"When you go to Spa, never pay for a grandstand ticket."
That was the advice of a fevered-up Scot in Liege on Saturday evening, given to us with a knowing nod.
The bad thing about this advice was he was telling us on the eve of the Grand Prix with our tickets in hand. The good thing is we didn’t pay for the tickets.
"Ah," he smiled. "Well you’ve not got to worry."
It all started when my other half moved to France for a year as part of her University of Kent programme (which, incidentally, is a sentence I never thought I’d write for a piece of motorsport journalism).
I met her in Paris for Valentine’s Day and, as all good men would, dragged her (she actually initiated it, surprisingly) into as many car showrooms on the Champs-Elysees as I could. The French, you see, are very, very good at car showrooms. L’Atelier Renault stood out. It had a Didier Pironi Renault Alpine V6 in it and a competition to win VIP tickets to the Belgian Grand Prix.
Once I’d knocked off the short quiz (containing some rather obscure F1 knowledge questions), I promptly forgot about it. Until I was told I won. Several months later, my father and I find ourselves standing inches from a rather stripped-down Red Bull in the team’s Spa-Francorchamps garages, hours from the race start.
You couldn’t make it up. But back to Spa.
Because of the nature of the visit, we did things a bit different. There was no chance to go and stand at Pouhon or roll the toy car I’d brought with me down Eau Rouge as planned. But we did go into the garages of the Renault-supplied Red Bull, Williams, Lotus and Caterham teams.
However, once that was over we had two hours pre-race to mingle with fans. There were Scots who were confident of Paul di Resta flourishing; a group of lads on a stag do who seemed to have left one chap back in Liege and an elderly gentleman who had abandoned his wife to come to the track as part of a tour and who, it transpired, lives just 40 minutes away from myself back in Blighty.
The GP3/GP2/Porsche Supercup support races were given plenty of vocal support, and the drivers’ parade was memorable for hearing so many scream the names of their favourites and then see the drivers naturally crane their neck as a reaction. Such fan support was remarkable to see and great to witness among the throng of the supporters.
Admittedly, La Source isn’t the first place you’d choose if you had free rein on where to watch the Belgian Grand Prix from. For me? Pouhon would be first up. Then Eau Rouge, closely followed by Les Combes and the Bus Stop.
But two of those (guess which) are purely for the spectacle of witnessing a V8 Formula One car roar through the corner. The other two are because they are the circuit’s best overtaking spots.
La Source was still an incredible vantage point, and witnessing the cars filter through the first corner was certainly a spectacle. It does lend itself to added respect for the drivers when, in the flesh, you see just how impressive it is that 22 F1 cars can navigate a tight hairpin millimetres apart.
There was certainly extra admiration for two drivers. Fernando Alonso naturally attracts respect, but Giedo van der Garde captured the imagination of the fans in the early laps as he fought off several faster cars in admiral fashion. Particularly as his teammate and the two Marussias had conspired to reach the back of the pack as swiftly as possible.
The only downside was that thereafter, the Grand Prix was somewhat mundane. There was enough to keep your interest though, without there being a great deal going on. Jenson Button’s out-of-sync pitstop strategy (we were confounded when he made a second stop for tyres), Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber getting incredibly close to one another and various squabbling between the Force Indias and Saubers.
But enough about the actual race. We have reports and analysis for that. This is about being trackside at one of the world’s finest racing circuits.
So it wasn’t the greatest Grand Prix. But that hardly mattered to the people in the stands. Even my old man, who I’ve seen nod off during exciting races when watching from the sofa, was attentive throughout (save rolling a few cigarettes in the closing laps).
Post-race, there was a remarkable parting of the fans. Thousands sprinted back up the track to La Source and then down the start-finish straight to the podium ceremony, while a similar number made a beeline straight for Eau Rouge to take in that most famous of corners.
We started to do the former, but opted for the latter. The first impression upon standing at the foot of Eau Rouge is: “Oh, bloody hell. That’s really steep…” Pictures do not do it justice, and regardless of how far F1 cars have come aerodynamically, it’s difficult to comprehend how they can take such a corner flat out, let alone say it’s easy afterwards!
One feature of Eau Rouge which was particularly fearsome is the kerb/tarmac right at the bottom. Years and years of cars bottoming out have left the track torn and stained.
Not 20 minutes after the cars had bounced over the bumps and crested the hill and you could feel the heat and the mixed smell of rubber and heated asphalt was still quite strong. Pardon me if that sounds over the top, but it’s one of those feelings where you were there but can’t quite believe it, and those sensory memories remind you that it wasn’t just a fever-filled dream.
I also timed the walk from La Source to the foot of Eau Rouge. Six minutes. A rather poor comparison of the acceleration of an F1 car, but there you go.
Walking down to Eau Rouge, stepping sideways past hyped-up, adrenaline-fuelled fans and then being ushered off to the side to make our way back to the coaches brought home the whole experience of standing on the site of the world’s greatest corner on one of the world’s best tracks. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
And then it was over, but only for 12 months. Because that’s the thing about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with die-hard fans at Spa-Francorchamps—it’s infectious. So once in a lifetime is cancelled out. I’ll be back next year in some capacity. I’d urge you to make sure you do the same if you can.