Sunday, 9 September 2012

Spa Treatment

I'm the first to admit that when a 20 year old girl talks about going to 'Spa' in the summer, most people assume that they'll return with manicured nails and a whole host of skincare products. My own Spa experience was quite different, and, honestly, far more exciting.

Every year, F1 has a month long hiatus with an enforced two week shutdown. While this is great for those working within the sport, a time for rest, relaxation and seeing family members rather than travelling across the world, for F1 fans the break often leaves a void. Once the season starts back up again, we're often celebrating the sport's return. What better way to celebrate the restart of the season than by going to the first race back?

Back in March, Dad and I ordered the tickets to go to the first race back - Spa. This circuit is one of the most legendary on the calendar, and features perhaps the most well-known corner of any race track: Eau Rouge. Thus, selecting Spa was an easy choice.

After such a long wait, August finally arrived. In the run up to leaving, we were however beset with problems. Numerous health-scares in early August were followed by the discovery that the Range Rover had a serious problem which could not be fixed in time for us to leave. Despite all these problems, we managed to get everything together (thanks to a hire-car company and an understanding GP) and on Wednesday we set off for Belgium.

The journey itself was fairly uneventful. The weather was good as we were heading over the Channel on the ferry, although I did feel like Jack Sparrow once or twice while walking around the shop on board. The car we had hired was pretty boring, although the bonus was we didn't have to worry whether it would overheat or stop working while stuck in traffic near Brussels. When we neared the circuit, there were signs to the green campsite along most of the way. However, once we actually got very close, the signs suddenly stopped, and we were left driving around the forest for quite some time before getting in to the campsite near Les Combes. Luckily, we managed to set up the tent before the daylight ran out, and we spent the evening watching a lightning storm way off in the distance.

Thursday: Stavelot and the Pit Walk

For those of you who haven't been lucky enough to go to an F1 race in person, on Thursday afternoons the tracks usually hold a pit walk. Spa was no exception, and so we planned to get to the pit lane nice and early to get ahead in the queue. As the pit walk wasn't until 4, that left us plenty of time to explore the local area. Before we left for Belgium I'd read about a nearby town called Stavelot. Stavelot Abbey was at the centre, and in the basement was a museum dedicated to the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps. 
We told the people who were camped near to us about the Abbey and museum, and so when we arrived at the town we saw quite a few F1 fans who'd had the same idea as us. Stavelot itself is a gorgeous place, with a market being held and lots of picturesque buildings around. The museum and abbey are also pretty cool, and it was great to learn more about the history of the circuit and what sorts of events were held there. 

Once we'd finished having a look around we headed back to the campsite, ate lunch and started the long walk to the pit lane. We were camping up near the top of the circuit, and of course the pit lane was at the opposite end of the track. Normally, this wouldn't be much of an issue, but on Thursday the gate to the circuit nearest to us was closed, so we had to walk miles to the only open entrance. 

It took us two hours to walk to the pit lane, and once we were there we were pretty tired. We managed to buy something to drink in the shop nearby to the entrance, and then began queueing. When we were in the queue, we were chatting to an Australian couple. They said that they lived practically on the Albert Park circuit, and went to the grand prix there every year and this year decided to venture to Europe for the Belgian and Italian races. This is one of the great things about going to races in person: you get to chat to fans from all over the world, and everyone tends to be incredibly friendly. It makes you realise how one common interest such as F1 can unite people, regardless of their backgrounds. 

Eventually after two hours of queueing, we were allowed into the pit lane. We had to walk through part of the circuit, and so had ample opportunity to take photographs. The pit lane wasn't too crowded initially, however as we headed towards the bigger teams the crowds grew bigger. We managed to see all the usual sites, including pit lane practices, and even a driver or two! Once we'd headed through the crowds, we wandered out of the pit lane and onto the starting grid, where of course I posed for a photograph on pole position. Overall I think we stayed in the pit lane for another two hours, and then headed back to the campsite on our long walk. On the way back we were walking by the side of the road, when a car passed us. Who was in that car? Felipe Massa. That's the beauty of being at a race track!

Friday - Practice Sessions and The Rain

practice sessions from GP3, F1, GP2 and the Porsche Supercup, and so I thought that I'd have plenty of opportunity for photographs. However, not far into the morning the heavens decided to open, and from that point it did not stop raining until well into the evening. Safe to say, we were soaked, even with the umbrella and raincoat! 

However, being the hardy F1 fans that we are, we stayed out for most of the day and watched F1 cars at Eau Rouge, something that every F1 fan needs to do at least once. We wandered around most of the circuit on Friday, before calling it a day just after the GP2 qualifying. 

