Jennie Gow braves the traffic and the rain en route to Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix.
Each year, Formula One teams travel roughly 62,000 miles across the globe, stopping off at 19 destinations around the world. One of my F1 chums once worked out that he spent approximately two weeks every year at various worldwide airports.
So, a couple of times a year, when the race is close enough to ditch the flights and jump in a car and drive to an event, a lot of the paddock take that opportunity.
The drive to Spa is one of the highlights of the season. Each year, a whole heap of Brits load up their cars and make the trip to Belgium, travelling to France and then onto the land of frites and beer. It’s a great road trip and its makes the Spa race really accessible to the average F1 fan.
So we loaded up our car for the weekend and my producer and I hit the road just before 10am to make our way to the Channel Tunnel. Without any issues we loaded our Mercedes S500 Coupe onto the train and headed for ‘Le Continent’. It was pretty cool to see how many other F1 fans were doing the same as us. We even ran into a driver too; Sauber’s Felipe Nasr was waiting to take the same crossing as us.
It took us 35 minutes to cross the Channel and, in total, six hours to get from the South of England across to Spa-Francorchamps. That’s almost exactly the same time that it takes to fly, but without the hassle of sitting in an airport for a couple of hours!
I always love arriving at the circuit on a Thursday morning before a race weekend, but arriving at Spa is special. The first thing you see as you rise over the crest of the hill is that beautiful view of Eau Rouge. The little chocolate box house sitting at the top, next to the large grandstand that always enjoys a spectacular view of one of the best corners in racing.
The car we were in was pretty flashy. And as we drew up to the crossroads at the entrance of the car park, a couple of fans came over to the window of the Merc to try and get an autograph. I think they must have been a little disappointed when they realised it was just me and my producer. Apologies if that was you…
80,000 fans from all around the world travel to Spa for the race. From the flags to the license plates of the cars around the place, you can tell a lot of those fans are from the UK, and it felt great to be sharing that experience with everyone else. And, what’s more, for once the weather was amazing.
We all know Spa is synonymous with rain, so you always want to be sure to pack your wellies and an umbrella. But this year, the weather was spectacular. Wall-to-wall sunshine for the whole weekend. It was incredible; almost unbelievable, in fact. That is, until pack-up at the end of the race, when about four days’ worth of rain fell in one night.
The race wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, with Lewis Hamilton once again winning ahead of his team mate Nico Rosberg. Yet it will stick with me forever for two reasons. The first: Romain Grosjean getting back on the podium for the first time since 2013. What a moment that was; stood beneath him as he made his way to the third-place step. He looked like he was about to burst with emotion. When I spoke to him afterwards, he said he cried all the way around the last lap.
For the man that caused that horror crash at Spa in 2012 – receiving a one race ban for dangerous driving in the process – to stepping up onto the podium three years later, you could see what it meant to him and how hard he has worked to turn his life and his attitude around. It was lovely to see.
Then, of course, there was Sebastian Vettel’s exploding tyre. There are still a lot of questions about exactly what happened and who was to blame. Ferrari have said they “don’t want to start a war with Pirelli” but Vettel’s comments after the race were that of a man who wants answers. Speaking to my BBC colleague Lee Mackenzie, he let rip after the race. He was not happy with Pirelli in the slightest.
Pirelli stood their ground, arguing that 28 laps on that tyre was too many. But it will be very interesting to see what happens as we head to Italy. If a driver says something is ‘unacceptable’, and that driver happens to be a four times World Champion, then usually answers are sought urgently.
I will remember the race for those two things, but I shall remember the drive home in our S500 for all the wrong reasons. It may well be the worst F1 journey I’ve ever had. Even worse than missing my flight to Italy two years ago, and that was bad.
We sat in the usual Spa-Francorchamps traffic leaving the circuit, just as the rain started to come down. The nearer we got to Calais, the worse reports coming through about the state of ‘Le Shuttle’ became. Mitch Evans – the GP2 driver – even got in touch as we joined the back of the VERY long queue just as you come off the motorway, to say it had taken him hours to get home. Oh dear!
Knowing that those of my colleagues who’d stuck to the airports had flights that were almost landed, and knowing that they were not far off from being tucked up nicely in bed did nothing to make the situation better.
We settled in for the long haul and finally – eventually – got to the terminal two hours after arriving at Calais. We were starting to think the worst was over, that was until the staff at the tunnel decided to allow anyone to board the train in any order. Trains we were supposed to be on came and went and finally, at 2.40am, we were told there were to be no more trains until 5am.
We hit the recline button and sat there in our plush car, playing scrabble on our phones and trying not to find it weird to be sleeping so close to a work colleague.
After 12 hours in the car, we finally pulled up to the front of my house. It was 6am and my husband, having had a whole night’s sleep, was just getting in his car to leave for work.
I climbed into bed, shattered and dreaming of race cars. I love my job, but sometimes I wish I could just click my fingers and teleport to a race, no matter how nice the car is that I have to drive.