Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Road Trip

Seeing as I have a lot else occupying my time this week, I thought I'd dive into what passes for the archives here - or more specifically, a scribbled account of a trip to the Belgian Grand Prix in 1999. My father had, years before, told me of his hitch-hike down to the French Grand Prix of 1972, complete with near death experiences at the hands of a drunk woman at the wheel of a Citroen 2CV. Twenty seven years later, needing a break after spending the summer break from university gutting fish in a factory in Granton, I repeated the experience. Here, with minor editing to correct the worst of the grammatical infelicities, and to remove the more incomprehensible private jokes*, are my notes from the trip....

It all begins chaotically enough with the realisation at 6am in the morning that I have no medical insurance, little in the way of clean clothes, and can't even find a marker pen for the hitch-hike signs. A big hole in my plans to be on the A74 by 9am. In fact, by the time I've got an E111 (best to be on the safe side, in case the race has sold out and I have to start climbing fences at Spa), raced over to South Bridge to send an urgent email and negotiated the almost Kafkaesque LRT Bus system to get out of Edinburgh, it's damned near 11 o clock. I begin to wonder whether Sunday might be a better bet than Friday night for arrival in Dover, but my luck is in. I don't even get as far as my chosen hitching spot when a Med student in a dark green Golf pulls up. He can take me as far as Stoke. The whole mad idea of hitching to Spa begins to look like it might work.

We spend a few hours bemoaning the state of British sport as we head south, and he launches off on a long monologue about the shortcomings of people who drive Volvo 3 serieses and the impossibility of getting anywhere by train. I'm also treated to a tirade on the state of British television. It's the price you pay for a free lift - you're a captive audience for the pet rants of whoever has picked you up. Before I reach Dover, I will also receive insights into the merits of German cars, and how the law is an ass if you're a truck driver. I have a horrible suspicion that my own specialist subject could be the pros and cons of hitching out of different UK motorway service stations.

On that note, I ask to be dropped off at Knutsford so I can avoid the horrors of Sandbach Services (I was stuck there for 3 hours in the early hours of the morning while trying to win a hitch-hiking race earlier in the year) and leave the Golf driving medic to get to his mountain bike race. I have a race of my own to get to. 20 minutes later and I'm off down the M1 to Leicester with a former teacher who now "co-ordinates half-witted Mersey sales reps" at a plastic sheeting company for a living. He seems happy enough. The teaching profession really must be hellish. Leicester Services turn out not to be the best in the place in the world to hitch a lift out of - an awful slip road and not much in the way of traffic on a Friday afternoon. I amuse myself for a while trying vainly to thumb a lift from fast women in faster cars. After three quarters of an hour or so, the entertainment value is lessening somewhat, and I'm glad to get a lift to Dover with a lorry driver who is friendly enough, if rather taciturn. For want of anything else to do, I flick through his copy of the Sun and ponder the story of 'Jaws' being sighted in the English channel. After giving up on the Sun, I content myself with staring out of the window and puzzling over what the people of the south east have chosen to call their towns. We pass a village called 'Thong' on the A2.

Sleeping in Dover ferry port proves, if not quite impossible, then certainly damned close. Announcements remind us in four languages not to smoke, leave our luggage unattended or park our cars outside the entrance for more than 15 minutes don't exactly help, but with the horrid artificial light that bathes the place, I doubt it made much difference. At 5 in the morning, I take a walk across Dover's deserted promenade to the Hoverspeed terminal and am rewarded with a very cheap ticket for the 7.30 to Ostend, at which point I decide to ditch the hitch-hiking, given that my InterRail pass now enables me to travel for free.

Arrival at Spa turns out to be something of a shock. While I had assumed that Spa and Francorchamps were one and the same, a quick glance at the station map informs me that Francorchamps is up a hill some six miles away. I attempt to ask when the bus to the Grand Prix is in French, but the reply I get is incomprehensible, so I wander out of the station resignedly and weigh up the possibility of doing some more hitching when I see two German backpackers draped in Ferrari and 'Schumi' flags, heading for a yellow bus and I'm on my way up the hill.

This weekend, it seems, there are no Belgians in Francorchamps. The village has been invaded by more than a hundred thousand Germans, dressed mainly in Ferrari T-Shirts and waving banners with the name of their absent hero, Michael Schumacher. A sprinkling of yellow Jordan T-shirts hints at a British presence, but these turn out to be worn by yet more Germans, supporting their country's last best hope in the absence of Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen. I secure a camping space in pidgin German and wander off into the village to soak up the atmosphere. Somehow, I wander around for a good 20 minutes without finding the circuit entrance, but a German tout sells me a reduced price ticket for the race. I wander back to the campsite, passing on the way some Irishmen at the bar, drowning out everyone else with chants of 'Irvine, Irvine'. The Irish presence is virtually negligible, but they make up in noise for what they lack in numbers.

