2010 Belgian GP – Thursday Pt.2

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 and Thursday Pt.1 here. Once again, I apologise for the lengthy delay.

Pitwalk!

This was all good fun but we were now missing the pitwalk, it was about 5.15pm so it was already halfway through and we had drivers and cars to try and see. We moved our cars out of the way and walked as quickly as possible past the various vendors, in through the La Source gate – and on to the track itself.

Wow! This came as a minor shock, I suppose I expected to be diverted over a bridge or under a tunnel to get to the infield but no, we were walking across La Source corner itself and into the pitlane exit! The place was bustling, La Source was packed with people and you could see hundreds on the main straight and yet more in the pitlane.


Gavin heading to the pitwalk / The famous house! / La Source exit

At this stage it was everyone for themselves, we instintively split up because we each knew we were running out of time and it was important to see as much as you could manage, plus we all had different interests. Some went rushing down pitlane, some checked out the new teams nearer our entrance. I hung around La Source for a little bit, looked at the steeper-than-expected run down the hill past the support paddock, and then walked into the pitlane where I found Lukeh and Lou had spotted David Croft and Anthony Davidson of BBC Radio 5 Live, in their trackies ready for their run (at every GP they run a lap of the track). I missed the conversation but was relayed it later, it seems Crofty remembered the pair having met at Goodwood earlier in the year! Lou had made a banner especially for them.

Here are a selection of photos from the pitwalk:



I also got a small amount of video:

Alternative link at Picasa in case the YouTube version is pulled (I can’t embed Picasa videos).

Somehow, and I still have no idea how they did it among all these people, Kathi and Emma appeared in front of us and started talking to us, and knew who we were. It took me a few moments to register that it was them! I think they must have found Lou or one of the others a few moments before? They been there since the pitlane opened and told us they’d managed to meet Bruno Senna and Rubens Barrichello, who’d come out of the pits to give signatures and meet the fans. Pretty cool! It was nearing 6pm and at the far end of pitlane security were getting a bit pushy, so Kathi and Emma were heading out. Since we’d only been there a short time we weren’t having that! I for one wasn’t planning to leave until I physically couldn’t stay any more.

That’s pretty much what happened. The guards worked their way down from pit in, and then split pitlane in half so those of us who hadn’t got that far were out of luck. Those with the ‘big teams’ were led out on to the main straight, the rest of us were trapped and had to return from whence we came, to pit exit. We took some more pics as we made our way slowly out.



There are a few more photos in my Spa Thursday album.

We soaked up the great atmosphere at La Source for a short while before making our way up the steep hill towards Franchorchamps village and our cars.

Evening

Next on the agenda was to book into the luxury mobile homes at the campsite, and unload all our bags. After working around the lanes with a short detour down a steep gravel track, we did just that! We were pleasantly surprised to find the homes were quite spacious, the bedrooms were a bit tight but we only needed them as somewhere to crash overnight and store clothes. The main living space was nice and open with a comfy seating area. A good choice and very well found by Kathi!

We were still one member short. Guille (pronounced sort of like ‘Geeche’) from Argentina was making his way to us from Paris via a train which had been delayed. The group split up, I and a couple of others went to pick up a bit of shopping and collect Guille, Bassano took Emma and Kathi to collect their bags from another town and a few stayed back at the site. We would rendezvous for steaks at the campsite restaurant.

Guille’s train seemed even more delayed than even he’d expected, the 3 of us meeting him were sat in the dark and wet station near some dodgy-looking taxi drivers! Eventually he arrived, I think quite tired after the journey from home including long flights, buses and trains, I think he appreciated that we’d put in orders for steak!

It really was a very good steak, I ate mine quickly enough that most of it was gone by the time I’d got a photo. I had to get a photo. For some reason they served it with melon and orange, really weird. The frites were disappointing, we’d been promised much but they were bog standard thin chips really. Beer was had. Steak and a glass of Hoegaarden is a nice combo.

