Our first grand prix experience — Trip to Belgium part 1 — Arrival and Friday practice

La Source with crowds on it, on the Thursday evening of the Belgian Grand Prix
This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Trip to Belgium, 2018

Trip to Belgium, 2018

  1. Our first grand prix experience — Trip to Belgium part 1 — Arrival and Friday practice

In August, I went with Alex and my brother Gordon to the Belgian Grand Prix.

Even though both Gordon and I have been avid Formula 1 fans since we were kids, we have never made it to a grand prix. We have seen other motorsport events, including our epic trip to Le Mans in 2016. But circumstances and costs have conspired against us making it to an F1 event before.

We chose to go to the Belgian Grand Prix for a few reasons:

  1. Spa-Francorchamps is one of the most legendary circuits in the world.
  2. It is a relatively cheap race to attend.
  3. Road trip!

Day 1 — Wednesday — Picking up the campervan

Collecting the campervan from Rockin Vans

So our first stop was at Rockin Vans in Kilmarnock, where we picked up the campervan we’d hired.

While we were doing the admin bits, Alex said to the representative, “I hope it’s orange.” In reply, we got beaming eyes: “It is!” We couldn’t believe our luck.

We would fit right in with all the Max Verstappen fans, who would be flocking to what is the closest to his home race. And if we ever bumped into a Brit, we could just say we were McLaren fans. A win–win situation.

Driving the campervan in London

Next, we drove to London, where we were going to stay with Alex’s uni friends Lovisa and Dan.

Me with Snoop

I was shattered, but it was great to catch up with them and their dog Snoop.

Gordon took their spare room, while Alex and I had our first night in the campervan, in a London residential car park. It was not the most romantic of places to spend our first night in a romantic campervan.

Our bed for the night in London inside the campervan

We’d also made the rookie move of sleeping on a slope, with our heads lower than our legs. (We were so tired, we evidently didn’t think to simply swap ends.) It was an uncomfortable night, which wasn’t good news given that we had to leave at 6am for the drive to the ferry.

Day 2 — Thursday — Arrival in Belgium

Our campervan at Dover while waiting for the ferry

In the end, we arrived early for our ferry, and we got put on an earlier one. But that was part of the plan, because we wanted to get the the circuit as soon as possible to try and make it to the pit lane, which was open to punters on Thursday afternoon. Even with the earlier ferry, it was going to be tight to make it.

The drive to Spa-Francorchamps could hardly be more different to our drive to Le Mans two years ago. France’s roads are excellent, but Belgium’s are joyless.

When we pulled up at a service station near Brussels, it stank of urine, the sandwich selection was abysmal, and we had to pay to use the loos. That was especially tricky as we hadn’t managed to get any euros yet, and there wasn’t even a cash machine here. It may also explain the urine stench.

After eating our least-worst sandwich options, we had an uninterrupted stint to the circuit. Here is another fundamental difference to our trip to Le Mans. Whereas in France the traffic ground to a halt several miles away from the circuit, our trip to the small village of Francorchamps was amazingly hassle-free. We got straight to our campsite without sitting in a single jam.

Gordon, Alex and me in the campervan

We helped Gordon pitch his tent, and relaxed with a beer before heading towards the circuit.

Entering the circuit

In hindsight, that beer may have been a mistake. Because by the time we got to the circuit, which was roughly a 30 minute walk away from our campsite, the pit lane was only open for 15 more minutes.

Pit lane during the public pit walk

A moderate crowd bustled as punters strained to catch a glimpse of anything interesting going on in the pit lane.

Sauber garages

We passed the Sauber and McLaren garages, where not much of note was going on, apart from some nose cones hanging out.

Haas pit stop practice

But the next garage along, Haas were putting on a show for the crowd by doing some practice pit stops.

Me and Alex during the pit walk

It was at that point that the heavies started pushing us back the way we came.

Marcus Ericsson signing autographs

We hung around at the La Source hairpin, where the tail-end of the autograph session was still taking place, with the likes of Marcus Ericsson scribbling away.

La Source during the pit walk

After soaking up the atmosphere, we made our way back to the campsite.

Day 3 — Friday — Practice day

We still hadn’t got our hands on any cash, and there was a distinct lack of cash machines in Francorchamps. A shopkeeper told us the nearest bank was in the nearby town of Stavelot. Gordon decided he would run to Stavelot to get us some cash. Unluckily for him, Stavelot was further away than we thought!

The view from our grandstand seat, on the approach to Eau Rouge

Cash in hand, we headed to the circuit, where finally, there would be some on-track action. It was practice day. We made our way to our grandstand seats to watch. We’d chosen a grandstand between La Source and Eau Rouge.

Alex, me and Gordon sitting in our grandstand seats

It was a risk to take a grandstand without a cover at a circuit as notoriously rainy as Spa-Francorchamps. But we mostly got away with it. It drizzled somewhat on the Saturday, but otherwise being sat in the open wasn’t a problem.

Mercedes heading up Eau Rouge

Despite my hopes, we couldn’t quite see the exit of La Source. But we had fantastic views of the cars climbing up Eau Rouge and into Raidillon, one of the most fearsome and legendary corner sequences in the world.

Ross Brawn being interviewed at the fanzone

The other handy aspect of our grandstand was that it was right at the fanzone, the epicentre of non-track action. There was a stage where interviews would take place. We heard from race director Charlie Whiting, safety car driver Bernd Mayländer, medical car driver Alan van der Merwe, and legendary designer-cum-F1-big-cheese Ross Brawn.

Bobbleheads on stage in the fanzone

When nothing else was going on, the stage was invaded by the bobbleheads. Imagine Disneyland-style Mickey Mouse costume characters. They are meant to be depicting the drivers, but they are rather scary and some of them seem to me to be borderline racist.

Ordering a coffee from a vintage orange campervan

We bought a coffee from another orange Volkswagen campervan — this one of the more vintage variety.

Me taking a photo of the 3D F1 logo in the fanzone

There was also the F1 store, where we were determined to buy a souvenir of our first grand prix. Alex had already bought herself a Red Bull Racing t-shirt, in honour of her favourite driver, Daniel Ricciardo.

Having turned the store upside down, the only thing I truly wanted was a Fernando Alonso Kimoa trucker cap with a tweed design on the front. But when I tried it on, we universally agreed that it didn’t suit me. Alex looked great with it though.

Gordon, me and Alex with our new Alonso Kimoa caps

Gordon and I got the same orange Kimoa cap. So we spent the rest of the weekend looking like die hard Alonso fans. (The orange campervan was in honour of McLaren after all!)

Gordon buying a beer from a vending machine in Francorchamps

On the way back to the campsite, Gordon took advantage of the novelty of buying beer from a vending machine in Francorchamps.

Eating dinner at the campsite

At the campsite, we cooked chicken curry in our campervan and had a few beers.

The next day would see on-track action ramping up for qualifying day — which will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.


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