This post is part of my recap of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend and is about the Thursday before the race. Please see Tues/Weds here. Once again, I apologise for the lengthy delay.
The Road Trip
Following the Tuesday and Wednesday meetups I was still in London, to cut 3 hours off the journey time on Road Trip Day. From the hotel I was to cross South London to meet the others, we’d head to Kent to pick up two more, than take the EuroTunnel train to France for the drive to Belgium. A slight problem though, the week prior to the Grand Prix the organisers announced there would be a pitlane walkabout on Thursday – and if we stuck to our planned schedule there was no way we’d make it.
Cue urgent discussions in the pubs on Tuesday and Wednesday as we attempted to estimate the total journey time. Our original plan merely called for us to aim at the campsite near Spa and we’d get there whenever we got there, with no hurry the tunnel tickets were accordingly booked for lunchtime. Despite none of us having ever driven from London to Folkestone or from Calais to the other side of Belgium we came up with an estimated journey time with the use of Google Maps. We were to leave a couple of hours earlier than planned and push on as best as we could with as few stops as possible. We decided to aim directly for the racetrack, we could drop bags and pick up mobile home keys afterwards. Handily the standard EuroTunnel ticket allows you to be up to two hours early (or late) with no penalty. It was agreed if we got more than halfway there and it became clear there wasn’t a chance, we’d just follow the original plan, back down the speed and cruise on to the campsite. The pitlane walk started at 4.30pm. Our ETA was between 4 and 5pm. It was on.
I departed the hotel only ten minutes later than planned, not bad for me on a non-work morning. ‘Not a problem,’ thinks I when I reach my car. ‘My sat-nav tells me it will only take 30 minutes and not the 50 I’d thought.’ Nnno. It took an hour! The traffic was heavy but not horrendous by London standards, though hitting every red light was extremely frustrating. Parts of London operate a ‘wave’ system so if you catch a green light you can ‘ride the wave’ of greens all the way. I caught reds. I’ve never known lights stay red for so long, or encountered so many in one run. Road closures did nothing to improve either my arrival time or my mood, and conspired to get me lost near the rendezvous point, not helped when the infernal sat-nav (voiced by Juan Pablo Montoya!) told me the destination was in a residential backroad some half mile away from the real location.
The others kindly agreed to come find me as I was lost and a little flustered by this stage, especially after the stellar efforts made by Chris and Pamela to get to the meeting point extra early from a distance away, it was silly to be even later when all I had to do was drive over and it really annoyed me! However, while I waiting for the others to get to me I decided this would be our hiccup for the day, I reckoned we were always going to have one, this would be it and I was relieved we’d got it out of the way so soon. It would be plain sailing from here.
Chris transferred to my car, then at about 8.20 (an hour late – sorry!) we set off down the A20 and M20 to Ashford to pick up Lou and Luke who were also riding in my car. The other car consisted of Bassano (driving), Gavin/Rubbergoat, Amy and Pamela.
We were very pleased to find we’d overestimated the journey time down to Kent – we’d allowed two hours including London traffic, and it only took us one hour. Bonus! Turns out the traffic was between me and the others, not between the meeting place and the motorway, useful to know if there’s a next time. So we picked up the others pretty much when we said we would, cue a huge relief from us all and me in particular. Both cars fully loaded, the road trip was on, we were set to go to Belgium!
The EuroTunnel shuttle was easy and hassle-free. It was quite spooky driving up to the unmanned check-in screen and have your name appear on the screen before you’ve even done anything – it scanned the car number plate! After a quick pitstop in the terminal we passed through passport control, the UK guys waved us straight through and the French just had a glance at our passports, nice and easy. The other car was delayed briefly as Amy and Pamela are from outside the EU, but no problems there either. For those not familiar with the tunnel, you have the curiosity of passing French customs while in the UK, legally you are then in France while physically still being in Kent. I’m not sure why this is still the case because travel between two EU countries is supposed to be unrestricted, border controls across the continent have been dismantled.
Then on to the train! Many people would find this unremarkable, it’s fair to say most of us are quite geeky and we were quite excited by it.
As each car slowly boarded, we were directed to the ramp to the upper floor. It had been drizzling so the ramp was wet, I left a gap to the car ahead so I wouldn’t have to stop on the ramp, went to put the power on and got a nice dose of wheelspin! Wheelspin on a train, a first for all of us in the car.
