The iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit has always been more than just a circuit in my eyes, and remains a quintessential quality on the Formula One calendar. It was benefiting, therefore, that I would make my second appearance in the paddock for Richland F1 at this majestic circuit in the Ardennes Forest.
My weekend began with a lengthy train journey across the South of England, incorporating the hustle and bustle of London Waterloo, before reaching my destination of Folkestone Central where I joined forces with Octane Photographic and fellow colleagues Luke Smith and Dan Paddock. A brief stop for a spot of coffee at Starbucks, where Kiwi racers Mitch Evans and Richie Stanaway had the same idea, we were off across the Channel to Calais and the beginning of our jaunt across Europe to Germany where we would be staying for the weekend.
After a long journey through France and the Netherlands, we eventually arrived at our hotel in the splendid town of Aachen in the far west of Germany. Once we had checked in to our rooms, it was time for a well deserved schnitzel with rather salty chips and a salad.
The following morning it was time to make the short trip across the border to Belgium to collect our media passes from Francorchamps. Last year the small town hall where we receive our passes was overshadowed by an enormous advertising board of Romain Grosjean, which was amazingly still present as we arrived. After collecting our passes, it was off to the circuit a short distance away for the opening day of the weekend and one of the busiest when it comes to media sessions.
Upon arriving at the track it was a case of signing in at the media centre and choosing our seats wisely, before jotting down the various teams’ media schedules for the day ahead. First off was a trip down to Force India to speak with Sergio Perez, before then moving swiftly on to Sauber to speak to both Esteban Gutierrez and then Adrian Sutil. With a short gap between Sauber and Valtteri Bottas of Williams, Dan and I decided to carry out a spontaneous pit walk, with many of the teams still frantically preparing for the weekend ahead.
This included Caterham, with bodywork scattered around the front of their garage without sponsorship applied. Despite the mayhem, a quick glimpse at F1 debutant Andre Lotterer’s helmet was on offer at back of the garage. Whilst the preparations ensued within the garages, several GP2 cars were being weighed at the weigh-bridge. Along with the quad bike-led GP2 cars were the safety and medical cars, completing exploratory laps whilst using the pit-lane as their thoroughfare and forcing the amassing media to jump out of the way.
From there it was soon off to Williams for a chat with Bottas, before the official FIA press conference which consisted of Daniil Kvyat, Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Rosberg, Jules Bianchi, Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa. Throughout the day rain fell intermittently across the track, and with further rainfall a threat for the weekend ahead many questions during the media sessions included whether rain would benefit or hinder the respective driver.
Despite returning to the media centre to transcribe the various media sessions throughout the day, it was soon off to Red Bull to speak with the reigning World Champion and then my final session of the day at Mercedes with Lewis Hamilton, where I was introduced to the German marque’s finest cookies which were invitingly placed on offer during Hamilton’s session. After a busy day at the track, it was soon time to leave and return to Aachen for an evening of further work and a trip to a nearby pub, Restaurant Altes Zolhaus, for a scrumptious steak and chips.
With the first track events of the weekend due to take place, with practice one at 9am local time, it was an early start on Friday. After arriving at the paddock and setting up once again, it was off to Ferrari for a much-needed breakfast. For practice one Dan covered the report, whilst I took to the Richland F1 twitter channel to bring our followers live text commentary from proceedings.
After spending lunch at Red Bull, schnitzel with chips for those interested, it was time to return to the media room for second practice in the afternoon. This time the roles were reversed between myself and Dan, with the report compiled by myself and commentary brought to our followers by Dan. With the controversial news of Max Chilton returning to Marussia for the remainder of the weekend after only 24 hours earlier being replaced by Alexander Rossi, it was off to the Marussia hospitality unit after practice to speak to the returning Briton.
Upon entering Marussia I noticed a very glum Rossi sat watching the GP2 qualifying session, before I proceeded upstairs to speak to Chilton. Naturally the session was attended by many members of the media, with the questions centred solely around his position at the team and the controversy of the previous few days. With very few media sessions being run on the Friday evening, unlike the previous day, my only other venture was to Lotus to speak with Pastor Maldonado, who had ruined his second practice session with a bizarre off on the run down to Pouhon.
Once the respective media sessions had been transcribed, it was off for a highly-anticipated walk of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Although the weather deteriorated during the walk, nothing could wipe the grin off of my face as I gallivanted up Eau Rouge, albeit after sitting down on the apex to get a feel of what the view would be like for a Formula One driver. After our lengthy 7.004km walk, it was time to once again leave the track for Aachen and another well-earned steak at what was becoming our local haunt in the evenings.
With Friday undoubtedly the least busiest of the weekend, Saturday was a day packed with two Formula One track events and over 15 media sessions after qualifying. On the way to the track absolutely torrential rain pounded the car, setting the tone weather-wise and prompting numerous quotes from Family Guy weatherman Ollie Williams. After yet another fulfilling Ferrari breakfast, it was off for my first visit trackside for the GP3 qualifying session. With the cars roaring through the exit of La Source, it was unquestionably a thrilling experience, even if it was only the third tier of motorsport.