We wanted to stay and make a night of it, but after the travelling and pitlane excitement were all so tired we had to retire to the homes for a chat in quieter surroundings – the site restaurant/pub got very loud and we wanted to be sociable especially with Guille, Emma and Kathi who we’d barely met. We all went back to one of the homes, talked, and tried to get the wifi to work so that we could comment at Sidepodcast, send tweets and perhaps put up some little blog posts. This didn’t really work, it was a real shame the wifi was unreliable in the girls’ home and was barely functional in the boys’ home. My plans for little blog updates over the weekend went out of the window there and then, and it was a struggle to get connected long enough for even the most basic message. Some people fared better than others, some could get on reasonably well all weekend whereas I had terrible trouble with it. Not to worry, blogs and social media could wait, we were being social in real life with fellow F1 and racing fans, and for us that was even more important.

All embedded photos and videos were taken by me (Patrick Wotton), I haven’t set up anything officially but you can consider them available for use under Creative Commons. Some of the linked media may be copyright, check details on the relevant pages.

Read on with the first part of Friday’s fun!

2010 Belgian GP – Thursday Pt.1

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.

We’re Off!

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!

Tunnel

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.

Road Trip!

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.

2010 Belgian GP – Tuesday & Wednesday

Sincere apologies for the lack of promised blog posts. While I was away the wifi connection was seriously patchy, and we were all so busy throughout that there wasn’t much blogging time to be found. I then returned to work and had to catch up with boring post-holiday household activities, packing things away, washing and suchlike (not to mention sleep from the extensive walking and driving). The glamour of the Grand Prix!

Happily this is now done and I can now catch up on blog posts. With the state of my memory I’m going to forget something crucial but let’s see how things go.

Tuesday 24th

I was running around like a headless chicken in the morning, panicking that I’d packed enough of everything for the week away and that I hadn’t over-packed. Even though I’d never been I knew that with Spa being Spa you needed to bring enough that if your clothes in the day got drenched you could change into something else for the evening, and ideally you needed that for three days – but we couldn’t pack too much because of the space restrictions in the cars. I was also worried I’d forget something crucial, like the sat-nav or the camera. After fretting for a while I finally got going an hour late, thankfully I had a good run up to London, traffic was quite light with it being midweek in a school holiday so I made much better time than I expected and enough that I stopped for a coffee along the way.

The reasons for staying in London were two-fold. The main reason was to attend the Sidepodcast meetup in London, but it also had the nice side-effect of breaking up the long journey to Belgium. I was staying directly opposite a tube station, a half-hour ride from central London, nice and handy. I got to the pub at about 6pm.

It was a great night and surely the most-attended Sidepodcast event to date, there must have been 15-16 people at its height, probably approaching double the previous maximum. People seemed to be coming and going throughout, and we milled around and caught up with friends met before or got busy making new ones. Great chat with great people, and plenty of drinking! If you get the chance to go to any of the ‘Sidepodpubbing’ meetups in London (and hopefully elsewhere in future) you should do so, most of them are smaller affairs than this as it was a special pre-Spa one but don’t be put off because you’ll find some genuine friendly people at all of them.

Since we’re all regular SPC commenters who are mostly tech-savvy we’re also tweeters, so you could say it was an SPC ‘tweetup’ – the problem with this was the lack of any mobile or wifi signal at all at the venue. It wasn’t as ‘connected’ an event as it could have been. On the upside this meant we spent more time talking and less time looking at screens so it was a really nice social gathering, and it was really good to just hang out. I’d feared a lot of ‘dead time’ while people checked their technology and this was largely absent. It was also really good to meet some people I’d never met before, either because we’d not bumped into each other at other meetups or because they lived entire continents away.

You can see a photo here.

