Our weekend at the Belgian Grand Prix was not without its problems, not least a rubbish race. Still, it’s a great alternative to the British Grand Prix. And it got us thinking about Austria next year.
An English accent – or number plate – is never far away at Spa. So many Brits go to the Belgian Grand Prix – ‘hordes’ says Eddie Jordan – it surely rivals the Le Mans 24 Hours as the UK’s favourite race abroad.
So it should be. As well as being just 320 miles from London and set in glorious countryside, it has been the scene of many of the most memorable moments in Formula One’s history.
The 1998 race – where Damon Hill survived first corner carnage, torrential rain and a voracious team mate to win Jordan’s first victory – was arguably the greatest of the modern era.
Similarly, who can forget Hakkinen and Schumacher flying either side of Ricardo Zonta up the Kemmel straight in 2000, Kimi Raikkonen driving blind at full speed through a cloud of engine smoke in 2002, the final laps bun-fight between Kimi and Lewis Hamilton in driving rain in 2008 or Mark Webber’s breathtaking manoeuvre on Fernando Alonso through Eau Rouge in 2012. We could go on.
Spa is cheap too. A three day general admission ticket costs €130 (€110 if you buy in advance) compared to the £170 ‘early bird’ discount at Silverstone.
This year’s boring procession shows a great race is never guaranteed. But if there’s one place to head with justifiably high expectations then it has to be the Belgian Grand Prix.
Magnificent is not too strong a word to describe the Circuit de Spa Francorchamps.
It’s a cliché, but the TV hardly shows the half of it. It’s leg achingly steep for a start. From the top of the already sheer left-right Eau Rouge and Raidillon, Kemmel heads directly uphill for its entire one kilometer length before the circuit peaks at the zig-zag Les Combes and Malmedy. From there its downhill again in less than half the distance through the Rivage hairpin and a fast left hander before a 150mph plunge into the wall-of-death style Pouhon double left hander.
After another high speed flic-flac through the Fagnes chicane and two right handers at Campus and Paul Frère, the cars begin a majestic, flat out run through the double left kinks at Stavelot and Blanchimont before heavy braking for the Bus Stop chicane and a full throttle blast down the start-finish straight to La Source.
The landscape means you are often looking down onto the cars from high banks, with broad if not always panoramic views, right into the cockpit as the drivers saw at the wheel.
Where to watch from.
The anxiety visiting a strange Grand Prix circuit with a bog standard ticket is how much of the action you’ll actually be able to see.
Friday practice at the Nurburgring a few years ago restricted us to grandstand seats at the final corner. Monza was better, but we couldn’t get anywhere near Parabolica, for instance.
Happily in Belgium – as at Silverstone – your lowest of the low bronze admission gets you almost everywhere. In fact, by craning your neck, jockeying for position and intelligent use of the banking and protective fences you can see almost every inch of the circuit (though we can’t vouch for La Source and the back section from Fagnes ‘til Stavelot is off limits to everybody).
Certainly, if it’s your life wish to see a Grand Prix car flying through Eau Rouge you don’t have to spend hundreds of pounds on a grandstand seat to do so.
If there’s one spot that’s a must see it’s from inside the Rivage hairpin. The cars are less than 20 feet away, travelling at under 50mph and there’s no catch fencing in the way. You can get great pictures and drink in every detail, bump and crevice in the body work. The Sauber is particularly lovely we noticed while, apart from the air box, the Red Bulls are freakily flat across the back like half squished road kill.
Another great spot is Fagnes where you can poke your camera through the fence and watch the cars head on through a snap direction change.
We watched qualifying from the entry into the first part of Pouhon, opposite the all-important TV screen, but Pouhon proper chose itself as the place to watch the race. Straights and slow corners don’t do it for us so that ruled out Bus Stop, Blanchimont, Kemmel and Rivage while Eau Rouge had been staked out by the regulars long before we arrived.
So we bagged places only one row from the front at 11:30, on the centre line of the corner, with a TV screen just in view from around a recovery vehicle. There was only a half-nagging suspicion it would be better further round at Fagnes where it was less crowded too. Ultimately it didn’t make that much difference.
It was depressingly obvious from lap three that Vettel had the race in the bag and Pouhon is so superfast that a daredevil overtaking manoeuvre was never on the cards. Mind you, it’s the unexpected places, especially at Spa, where the most stunning moves are made.
At just three hours from the Channel ports, nestled between the A26 and A27 motorways, forty miles south of Liege, getting to Spa is easy. The obvious route from Calais is straight to the Belgian border on the A16 where it morphs into the A10/E40 and heads directly there via Brussels (just remember that the Walloon spelling of Liege is Luik).
The optimum ferry is the DFDS Dover-Dunkirk because it drops you 30 miles closer to the border, still handy despite the extra 30 minutes crossing time over Dover-Calais.
The only issue with that route is the Brussels ring road. You can get caught out there at any time of the day but during rush hour it’s murder. With the authorities only fiddling around the edges it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
The alternative is the (toll free) A25 from Dunkirk to Lille, then the E42 (made up of various A roads) across Belgium via Charleroi. We went this way this time. The A25 is one of the slower and narrower autoroutes, Lille from the motorway will never win any beauty contests, and E42 is currently beset with road works. But it was uncharacteristically quiet for a Belgian motorway, in the early evening, smooth and wide too. It took a little longer than a trouble-free run through Brussels but not enormously so. At 228 miles this way is just 10 miles longer.