The train, once it gets going after all the safety announcements, only takes 35 minutes to travel under the Channel to Calais. Pretty sure it took us as long to get through security and the queues between the terminal and the train! When on the train we got out of the cars for a chat and a leg-stretch before the longer driving stint ahead.
As you do all the passport checks before boarding, when leaving you drive straight off the train, along a service road and directly on to the autoroute – we were on our way! I’m not sure about Bassano but this was my first time driving outside the UK and on the right-hand side of the road. I’ve been a passenger many times, including a 10-hour run from the South of France to the tunnel. I found it really easy, I suppose because it was a two-lane motorway and the only thing to remember was the faster cars were on the left of the car not the right. It wasn’t like there were cars coming toward us on the opposite side.. not yet.
We quickly wound the cars up to pace, I was the lead car and I wanted to make the most of the 130km/h (80mph) speed limit in France and the 120km/h (75mph) limit in Belgium (and especially the higher French limit), but being careful not to stray over them because I’d been warned of hidden cameras along our route – French/Belgian examples aren’t as conspicuous as their UK equivalents and the fines are higher.
The French section was unremarkable, yet seemingly just as soon as we crossed into Belgium the driving standards changed completely. It was normal for drivers in the slow lane to pull into the fast lane no matter what was bearing down on them, no matter what speed they were doing, and only use their indicators when they were nearly across the gap, if at all. This isn’t ideal when you are pushing on. The pair of us each had to hit the brakes hard on many occasions including cars splitting us up. At home, slower traffic usually has enough sense to check the mirrors first!
There were plenty of near misses and not just with us but with a lot of traffic in the faster lane. It was just the same at slower speeds. In traffic such as the long 5mph Brussels jam, they thought nothing of cutting across two lanes of traffic in no more than 50 feet – not aided by some awful junction design which expected traffic to cross multiple lanes in well under a kilometre. A truck did that in front of me and I was worried he’d take out the nose of the car!
That traffic jam delayed us quite a bit, but after that despite the quirks of the locals we made really good progress, with just a couple of toilet/coffee/fuel stops which really were just quick stop-and-goes. I’d borrowed some radios, kids toys really and they weren’t great, but we managed to get messages to each other along the journey. Every time we stopped we called out “Box! Box! Box!” to tell the other car we were pitting!
Finding the Track
We arrived in the Ardennes area at about 4.30pm and got near the track at about 5pm. As we approached we had the slight problem of finding the right entrance, because this wasn’t a normal day for the public not all the gates were open. The maps provided with the tickets were very vague and were designed for Friday, Saturday and Sunday – there was no indication of where to go for the pit walk, or on the signs.
We followed our best guess at which of the 3 motorway exits to take and followed the signs to the track, when we heard a call over the radio from Gavin. We were on the old circuit! The main road meets it at a roundabout near the small town of Malmedy, we were heading ‘the wrong way’ along the classic circuit towards the modern circuit. It was surprisingly narrow for a race track (though for us it was a normal 2-lane country road) and surprisingly steep, I hadn’t realised just how steep this section was. It was barely recognisable as the old circuit as it had been kept up to modern road standards with smooth tarmac, painted lines, signs and the rest. Just before Les Combes it veered off to a bypass, the circuit has been permanent for some years now and the local roads have found a way around it.
After trying a gate or two we found our way to a roundabout near to La Source corner, we were just about to try our luck with the guards when someone shouted out – Jake and Martin!
Jake Humphrey and Martin Brundle from the BBC had driven over from London at the same time we did, in Martin’s classic Jaguar E-Type rigged with cameras for a special pre-race feature. They had parked up on the outside of this roundabout and were surrounded by people!
We quickly abandoned the cars, everyone grabbed cameras and went running over to them. I made sure the car was out of the way as best it could be, and locked, with all these people around I wasn’t keen to leave it unlocked and unattended when it had all our bags in it! I tried to find my camera but remembered I’d left it in my main bag, being the driver I assumed I wouldn’t need it until the paddock as I’d be too busy! Unfortunately I didn’t grab a photo, thankfully many of the rest of our group did. Martin with me and Lou; Jake and Martin with Pamela and Amy; So did Jake himself when he tweeted a photo of our group! We really had only been there ten minutes. Finally, Lou got a shot of that very same Twitpic moment from the other angle.
What a great welcome to Spa!
You can read Part 2 of Thursday’s adventures here.