And now the rain!
The wind, revelling in the confusion of great pines!
~Leonora Speyer – Squall~
The hands of my watch moved slowly but steadily. It was not quite three in the afternoon, and ominous grey clouds billowed loftily above the dense stand of coniferous forest. The dull sky mingled and merged with the increasingly dull treetops. Initially, the droplets were cool and invigorating. Within minutes it felt like I was sitting under a waterfall as torrents of water cascaded over and around and under me. But the rain had come 48 hours too soon. Mid-race on Sunday afternoon Fernando Alonso would inquire hopefully if any rain was expected. The answer he got was, “No, no chance of rain”.
Instead, the rain made its sole appearance during the second practice session on Friday. Being well acquainted with the vagaries of weather in the Ardennes I came well prepared, bringing raincoat, poncho, and waterproof boots. I had snaffled up those boots at a sale one week prior to our departure overseas. They were an impulse buy – half-price Merrill hiking boots – irresistible! They were big and bulky, but I knew that if I left them at home, I would likely be faced with three days of persistent rain at Spa. So I packed them. If I ran out of room for holiday purchases at least I would have a good excuse to buy another bag! The boots had already been worn in – a rainy day sloshing in the mud while watching World Rally cars slide sideways on thin ribbons of slippery tarmac while traversing verdant green vineyards in Germany. They now had an opportunity for a second excursion in the rain.
I put on my raincoat, followed by my rain poncho, educated by the obviously race savvy elderly couple in front of me, who positioned their ponchos over the back of their seats to prevent the disagreeable plight of sitting in the puddle which resulted when water ran down the back of your jacket. I perched my handbag on top of my boots and under my poncho, exhilarated as the wind lashed and buffeted and the rain burst from the sky and encompassed me.
As our stand rapidly emptied, the majority woefully unprepared for inclement weather, my husband surveyed our surroundings: a covered stand to our left, another to our right, with a third directly across the track from us. Maybe he had good reason to question my sanity as to why I had booked the only stand in the near vicinity that would leave us naked and exposed to all that the weather gods could throw at us. My excuse – this one had the best view! If I was going to travel half-way around the world to attend a race, the least I could have was the best view available. Closer to the track than the other three stands, the cars could be seen emerging from the La Source hairpin far to our right. They proceeded to make their way downhill towards Eau Rouge, smacking the left-hand curb before accelerating past us, heading upwards and onwards through Raidillon before disappearing over the crest with only the sound of their engines enabling us to follow their progress around the track. I wanted to see for myself prodigious speed of the cars, hear the sound of tyres angrily thumping the curbs, and be awed by the magnificent panorama of thin ribbons of black track dwarfed by the grandeur of forest and sky. It did lack a good view of the screen – but a view of the cars had precedence over what you could watch by remaining at home and watching the race on TV.
Before the first spots of rain making their appearance, the drivers had all emerged, one by one, for their qualifying simulation. We knew then that rain was a certainty. The Haas cars were a little slower than the rest to return to the pits when the rain started, but it was shortly obvious to all that this was not going to be a mere sprinkle. Only Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso emerged on intermediate tyres to “play in the puddles”. However, there was too much standing water to have much fun, and they quickly returned to the pits, an early finish to Friday practice. Within half an hour the storm had passed, and we lingered to watch the spectacle of the F2 cars qualifying on a still sodden track.
When we arrived early on Sunday morning mist still wafted between the trees. The air was refreshingly cool, the seats sopping wet, and only the diehard fans were in the stands soaking up the atmosphere with over an hour to wait before the first car was due to make its appearance. I strolled about the near-empty grandstand, savouring the aura of Eau Rouge. I didn’t choose the position expecting to see much action. The cars of today are more than able to go flat out through the elevation changes and rapid turns from left to right and back again. But I did expect to see the cars go faster than I had ever seen them go before.
