My F1 Diary: Belgian Grand Prix

The iconic Belgium Grand Prix is a fan-favourite, promising a fantastic race every year, easily accessible to the mass of European fans and I was lucky enough to spend the weekend in the paddock.

Belgium Grand Prix

Despite growing up in a motorsport-mad household, I had never actually been to a Grand Prix until this year. This was all to change in July as I found myself fortunate enough to visit the Hungarian Grand Prix and follow this with a trip to the consecutive race at Belgium.

My experience probably differed to how most of you may have enjoyed your first Formula One race as I spent the race weekend in the comfort of the paddock, relaxing in various team hospitality, liaising with drivers and team members, in addition to watching the race from the pit lane and first corner. Yes – I am aware how crazy this all is. These opportunities are all because of a charity organisation that I work closely with and allow me this exclusive access.

I arrived at the Eurotunnel on the Thursday and made my way to the track for the afternoon. No racing takes place on this Thursday as it is a ‘media day’ for the drivers and teams. Routine conferences take place, as well as most individual press talks and interviews for broadcast television and radio.

Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat

It was on this Thursday, just minutes from arriving at the circuit, I had to meet with Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat to retrieve their signatures as part of my job over the weekend. Standing in the Red Bull Energy Station with a driver on either side of my table was a little surreal, but both gentlemen were very pleasant and polite as one would expect.

The photographs that they signed, taken by themselves and submitted to myself, were great fun and they were able to tell me about them in great detail; you could tell it was an entertaining change to talk about their passions after they had spent most of the day repeating the same information they know the media would want to hear.

After my visit to Red Bull, I moved into the paddock and met with Kevin Magnussen. Once again, Kevin was very sweet and was more than happy to sign his image. He wasn’t busy as no longer having a race seat this year meant that press conferences were not on his agenda for the moment. In fact the only real questioning put in his direction was about a rather inappropriate tweet he had posted earlier in the week. I’ll let you find that one on his Twitter account…

Once I had collected all the signatures needed, I spent most of Thursday evening walking around the paddock. Unlike the paddock in Hungary, this display of motorhomes and garages meant that there were several different tiers in order to get to the building you wanted. However, in Hungary the paddock was one large straight stretch that had the motorhomes on one side of you and their garage entry directly opposite.

This made tracking down drivers and team principals a nightmare as they could just run from one to the other and made it difficult to ‘catch them’. However at Spa, the layout meant that several sets of staircases were needed to get from the track to the comfort of their motorhome.

The first level, almost a ground level, was the main entrance of the paddock and paddock club. Once through with my VIP pass, you would walk past the smaller team’s garages first until you got to Mercedes at the very end of the straight. Once you did get to the end of this first floor garage walk you were met with stunning views of Eau Rouge.

As this was probably one of the highest vantage points of the circuit, it seemed only sensible to take some selfies with the phenomenal backdrop and over the weekend I spotted drivers and members of the media doing the same. The next lower-level were public toilets. I don’t think they need explaining really – I guarantee that this is not why you chose to read this article, therefore I will hastily move on. The final layer and the shallowest of all three tiers were the motorhomes.

Because I was at the track for work, I was not able to camp and had to stay at a hotel many kilometres away from the circuit. Although I am not complaining, I would have loved to camp with the thousands of other fans. I know they say that camping at Spa makes for the perfect experience and I must say it looked fantastic.

Terrible bus service

Leaving the circuit you must walk through the town of Francochamps and this short 10 minute walk is filled with drunk fans at all hours – making for such a funky and awesome atmosphere. You can tell they have travelled from all parts of Europe for their best weekend of the year and they sure look like they are having it. I just wanted to join them with a pint and talk all things F1. Camping also makes the track a short walking distance and means you don’t have to encounter the terrible bus service put on over the weekend – more on that later.

Friday was another busy day for me. Obviously the cars made their way onto the track and the two practice sessions were on. I also had to find Giedo Van der Garde to get his signature for the book. If you follow Formula One, you will know that Van der Garde made it very public at the beginning of the year that he was expecting a seat with Sauber for 2015, however was not given a drive and wanted to sue the team.

Since this public dispute, Van der Garde had kept his distance from Formula One but was present at the Belgium Grand Prix, making it known he was there for ‘meetings’. All very mysterious but interestingly enough he spent most of his time in the Mercedes motorhome. Who knows if the two are related, but I’m certainly not trying to start more F1 gossip.

Hamilton on pole

Saturday was more of the same, I watched qualifying unfold in the Mercedes motorhome with the team. Hamilton secured pole position for the race but to my surprise, none of the team looked happy with the result. It unfolded on the big television screens inside the motorhome but the room was silent – no cheering, no clapping, nothing. The reaction to Hamilton’s pole, with the same going for his win the following day, was the same reaction as when both Mercedes had failed to make the podium in Hungary the race before. Maybe it was just expected of themselves. My effort at clapping seemed forced and awkward and was very short-lived.

Several guests were also present on the Saturday. Two of these visitors were the BBC Radio DJs Greg James and Dermot O’Leary. They had been with Mercedes-run teams throughout the day, spending their morning with Williams, Force India and Lotus and their afternoon with Mercedes themselves.

Race day! I knew that Sunday would mean a nightmare visit to the circuit. My boss had booked for us to stay in Brussels for our trip which meant a two hour train journey to and from the track every day. This two hour disadvantage meant even earlier mornings were needed to get to the track at an appropriate time.

On Sunday I left bright and prompt and made it to the local train station of Gare de Verviers-Central in good time. I knew I needed to catch the local bus service that had been put on for the Sunday, expecting to be crammed with thousands of F1 fans into a little minibus. Fortunately this was not the case and I managed to secure a seat for the forty minute journey; a seat I later gave up for an elderly fan. Half an hour into the journey, the huge number of fans on the bus began to notice that we were driving further and further away from Spa.

We would pass signs with ‘Spa 10km’ and then ten minutes later the signs read ‘Spa 17km’. Maybe we were taking a shortcut? Soon the impatient British fans found themselves gathered together complaining about the time it was taking to get to the track. On previous journeys the route to the track would have been over, but we seemed to be getting more and more lost. Soon one fan used his Google maps to pinpoint exactly where we were.

The news wasn’t good. We had travelled completely the wrong way and his satnav was telling him it would possibly take another hour to get to the track. After this news made its way around the bus, the fans got restless. Booing started erupting on the bus and shouting at the driver. We had been standing for over an hour now and still passing signs which read that the circuit was in the other direction.

Eau Rouge

At least humour was still present and soon a large group of fans began to joke at how this bus was still ‘faster than a McLaren Honda’ or that we would arrive on the track at this race battling the F1 cars up Eau Rouge. After an hour and a half, we made it to the track with just an hour before lights out. We had missed the track parade, something I had really enjoyed being a part of in Hungary, and meant that securing seats in a motorhome came as a bit of a challenge.

Overall, the race itself was brilliant, as expected from the Belgium Grand Prix. Hamilton took yet another victory and a surprise podium from Grosjean made many fans very happy.

What were your highlights from the race weekend? Have your say in the comments section below.