Our first grand prix experience — Trip to Belgium part 1 — Arrival and Friday practice
In August, I went with Alex and my brother Gordon to the Belgian Grand Prix.
Even though both Gordon and I have been avid Formula 1 fans since we were kids, we have never made it to a grand prix. We have seen other motorsport events, including our epic trip to Le Mans in 2016. But circumstances and costs have conspired against us making it to an F1 event before.
We chose to go to the Belgian Grand Prix for a few reasons:
- Spa-Francorchamps is one of the most legendary circuits in the world.
- It is a relatively cheap race to attend.
- Road trip!
Day 1 — Wednesday — Picking up the campervan
So our first stop was at Rockin Vans in Kilmarnock, where we picked up the campervan we’d hired.
While we were doing the admin bits, Alex said to the representative, “I hope it’s orange.” In reply, we got beaming eyes: “It is!” We couldn’t believe our luck.
We would fit right in with all the Max Verstappen fans, who would be flocking to what is the closest to his home race. And if we ever bumped into a Brit, we could just say we were McLaren fans. A win–win situation.
Next, we drove to London, where we were going to stay with Alex’s uni friends Lovisa and Dan.
I was shattered, but it was great to catch up with them and their dog Snoop.
Gordon took their spare room, while Alex and I had our first night in the campervan, in a London residential car park. It was not the most romantic of places to spend our first night in a romantic campervan.
We’d also made the rookie move of sleeping on a slope, with our heads lower than our legs. (We were so tired, we evidently didn’t think to simply swap ends.) It was an uncomfortable night, which wasn’t good news given that we had to leave at 6am for the drive to the ferry.
Day 2 — Thursday — Arrival in Belgium
In the end, we arrived early for our ferry, and we got put on an earlier one. But that was part of the plan, because we wanted to get the the circuit as soon as possible to try and make it to the pit lane, which was open to punters on Thursday afternoon. Even with the earlier ferry, it was going to be tight to make it.
The drive to Spa-Francorchamps could hardly be more different to our drive to Le Mans two years ago. France’s roads are excellent, but Belgium’s are joyless.
When we pulled up at a service station near Brussels, it stank of urine, the sandwich selection was abysmal, and we had to pay to use the loos. That was especially tricky as we hadn’t managed to get any euros yet, and there wasn’t even a cash machine here. It may also explain the urine stench.
After eating our least-worst sandwich options, we had an uninterrupted stint to the circuit. Here is another fundamental difference to our trip to Le Mans. Whereas in France the traffic ground to a halt several miles away from the circuit, our trip to the small village of Francorchamps was amazingly hassle-free. We got straight to our campsite without sitting in a single jam.
We helped Gordon pitch his tent, and relaxed with a beer before heading towards the circuit.
In hindsight, that beer may have been a mistake. Because by the time we got to the circuit, which was roughly a 30 minute walk away from our campsite, the pit lane was only open for 15 more minutes.
A moderate crowd bustled as punters strained to catch a glimpse of anything interesting going on in the pit lane.
We passed the Sauber and McLaren garages, where not much of note was going on, apart from some nose cones hanging out.
But the next garage along, Haas were putting on a show for the crowd by doing some practice pit stops.
It was at that point that the heavies started pushing us back the way we came.
We hung around at the La Source hairpin, where the tail-end of the autograph session was still taking place, with the likes of Marcus Ericsson scribbling away.
After soaking up the atmosphere, we made our way back to the campsite.
Day 3 — Friday — Practice day
We still hadn’t got our hands on any cash, and there was a distinct lack of cash machines in Francorchamps. A shopkeeper told us the nearest bank was in the nearby town of Stavelot. Gordon decided he would run to Stavelot to get us some cash. Unluckily for him, Stavelot was further away than we thought!
Cash in hand, we headed to the circuit, where finally, there would be some on-track action. It was practice day. We made our way to our grandstand seats to watch. We’d chosen a grandstand between La Source and Eau Rouge.
It was a risk to take a grandstand without a cover at a circuit as notoriously rainy as Spa-Francorchamps. But we mostly got away with it. It drizzled somewhat on the Saturday, but otherwise being sat in the open wasn’t a problem.
Despite my hopes, we couldn’t quite see the exit of La Source. But we had fantastic views of the cars climbing up Eau Rouge and into Raidillon, one of the most fearsome and legendary corner sequences in the world.
The other handy aspect of our grandstand was that it was right at the fanzone, the epicentre of non-track action. There was a stage where interviews would take place. We heard from race director Charlie Whiting, safety car driver Bernd Mayländer, medical car driver Alan van der Merwe, and legendary designer-cum-F1-big-cheese Ross Brawn.
When nothing else was going on, the stage was invaded by the bobbleheads. Imagine Disneyland-style Mickey Mouse costume characters. They are meant to be depicting the drivers, but they are rather scary and some of them seem to me to be borderline racist.
We bought a coffee from another orange Volkswagen campervan — this one of the more vintage variety.
There was also the F1 store, where we were determined to buy a souvenir of our first grand prix. Alex had already bought herself a Red Bull Racing t-shirt, in honour of her favourite driver, Daniel Ricciardo.
Having turned the store upside down, the only thing I truly wanted was a Fernando Alonso Kimoa trucker cap with a tweed design on the front. But when I tried it on, we universally agreed that it didn’t suit me. Alex looked great with it though.
Gordon and I got the same orange Kimoa cap. So we spent the rest of the weekend looking like die hard Alonso fans. (The orange campervan was in honour of McLaren after all!)
On the way back to the campsite, Gordon took advantage of the novelty of buying beer from a vending machine in Francorchamps.
At the campsite, we cooked chicken curry in our campervan and had a few beers.
The next day would see on-track action ramping up for qualifying day — which will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.