After a brief spell back at the media centre for some work in preparation for the all-important qualifying hour later in the day, it was soon back to La Source to watch the first part of the third and final practice session. With all of the drivers performing practice starts at the beginning of the season right in front of me, it was a perfect time to fully listen to the new engines and finally come to a conclusion that they were terrific, albeit slightly different to what I was used to.
During the short gap between final practice and qualifying, the heavens well and truly opened with a monumental rain and hail shower. This brought our plans of a trip down to the GP2 paddock and to Red Bull for lunch to an end, as a rowing boat was quickly becoming the required mode of transport within the paddock. Although the weather soon began to improve slightly, qualifying still took place in incredibly inclement weather conditions with Rosberg taking pole for Mercedes alongside team-mate Hamilton. I once again focused on the qualifying report, with Dan doing a splendid job keeping up with proceedings on the twitter account.
After qualifying it was off to the damp paddock for further media sessions, after an extremely entertaining day of track action up and down the order. My first port of call the official post-qualifying FIA press conference, which consisted of Rosberg, Hamilton and Vettel. Afterwards it was off to Ferrari for Fernando Alonso, only to be informed by the team that he was required to carry out an anti-doping test. Therefore Kimi Raikkonen had his session first, and I was soon joined at the Scuderia by Dan, which enabled me to vacate, as the wait continued for Alonso, and jog over to Red Bull to find Ricciardo.
The Australian was once again in fine form, with a trademark big grin spread across his face despite being out-qualified by his team-mate, Alonso and the Mercedes duo. From there it was onwards to Lotus, where Grosjean was scheduled to speak to the media. As it transpired I was the only English-speaking journalist present, which lead to a spontaneous one-to-one interview with the Frenchman where we discussed the weather, his qualifying performance and his overall hopes for the race.
After a brief spell back at the media centre to begin my favourite task of transcribing, it was soon time to return to the paddock and McLaren for a media session which included Kevin Magnussen, Jenson Button and Eric Boullier. Although the session was delayed until the end of the GP2 feature race, where McLaren protege Vandoorne lost out to Marciello, the trio soon arrived allowing the members of the media present to finally begin the session.
Once the media sessions for the day had drawn to a conclusion, it was back to the media room before the short hop across the border back to our hotel for the evening and the now traditional steak and chips, or Currywurst if you were Dan and Luke, at Zolhaus.
The following morning we returned to the track for what would be our final day at Spa-Francorchamps, with clear skies and a slight mist lingering over the pine trees. During our usual wait for breakfast to be served at Ferrari, we set up our equipment in the media centre whilst the mist which we spotted in the distance eerily crept in with intense density, at one stage making our view out of the media centre windows completely unrecognisable.
Once the fog had begun to burn off, it was time for our final Ferrari breakfast before then returning to La Source to watch the opening three laps of the second GP3 race of the weekend. During those lengthy opening laps it was clear from the confidence of Alex Lynn that he was most certainly Championship material, whilst at the back Carmen Jorda was the complete opposite, roughly 13 seconds a lap slower than the rest of the field. Soon it was back to the media centre to continue with preparations ahead of the race, whilst also receiving notification from Mercedes and Brembo with regards to the cause of Hamilton’s break failure at Hockenheim.
As the drivers returned from their track parade in vintage machinery prior to the start of the race, we managed to snap a few pictures of the them making their hasty retreat to their garages to prepare for the race. From there it was onwards for our final lunch at Red Bull, with only half an hour before the start of the race. Upon making our return to the media centre large rain drips began to fall intermittently around paddock.
Naturally the action-packed and controversial 44-lap Belgian Grand Prix created many gasps of excitement within the media centre, as Rosberg and Hamilton proceeded to collide on only the second lap and gift victory to Ricciardo in the Red Bull. Whilst Dan battled away with the report on the race, my afternoon was spent desperately trying to fit each of my tweets into 140 characters during my live text commentary.
Afterwards the paddock practically imploded with the news emanating from Mercedes, with both Rosberg and Hamilton at the centre of attention. After compiling an article shortly after the official FIA press conference, it was off for my final media session of the weekend at Williams with Felipe Massa and Rob Smedley. Upon returning to the media centre I was greeted with the updated news from Mercedes, with Hamilton’s comments on his team-mate.
Towards the end of the evening it was time to bid farewell to Spa-Francorchamps and return to Aachen, despite a whole host of further writing to complete. With our local pub no longer serving food due to Sunday hours, it was back to the hotel for a schnitzel before retiring to our hotel room to compile the race analysis whilst listening to Kraftwerk. With the writing not finishing until around 2am, it was decided that we would stay awake through the night until our departure at 5am, with a much needed sleep in the car on our way to Calais and my eventual lengthy train journey back home across the South of England.
The Belgian Grand Prix was once again a phenomenal experience, with a race weekend featuring every bit of excitement and controversy imaginable. To be able to walk back into the paddock with a media pass around my neck was an incredible moment, and my thanks must go to Luke Smith for making it possible for me to once again to join the ranks of journalists in the media centre. Roll on the next race!
Image(s) courtesy of Andy Young/Richland F1