Praise whoever needs praising. Sing loud, proud and from the rooftops. Smile at strangers. At last, the F1 season is back, and I mean properly back – no more of these interminable breaks, we’re back on the rollercoaster once more and this time we’re here until the end of the season. And hey, it feels good!
Where better for the reintroduction than pretty much every driver and fan’s favourite track, Spa Francorchamps. The snaking, twisting, undulating piece of glorious tarmac that seldom delivers anything less then absolute excitement and drama. And rain. Always rain!
I’ve been thinking about what to write this week for the column and realized that in previous instances we’ve already talked of the great races, the classic tracks and so on, so I hope you’ll be kind enough to indulge me sharing my personal, and very special, first visit to this great track.
Thinking about it now, it feels like only yesterday that I first sat, driving along from Brussels towards the tiny, picturesque village of Spa, but in reality it was 14 years back now. I was sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s dark blue Alfa Romeo 164, there to celebrate his 60th birthday. My mother had decided to “do something special” for the big Six-Oh and had bought two gold grandstand seats at the top of the infamous Eau Rouge corner. Dad had decided to take his “partner in crime” when it came to all things F1. Little, excited, 24 year old me. How happy was I? Well, you can imagine. Top, top present. Well done mum!
We arrived at the beautiful chalet-esque hotel on the Thursday evening and had our fair fill of Trappist beers (those boys are STRONG) and good humoured chat before the traditional, ridiculously early alarm call the next morning. My dad has always, always been everywhere “on time” – and by on time, I usually mean about two hours early. Regardless, on we went in the pitch black at 5am, driving through the Ardennes Forest towards the track.
If you have such thing as a bucket list, please, please put “Go To Spa” on it. We walked up to the main entrance for the first time, clad in some awful team garb (why do people wear team branded clothing? It has to be the most expensive “once worn” garment you can possibly get, and it’s always awful!) and I looked up. And I mean UP. Pointing to a strange bit of gravel on a hill I asked my dad, “what’s that for?” He was equally confused until a couple of Porsches steamed up there on their free practice. Yup, that was Eau Rouge.
The thing is, you get used to the classic angles. The angles you see from television, but when you actually go to the track and head in, the most daunting of corners is away in the distance and it rises up into the air as if it’s been misplaced. It genuinely is awe inspiring. So much so that I was entirely lost in thought (and probably rather gormlessly gazing up at it) when Mika Hakkinen, driving through to the paddock in his AMG Merc and giggling like a school kid made an exaggerated swerve towards the confused looking guy in the McLaren top. Yes, yours truly nearly got run over by the soon to be double world champ on the way in. He waved and laughed whilst getting a comical looking telling off from his passenger, his then wife, Erja.
The practice and qualifying sessions for the race itself rather blend into one in my ever-fading memory banks, but there were three stand outs. Sitting at the top of Eau Rouge, once you’ve got your breath back (I can tell you, trudging up that hill day in day out is no mean feat), is one of the most exciting places to watch a Grand Prix from, and moreover is one of the places that as a layman you can firstly really see the immaculate skill of the drivers at work, plus (excuse me please editors) you can also tell which has the biggest balls (at least back then. It’s been sanitized a little too much now).
Some, however, have ambitions that outshine either their talent or the limits of the car. Enter the BAR team and it’s then drivers Riccardo Zonta and Jacques Villeneuve, who had made a deal between them that they’d both try and take Eau Rouge flat. We talked about danger in motor sport previously, and when Villeneuve hit the barrier and rolled, I turned to my dad and said “I think he’s gone. You can’t get out of that”. Fortunately, and incredibly, he was fine. The session was stopped and then it was Zonta’s turn. Same result. Worse crash. Same comment to dad. Fortunately same outcome. You can see the incidents here.
The other part that sticks in the memory about Friday and Saturday at Spa was just how much quicker Hakkinen in the dominant McLaren was than anyone else, including his teammate David Coulthard. I mean it was visible, particularly going through a corner like Eau Rouge. Stunning stuff, and he took pole by a healthy margin.
Oddly for Spa the race itself was a bit of a let down. Hakkinen made a comparatively poor start and was nudged, physically, down to second by an aggressive Coulthard. Mika, thinking that Coulthard should be helping his (ultimately successful) championship charge sat close behind him pretty much all race in a sulk… again, it’s odd, but you could tell he was sulking from the body language of the car. These kind of intricacies are the things you can never pick up from watching on television. A car in a sulk. Who would think it….
Either way, my dad and I had a great time and it was a lovely way for a father and son to spend a birthday. Neither of us knew it at the time, but it was also to be his last one ever. I hope… no, I know… that he enjoyed it… but as I say. Bucket list. Spa. Just do it.
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