I share a beers with some fairly mad looking guys from Luxembourg who sit comparing best laps of the Nordschliefe - one managed a 10 minute lap on his Suzuki 750. They also have a few digs at Ferrari, who as I point out, should have won five championships this decade, but as a consequence of their own incompetence, have failed to win any. The Luxembourgers head off for the bar. I decline to follow, feeling in desperate need of some sleep after two days on the road and little in the way of sleep. I talk to a Dutch couple , one of whom saw his first race at Spa in 1985, two weeks before I went to my first Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, then drift quickly off to sleep despite the best efforts of the Germans on the campsite with their heavy artillery. Sorry. Firecrackers.

Woken early by the sound of an alarm clock going off in the tent next to mine. Notice that, quelle surprise, what with Francorchamps being at the top of a big, big hill, it's absolutely Baltic at half five in the morning. Wander down to the La Source entrance, buying a coffee that gets cold before I can drink it along the way. Quickly make my way up to my preferred spot at the top of Eau Rouge and watch dawn break before some officious chap in a purple overall informs me that I don't have the appropriate £300 ticket to be standing where I am and moves me, and it seems, everyone else standing within 100m of me, along and out of the way.

I walk around the circuit for a bit as it slowly begins to fill up with Schumi's army (poster of note - 'The Schuminator' - He'll be Back...) Can't help feeling there is some of the same unpleasant undertow to this bunch as there was to the football hooligans who flocked to see Nigel Mansell in the late eighties and early nineties. Michael himself, of course, is undergoing physiotherapy in Switzerland right now.

Not sure if my memory is serving me right, but F1 cars seem louder than ever. The Honda engined Jordans in particular are absolutely deafening. Nobody seems to be going for any heroics this morning, perhaps understandable. BAR lose three chassis to accidents over the weekend. Ralf Schumacher almost loses his Williams and neither of the Jordan drivers look particularly happy but the session is otherwise uneventful.

Decide that the slow 90deg corner above Pouhon** is just a bit too ordinary a place to watch F1 cars from, and walk down the track to Pouhon, taking no more than a passing interest in the rather antiseptic Porsche GT race that is going on in the background. Pouhon looks mightily impressive, but there's no place to sit, or even stand, there and after watching the drivers' parade (curiously team mates seem to be standing as far from each other as the limited dimensions of the truck allows, though whether by design or accident, I couldn't say). I head on past Stavelot, Fagnes and Malmedy and settle on the idea of watching at least the first part of the race from from Blanchimont.

The start appears to be messy - I can see only the the back two rows through the zoom lens on my camera but it appears that at least one of the Arrows on the back row doesn't get away properly and some of the others appear to be taking evasive action. Yellows are waved frantically, suggesting that someone has done something stupid at La Source. Sio it comes as something of a surprise when all 21 cars (Tora Takagi's Arrows has gone AWOL) make it round the first lap, and David Coulthard appears to have got the jump on everyone. Irvine has fought his way up to fourth, while Hill has somewhat predictably slid back to seventh. Zanardi is an impressive sixth for Williams.

The race carries on in this vein. Nobody of any great significance drops out and David Coulthard runs away the comfortable winner. Hill and Salo both make their way past Zanardi at the pit stops, while Luca Badoer does a good job of hassling the slower Prosts, BARs and Benettons in the quicker of the two Minardis. I try to watch a bit of the action from the Bus Stop but it is vastly over-catchfenced and my view is impeded by 'Schumi' flags so I wander back down to Stavelot, only for the race to end before I get there.

I wander back down to the finish line with the intention of having a snoop around the paddock, but it quickly becomes apparent that the world has changed somewhat since I last went to a race, in my early teens, and purple-shirted goons are guarding the pit lane in a manner that leaves me a little surprised that they don't have semi-automatic rifles at their sides. From my vantage point at the entrance to the pitlane, I'm able to see enough to see that the sport has become a great deal more professional in the last six or seven years. Even the smallest, poorest outfits (a rather relative term in the world of F1) have neat, expensive looking team shirts and several huge, shiny new transporters that dwarf even those used by the largest of teams when I last crawled into the paddock, at Silverstone in 1992. I toy around the idea of going for a walk around the circuit, but I'm feeling hot and exhausted and so head back to the campsite to catch up on some sleep.

* I've taken out the rather strange diversions about my old Head of Sixth Form and the quality of coffee in Verviers. There's also a long and rather incomprehensible ramble about my flatmate flooding the kitchen by overfilling the washing machine on the day I left. It's a little vitriolic, and at the time I wrote it, I didn't know I would end up dating her for two years...

**My notes have completely different corner names, but my memory says otherwise. I'm sure I'd just given the corners the wrong names. I blame the Belgian beer. Or did I write this in Amsterdam a few days later? Maybe it was Prague, I was a bit absinthe-minded at that time....

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