When the bar closed the meetup was officially over, though five of us weren’t ready to finish yet so we went on to a hotel bar for another few hours of drink and chat. I got the taxi back to my hotel at 3am and found the doors locked, I had to use my room card to enter through the car park! That’s how it should be of course, stay out so late nobody waits up. A brilliant night.

Wednesday 25th

The inevitable hangover. The pub meetup was originally supposed to be Wednesday night but was moved for a variety of reasons, one of them was so that there were no hangovers on the drive to Belgium on Thursday. It was a wise decision. I woke up late, struggled out of bed and on to the tube to Heathrow to meet a welcoming party for Gavin (a.k.a. RubberGoat) who was flying in after sadly having to miss the pub night.

Not having any plans for the rest of the day I latched on to a couple of others while a few chores and last-minute preps were done. In the early evening we found a really nice relaxed place to chat over a couple of pints, it was great to get caught up with Gavin again as it had been 18 months since we last (and first!) met despite knowing each other online for years. After food in a posh fish and chip shop our group of four headed back to Bassano’s for a final check of the next day’s plans.

This wasn’t to be a super-late night – the next day we were off to Belgium!

You can read the next instalment here.

Karting Meetup

Following the visit to the Autosport show last weekend, a few of us moved on to the centre of Birmingham to meet with some more people from the online motorsport community at the Bloggers & Friends Karting Competition, organised by Alianora La Canta.

It was a good evening’s racing with good organisation from TeamWorks Karting despite their being understaffed on a cold January Saturday evening. There were a couple of instances of technical issues with the karts which were resolved in a professional manner, and they did try and get through the programme quickly as they previous group were a little late leaving, though I did think they were moving a little too quickly at times.

Unfortunately one of those issues happened to me during my best race of the day! I was 2nd at the time and confident of finishing in that position, having run 5th or 6th in the 6- or 7-strong heats all night. Then the power in my kart just died. All the worse – it was my final heat of the day. Still, a good time was had and the karts and circuit posed a bigger challenge than I had expected, so it was satisfying after each heat to realise you were getting faster in every race.

I was more surprised because the karts were electric and we were warned not to brake and accelerate at the same time. My expectations were therefore low, but those things accelerated well and certainly felt quick through the left-handed sweeper after the starting grid. It didn’t feel underpowered at any stage (well..apart from when mine died on me) and for novice/occasional karters such as myself, they are the right speed for the course.

The circuit is very bumpy in places, and it felt fast, partly because karts are so low they always feel quicker than they are, and possibly because the karts were squirming around a lot on the slippery surface. Despite the bumps and slipperiness it was actually a well-designed layout featuring every type of corner you can think of, from sweepers to hairpins to the tricky double-apex right-hander where you have to brake later than you think.

Needless to say, like any racing driver I’m convinced I could have done better with a few more laps and without the technical error, but those are just excuses – it was a great night out and in reality I wouldn’t have got that much higher up the rankings given the strength of opposition – our group of 8 or so had been joined by what seemed like regulars to the circuit, to make up numbers. Eventually I came 17th of 22 (was it 20 or 22?), but I think I beat Chris and Alia and wasn’t far behind some of the others, so I was pleased with that.

Scott deserves a special mention because a) he kicked the asses of everyone in our get-together, and b) managed to get himself among those people who had patently been here a few times before, and he made the Final of the top 8 karters of the day (including beating his Dad). Sadly there was a bit of a Trulli Train going on and he couldn’t get around the group of three holding them up (in fairness neither could the others also stuck) so he finished 8th overall – yet that was a fantastic achievement having never seen the circuit before, or this type of kart.

It was really great to meet everybody even if they decided just to spectate, and if I go to Autosport again next year I will definitely be joining in with the already-announced karting meetup. I may even come up anyway, we’ll see what the money situation is like nearer the time.

Note – There are plans afoot for a summer karting event. Contact Alia for details. Unfortunately I doubt I can’t make it as it looks like it will be held somewhere North of Birmingham and I am on the South coast.