Formula One
Formula One

This Weekend: The Belgian Grand Prix

This Weekend: The Belgian Grand Prix

Austin Photo Set: News_John Flood_belgian grand prix_August 11

After the traditional four week August break, the 2011 F1 World Championship will travel this weekend to Spa-Francorchamps in the Ardennes Forest of south-eastern Belgium to contest the 12th round of the season. Red Bull Racing, and their championship leading drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, will face serious challenges from Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa in the Ferrari, as well as Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button in the McLaren/Mercedes. With only eight races to go, both teams need a good result in order to seriously challenge RBR for the title.

When you mention Spa to a Formula 1 fan, you always get a knowing look, a look that tells you that Spa may be the best racing circuit in the world. Eau Rouge, Pouhon, and Blanchimont are some of the most demanding high-speed corners ever found on a racing circuit, and they challenge the best drivers in the world to prove their skill and courage. These corners are very unforgiving when not taken properly.

The longest circuit in Formula 1 at 4.3 miles, Spa has twenty turns, eight right-handers and twelve left-handers. There are massive elevation changes, most noticeably in the Eau Rouge/Radillion combination. The circuit was initiated into the world of motorsports in 1922, hosted the first 24 Hours of Spa in 1924, and welcomed the European Grand Prix in 1925.

I have always wanted to attend the Belgian GP: Spa is on my “to do” list, but I haven’t yet made the trip. I’ve been to races that encircle Spa: Italy, Monaco, France, and the UK, but I’ve never been able to fit Spa into my schedule. However, I hear great things about the Belgian racing experience, and much of the experience takes place well away from the circuit.

I talked with my friends Nicole and Emaan yesterday about their trip to the 2008 Belgian GP. We had drinks together in Baton Rouge and they told me their story.

They left Brussels in their rented Audi A4 very early on Saturday to attend qualifying. They knew that the circuit was remote and that traffic was formidable as they set out on their two hour trip. Winding their way through the beautiful Ardennes Forest was itself a worthwhile journey, but the prize lay at the finish: Spa!

As they neared the circuit, the predictable traffic snarls occurred and they found themselves creeping the last few miles in a stop-and-go tailback. As they neared the circuit, they saw opportunities to park in private facilities, essentially temporary car parks, but were a little hesitant to take advantage of the services.

The pace slowed as they got closer to the circuit, and suddenly a large assertive Belgian man in a brightly colored vest forced his hand-written parking sign in their faces and encouraged them to park at his facility. Nicole was unsure but Emaan was willing to take a chance.

Day-in and day-out the parking facility is a recreational fishing camp that collects fees from fishermen who use the private lake. It has a small store that sells fishing supplies and sundries, but on race weekends it has some special services for its guests.

The proprietor offered them coffee and then directed them to the muddy path through the forest that led to the circuit. After trudging a couple of miles, they walked into a clearing and thousands of campers were entrenched in their favorite spots. The circuit lay beyond the crowds.

Nicole and Emaan and 60,000 of their newest friends enjoyed an electrifying qualifying session between Massa, Hamilton, and Räikkönen. The stage was set.

On race day they returned to the fish camp very early, had breakfast of fresh eggs, sausage, and coffee, and then again went up the muddy trail to the circuit. They witnessed a memorable race as Massa, Räikkönen, and Hamilton fought fiercely in the wet conditions. Hamilton won after Räikkönen crashed, but Ham was later penalized for short-cutting a chicane. It was, and still is, a very controversial decision. Massa was handed the victory, and I am certain that the 2008 race is being discussed in campgrounds, bars, and fish camps this weekend as the F1 circus arrives at Spa!

After all the excitement of the race, N and E had a relaxing dinner back at the fish camp (even though E was required to gut and clean the trout planned for dinner). They relaxed at their temporary waystation, enjoyed the company of the owners and their dogs, and had a great dinner and a very unique Spa experience.

The future of Spa is in doubt as FOM’s fees to host the race are becoming financially prohibitive. The local Wallonian government has stepped in to help finance the event, but many long term Spa fans fear that the commercial requirements have outpaced the historic circuit’s ability to pay. What a shame!

I must make it to Spa in the very near future as this great and historic circuit may in fact become “history.” If so, the racing world will have lost one of the best circuits to have ever hosted a Grand Prix. I didn’t make it there this year, but on Sunday Morning at 7:00 AM CDST, I will be tuned in to SpeedTV for live coverage of the 2011 Belgian Grand Prix.

Please join me, and we can discuss the results on CultureMap Austin next week!