Visiting the Atomium, Mini Europe and Brugges was nice, but I really came to Belgium for two reasons.
Beer and car racing.
September 7, 2008, at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit outside of Spa, Belgium, the Formula One held the Belgium Grand Prix. Formula One is a open-wheeled racing series with races held around the world every year, including the famous Monaco Grand Prix. However, one of the most popular races among drivers and fans alike is the Belgium Grand Prix.
Formula One racing usually is associated with glamour and wealth. It brings to mind images of private jets to watch the race from the private boxes above the pit lane, having champagne and caviar with beautiful girls.
But GregWTravels is having none of that. No, instead GregWTravels does it the independent traveller way.
Instead of the private jet into the nearest airfield, I took the train from Brussels to Verviers.
From Verviers, the rich fly by helicopter to the track. I took a bus. €5 return to stand for an hour and a half on a crowded bus as it slowly inches its way through traffic.
The bus dumps us out about a kilometre and a half from the track, and we have to walk to the circuit.
The rain started coming down, but luckily the line up to pick up the tickets wasn’t too long, and soon enough I had my pass to the track. A bronze pass to all the action.
Once inside the track, it was time for the fancy nosh and champagne. Well, not for me. For me, sausage and beer.
Bronze pass allows you general admission. For those of us (like me) who weren’t smart enough to bring their own seats, we have to find a place to lean against the fence, hopefully with a view of one of the big screens.
And if some of that beer brings you a need to use the toilet, acres of facilities exist.
Just joking around. The circuit is beautiful, set amongst the hills and pine forests of south-eastern Belgium. The course is very long at 7 kilometres, and has been the host of the Belgium Grand Prix more often than any other course in Belgium.
The most famous part of the circuit is the Eau Rouge corner. After coming out of the La Source hairpin after the starting line, the track runs downhill to cross the Eau Rouge stream, before flying uphill and heading through a quick set of turns over a blind hilltop.
With 2 hours before the race, the rain was really coming down. Most of those without covered seating took cover in the shopping area. All the manufactures were out in full force.
There were even a few of the hot grid girl spokesmodels that the teams hire to entertain the guests.
Walking up to the McLaren Mercedes booth, the girls were posing in tiny t-shirts, holding each other’s waists and smiling. I bounded up the steps, but the girls quit posing, quickly grabbing for their jackets with a look on their face that said, “I am not getting paid enough to stand outside in the cold and wind in this tiny t-shirt.”
This Toyota girl said she would pose for a picture. I tried smiling to get her to smile, but she wouldn’t give me anything but this somewhat disdainful look. I assume that the happy, smiling girls were probably inside in the private viewing areas with caviar, champagne and heaters.
The girls sour looks aside, the fans sure seemed to like it.
I headed through the forest towards the other side of the track, near the Fagnes chicane. I wandered up and down until I could find a nice area to view the race, and settled in. Soon the cars came whizzing by in their formation lap, and a few minutes later, the race was on.
After watching the start of the race on the screen, I headed further down closer to the Fagnes chicane, where I couldn’t see a screen but I got some excellent views of the cars.
The cars were loud as they ran down the straight into the chicane, and I captured it on video as I could. The video is not meant to be an explanation of the race, merely a few minutes of images to give you a feel what the sights and sounds of a F1 Grand Prix is like. I was near the Fagnes chicane for most of the race. Some of you may find this a little dull if you don't like cars going zippily past, so for you, pretty girls at 1:42.
The Fagnes chicane also provided the opportunity to view Nelson Piquet Jr. spin out into the barrier. I missed the spin out, but heard the crush of metal on concrete, and turned around to see smoke flowing up into the air.
Having seen the start of the race, I knew that Finnish driver Kimi Raikkonen was leading in his red Ferrari, with British McLaren Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton in second and Brazilian Felipe Massa behind him in his Ferrari. I would see the Ferrari, McLaren, Ferrari one-two-three pass me, but I wanted to see the end on the screen to ensure that I got the whole story.
After an hour and bit, I figured I should try and find a screen. I figured the race was close to over, so moved back to an area with a video screen. I arrived back with 3 laps to go. It was an excellent choice, given the spectacular ending that was about to occur.
It started to rain, the first rain we’d seen during the entire race. Folks broke out their umbrellas, and I am sure that the drivers and teams were cursing the weather. With so few laps, and slick tires on the cars, it was sure to be a slippery finish.
Hamilton had caught up to Raikkonen, and tried to pass him at the chicane near the start finish line. Hamilton couldn’t pass, and Raikkonen cut off Hamilton’s path (a completely legal move on Raikkonen’s part). Hamilton was forced to go off the track and cut through the chicane. Despite being off the track, Lewis Hamilton came out of the chicane ahead of Raikkonen.
The rules of F1 say that you can’t gain an advantage by going off-track, so Lewis had to back off and give the race lead back to Raikkonen. As soon as Lewis slotted back in behind the Ferrari, he attacked again. Raikkonen tried to defend his position by weaving, but Hamilton got the inside line and passed Raikkonen to gain the lead.
The next lap, as the track got wetter, some teams decided to pull into the pits for wet tires. The top 3 stayed out, though with the order being Hamilton in first and the two Ferrari’s of Raikkonen and Massa. The order changed again quickly, though when Hamilton ran wide in a corner, giving Raikkonen the lead again.
Hamilton and Raikkonen, battling hard for the lead, came up on the slower car of Nakajima. Raikkonen had to run off track to avoid Nakajima, allowing Hamilton to take the lead again. Raikkonen trying to catch Hamilton again, slide off the track and into the barrier, having to retire.
Hamilton was far enough ahead of Massa to carefully drive around the track, avoiding skidding off in the rain to first place. Massa finished second, and Nick Heidfeld, who had switched to wet tires, was able to pass two cars and take third place.
McLaren fans celebrated, while the Ferrari fans in their red jackets and hats hung their heads in disappointment.
With the trophies presented, I left the Fagnes viewing area, and headed back towards the pit area, leaving behind the detritus of the bronze viewing area.
After the race, the track is open to walk around, and fans flood out onto the track to check it out and experience a small bit of what the drivers get to see.
Finally, though, it was time to head back to Brussels. A long walk to the bus stop, and then more than an hour standing on the bus back to Verviers.
A little after I snapped this photo, a buzz went through the bus. Text messages were coming in, and phones were ringing. Lewis Hamilton had been penalized for cutting through the chicane, and had 25 seconds added to his race time. That dropped him from first to third, promoting Massa into the lead. The Hamilton fans at the front of the bus were depressed, but a bunch of Italians at the back broke out into cheers and song.
Despite the horror of standing on the bus for a couple hours in each direction and the rain before the race began, it was an excellent time. The cars were loud and powerful, the racing was excellent and the experience of being close to the fans was very cool.
Next year, eh? Hmm, it was pretty cold and rainy. Maybe next year somewhere sunny and warm.
Rio? Spain? Oh... how about Monaco!