When we headed back to the campsite, disaster had struck. The tent that had survived the Nurburgring weather wasn't a match for the Spa rain, and was flooded. Dad had to bail water out of his side of the tent, and so we took the decision to sleep in the car. While this was a hell of a lot warmer and drier than the tent, sadly it wasn't much more soundproof and was infinitely less comfortable, so I didn't managed to get much sleep that night. Still, the F1 was what I was there for, and I could catch up on sleep upon my return home!

Photos - Friday Practice

Saturday - Qualifying and Spa Sunshine

After sleeping in the car we woke up early on Saturday morning to see blue sky and sunlight - a stark contrast to the rain of Friday. In the morning we had the GP3 qualifying and F1 practice, and it was great to finally see the F1 cars getting up to speed instead of holding off in the rain.

I have said this before, and I will continue to do so (at least until the 2014 engine reg change), but the sound of F1 cars is perhaps the best part of watching the sport in person. While you get an impression of the sound on the television, nothing compares to how they sound in the flesh. This year you heard a bit of a difference due to the change in the regulations about off-throttle blown diffusers, but once again the cars sounded fantastic - although we did opt for buying ear defenders after a while!

Once the F1 practice was over, we wandered towards Eau Rouge in time for the qualifying. In between we had the Porsche Supercup qualifying, which we watched near Pouhon. The walk around Spa is really, really long, and if anyone is planning their 2013 trip you need to be ready to walk. The bonus of this though is that we get to see things that aren't spotted on the television - namely, the trucks and transporters. It was here that we got a reminder of how much money is in F1: 14 FIA trucks, each with personalised numberplates.

After posing next to some trucks, we continued our walk towards Eau Rouge and qualifying began. While we'd seen F1 cars in practice 1 coming up the hill at Eau Rouge, we hadn't seen them at full throttle. Watching them at speed during quali was pretty special, although you cannot imagine how disappointed I was that Sebastian didn't make Q3. Also, being the one of few Vettel fans in amongst a lot of Jenson fans was pretty funny, although F1 fans are generally a good-natured bunch (as evidenced by the Italian guys who offered to take a photo of Dad and I in front of Eau Rouge) and friendly banter is expected. Ultimately, Button took pole position and the race was set for Sunday.

Once quali was over, we walked up towards the pit lane and the Bus Stop chicane to watch the GP2 race. GP2 is a new discovery for me this year, and often the races are as exciting - if not more - as F1 races. The race got off to a good start, although Nigel Melker had quite a nasty accident requiring him to be airlifted to hospital. Thankfully, he was unhurt and the race continued after a lengthy delay, making it the longest GP2 race in history. Following this race was the GP3, which turned out to be one of the shortest due to another horrible accident. Luckily, the driver, Robert Cregan, was also unhurt - a testament to the safety of the sport. After the race was over we headed back to the campsite and our now dry tent to get ready for an early start on Sunday.

Sunday - Race Day and The Chain
We got up early on Sunday to claim a spot within the circuit. We grabbed a croissant from the stall on the campsite and headed towards Rivage to watch the final support races (GP2, GP3 and Porsche Supercup) and the drivers' parade. Again, all of those were a sight to see, and during the lunch break we grabbed the Belgian speciality of frites and mayonnaise and stood near the top of the circuit, where we got a view of the start of the race.

Watching the start of a race is usually a treat reserved for those who pay mega-money for tickets during an F1 weekend. However, due to the elevation of the Spa circuit we were able to see the grid (with the aid of binoculars of course) and the first movements of the cars.

The crowds were thick and fast where we were stood, and so we decided to get closer to the track and stood near Les Combes, where the crowd was thinner. Here, I was the only Vettel fan in amongst a lot of McLaren fans - something which much have looked amusing as I cheered at different times from the rest of the crowd. Vettel made up for his poor qualifying position by an absolutely amazing drive, landing him second - I finally got to see him on the podium! It was an amazing race, and it's slightly surreal watching the TV coverage on a big screen with the cars passing by right in front of you.

After the race was over, with a great win from Button, we managed to get on to the circuit. We crawled under the fence near Rivage, and wandered down the track towards Eau Rouge. Another thing you don't quite see on the television is how much of a hill Eau Rouge actually is - it was tiring walking up and down so much! On the circuit were a lot of Kimi Raikkonen fans - who apparently felt the need to stand naked at Radillon. Now, I'm a Vettel fan, but I'm not sure I'm dedicated enough to remove my clothes on the middle of a race circuit. Still, in F1, anything goes!

We also had the chance to chat to a GP3 driver while we were wandering around, and it's great to chat to potential F1 starts of the future. The whole atmosphere at the race was just fantastic. It's probably true that F1 fans are the best in the world.

So, once again F1 gave me a great holiday. Honestly, if you get the chance to watch a race in person, go. The sound, atmosphere and spectacle can't be compared to anything else. Now all that's left is to plan next year's trip!