One of the attractions of a foreign race is the chance to let your fancy motor off the leash. Sadly, the heavily police presence in France, and busy roads of Belgium, don’t really let you put your beast through its paces (you didn’t hear it from us but the cops in both countries have to physically catch you speeding; you won’t get home to find a surprise ticket on the mat). Then again, Germany and its derestricted autobahn is literally only a few miles away…
Getting in and out.
We needlessly complicated our first journey in on Friday by mistaking the ‘official parking’ signs for the parking we’d booked along with our tickets (as opposed to the unofficial parking from local farmers). So we took a massive detour until it dawned on us that official parking meant parking for officials. Doh!
It was also a bit daunting that we had to drive into Francorchamps itself, the town right by La Source, to pick up our tickets (they don’t post them out). In practice it was fine. We double parked outside the ticket office, nipped inside for the goodies and twenty minutes later were watching our first Formula One car tackling Eau Rouge in anger. Wow.
From then on, the drive in and out each day was straightforward though of course it’s a waste of energy to even hope for a clear run. There are loads of marshalls and police around and – when you’ve, er, got your heads around it – it’s very well, logically and efficiently signposted.
Advice: do what you are told. We lost count of the cars in front who stopped to plead special circumstances only in every instance to be sent on their way having wasted everybody’s time. It grates after a while.
All that said, the queue out of the circuit after the race was miles beyond ridiculous. With the chequered flag marking the end of the weekend’s activities the whole spectator mass decamped summarily from circuit to car park. To make matters worse seemingly all the Marshalls went home early. There was nobody on the gate as we left and nobody directing traffic out of the field we were parked in. Consequently we sat there, along with hundreds of others, without moving an inch for ninety minutes. Ultimately we lost patience, forced our way to the head of the queue and were out within moments. It turned out the poor guy at the front was being a bit passive in his immaculate 911 turbo and just sat there, windows wound up, cars jammed either side and traffic inching across his nose.
Yes, Spa Francorchamps is a classic Grand Prix experience in every sense.
Where to stay.
If you time it right, within five minutes of waking up each morning you could be watching a Formula One car power through one of Spa’s majestic corners. There are official camps sites at either end of the circuit. The pitches start right outside the gates. It costs €60 per night per pitch for up to five people, or €160 for the weekend, from 8am Thursday to 11am Monday.
If you don’t want to camp there is plenty of civilised accommodation around and easy to get to because of the motorways close by. Admittedly this is the sparsest corner of one of the world’s most densely populated countries but Verviers, Liege and Aachen are all commutable (click the links for accommodation listings in and around, plus the official regional tourism site).
We stayed at the Crowne Plaza in Maastricht in Holland, 50 miles or 30-60mins away depending on traffic, because it’s our regular haunt. We starve for the rest of the year to do so. At €230 per night for a river view room it was expensive but, that far out, no more than at any other time. We were in good company. There was a GTS RS 4.0 staying too – which set off all the car alarms every morning – plus a 360 Challenge Stradale, M6, a range of other 911s, various Lotuses and the odd Lamborghini.
Should you go?
Any Grand Prix fan will have the Belgian Grand Prix at the top of their bucket list: of course you should go.
In an ideal world we would go to both the British and the Belgian races but if we had to choose one, on balance, it would be the latter.
We’ve had many fantastic weekends at Silverstone, and not just at the Formula One. It’s an exciting track – Copse is worth whatever they feel like charging – and there’s always a great atmosphere. But those great times have happened despite rather than because of the circuit management.
Surviving a grand prix weekend, whatever the weather throws at you, is part of the fun. But personally it sticks in my craw to hand over hundreds of pounds every year to take my chances on a mud bank while the BRDC spends all the money on micro-manicuring the track and a silly concrete wave on the top of the pits complex. And buggering up the circuit.
Admittedly Spa doesn’t treat it fans much better. The spectator banking is so steep in places negotiating your way down, on damp grass – yes, grass! – is as heart-in-the-mouth as anything you’ll see on track. If you lose your footing you, and everybody else below you, will be done for.
The (delicious) waffles are a shocking €4 each, as is a bottle of water. The ‘giant TVs’ are tiny and in a region known for its capricious weather there’s no shelter provided here either though you can stand in the woods if the worst happens.
If the queue to get out is a regular feature of Belgian Grand Prix weekends rather than a one-off aberration we’ll have to think again. With a ferry to catch and work the next day we’d be leaving with a bitter taste in our mouths.
Then there’s Austria.
The petrolhead’s ultimate holiday surely includes a Grand Prix. It was acutely painful to turn towards Calais after the race when we should have been swinging south with another week or two of transcontinental motoring to look forward to. The C63 was crying out for it.
It’s with great interest then that we hear that the Austrian Grand Prix is back on the calendar next year. It’s setting, in the Alps west of Graz, will rival Spa and it’s been recently lavished with millions of dollars by its Red Bull boss owner Dieter Mateschitz. Even if precisely none of that money has been spent on facilities for your average punter it’s still likely to be a place where – like Spa – a great race is the icing on the cake rather than – like Silverstone – where it’s the absolute be all and end all.
For more information go to www.spa-francorchamps.be/en/