Race day started with GP3. Giuliano Alesi, the seventeen-year-old son of Jean Alesi, was second on the grid having had finished seventh in the longer race the day before. He took the lead from the start and was never bettered. Watching those smaller and simpler versions of Formula 1 cars attempt to navigate Eau Rough three wide was captivating. They all managed to get through unscathed, but an engine did blow up directly in front of us with its pilot forced to park next to our grandstand. I looked on jealously as numerous small boys rushed over to gaze with unabashed admiration at the car and its unlucky driver, but decided that it has been a long time since I could get away with behaving like someone only a fraction of my age.
In the F2 race, we saw McLaren development driver Nobuharu Matsushita overcook it going through Raidillon and crash into the barrier on the right-hand side in a copycat accident to Keven Magnusson’s last year. There was also the entertainment of watching future Ferrari hopeful Charles Leclerc slowly make his way through the field from the back of the grid following his disqualification for technical irregularities on his car the previous day. Ultimately he had to be satisfied with 5th place. The next action was during the Porsche Supercup where some argy-bargy heading up Raidillon resulted in a spinning Porsche that somehow managed to keep off the barriers on either side.
The Formula 1 race started as expected with the two drivers on the front line slotting into first and second places respectively. There was little chance under normal conditions that Sebastian Vettel would be able to pass Lewis Hamilton with straight-line speed. What was needed was something to shake up the race a bit…but that something wasn’t going to be rain. The only early excitement was Kimi Raikkonen not paying enough attention to the double waved yellow flags for yet another mechanical failure for the luckless Max Verstappen, so we got to see Kimi pass several cars after serving his ten second stop/go penalty.
Instead of the hoped-for rainstorm, it was a storm in a teacup that suddenly enlivened the race. I had been watching and waiting, not sure where the race was going to go from here. Everyone had done one pit stop, but I was unsure who would need to do a second. I suspected Daniel Ricciardo would have to stop again, but it was possible that Lewis or Seb could make it to the end. It can be very difficult to work out strategy options on the fly while at a race. The little of commentary that we could hear was alternating between English, French, and Dutch. The rest was drowned out by the cars hurtling by. The screen was largely unintelligible due to distance and the wire fence crosshatching.
The Force India drivers didn’t need rain. They created their own storm. Both wanted to be first…but only one driver could be. The one that was in front thought he deserved to be there. The one behind didn’t agree. As they rounded La Source, I was unaware that they had already made contact while fighting for the ascendancy. Side by side they headed downhill towards Eau Rouge, tyres squealing. Perez ran wide off the track in front of us, but it was already done and dusted as he was mortally wounded from his unwillingness to give his teammate room. Out came the safety car and the possibility for pandemonium always possible on a restart.
As the safety car came in Hamilton maintained his lead while rounding the hairpin but Vettel was right behind him. As they flashed past they were both on the limit. The gap was small, smaller than we’d seen the whole race. There was a chance for Sebastian to get past. As they headed up over Raidillon, I squinted at the blurry images on the screen. Seb was in Lewis’s slipstream. He moved to the left and was almost even, but then they both braked for the corner and Hamilton was still ahead. Behind them, Daniel and Kimi passed Bottas, one going left and the other right. And that was the position in which they all finished the race, Sebastian just over two seconds behind Lewis. It could have been much worse on a track that I had assumed would greatly favour the Mercedes.
As for Eau Rouge…probably Michael Schumacher’s statement sums up best what it’s like to drive and why it’s such an iconic stretch of tarmac. “Spa is a circuit steeped in tradition and to drive around it from sections like Eau Rouge, Blanchimont, and so on releases some special feelings; feelings of enormous satisfaction and confirmation of your ability to control the racing car at the limit and in doing so to be extremely challenged. Because in the cars back then, not quite so much now, to drive through Eau Rouge in them was simply sensational. The cars were so squashed together and then in the next moment they practically took off as you drove over the crest and doing that at the limit it was like it probably is doing a top level juggling act on a high wire so it was really an enormous sensation and at the same time when you have the feeling you are going to manage it that’s the greatest confirmation, the greatest feeling a racing driver can have.”