on the outside around Rivage and that had cost him two places. A few laps later Alonso had tried the same move on Magnussen with inevitably similar results.

So Paul and I stayed put in our seats until Daniel Ricciardo took the chequered flag for his second consecutive victory. We normally stay in the grandstand to watch the podium presentation, but today we decided to make a run for it, literally. So there were Paul and I punishing our 50-year-old knees running down pit straight to make the podium for the presentation. Thankfully the gradient is a gentle downhill slope. That helped our lungs, if not our knees. This is the only time we have had seats that would allow us to get so easily and quickly to the podium, so it is probably the only time we will ever be there to watch an Aussie on the top step. It was FANTASTIC!

Once the formalities were over and the drivers had gone inside for the post-race press conferences, we walked around the circuit to Eau Rouge; basking in the glory of our Aussie win; photo bombing other Aussies with Aussie flags; photographing Fins in blue and white suits; climbing up the stairs to the old starter’s box to get a good view of the track; getting up close and personal with F1’s most famous corner; and generally just enjoying the post-race euphoria that comes with a fellow countryman’s win and a good track invasion.

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