Monday, 3 June 2013

Continental Notes - May

A feature of my youth was growing up with Motor Sport magazine, and readers may recall the columns written by the irreplaceable and incomparable (and perhaps irascible) Denis Jenkinson under the same title. I do not for a moment pretend to be in Jenks' league as a journalist, nor as a writer, but wish to preserve his memory by using - I hope he'll forgive me - one of his headings for this post.

It was at Spa, at the beginning of May, that Nick Daman mentioned to me that he had noticed that I was at more races this year. And I explained to him the conscious decision I had taken at the beginning of the year to devote more time to racing, at the expense of my day job. Inevitably, it has been, to an extent, at the expense of my family life as well, but I have an understanding family (I think...) and May was a good month, featuring a trip to Spa-Francorchamps for the Six Hours WEC race, and to the Nürburgring for the 24 hours.

I first went to Spa in 1986, for the 1000kms sports-prototype championship race, and had a most memorable time, including being driven round the old circuit by Howden Ganley. In those days, even though the new circuit was in use, parts were still public road, including the run up to La Source and then back down to Eau Rouge, although Raidillon itself was coned off, you could then drive up the Kemmel straight towards Malmedy.

My last visit had been in 2001, and although in the interim I had visited various events, including some GPs, I must admit I had forgotten some of the charms of the place. I was able, during the Saturday morning warm-up session to wander off and watch the cars.

And I have to say that Spa is (in my opinion) one of those very special places to watch racing cars. It's not just the proximity - at some points you can get very close - and it is more than just the legendary status of places like Eau Rouge. It is to do with the age, the venerability of the place. If race circuits were in the Queen's honours list, Spa would have a knighthood.

You almost want to talk to the trees and ask them what they think of the current breed of WEC car, compared to the D-Types, Aston Martins, Ferrari Testarossas and Porsche 956s.

Time moves on of course, and now there is a nice new media centre in the paddock, but the old start finish line is still overlooked by the main grandstand. And the old commentary box, at the top of the hospitality suites in the centre of the picture below, brought back memories of times that aren't really that long ago.

The old 'bus stop' has gone too, but from the top of the pits is a marvellous viewing area (and a bar!), not just of the start finish, but of the run down towards Pouhon in the distance. Simply magnificent.

Audi UK had provided me with an A5 in which to make the trip, and as the race was held on Saturday, finishing at 8:30 in the evening, it was possible to drive home on Sunday morning on some delightfully empty Belgian autoroutes.

To make the weekend practically perfect, the weather was fine throughout, most unlike some very dreary weather that I've experienced in the past in the Ardennes.

A mere fortnight later, and it was off again, this time to the Nürburgring, for the 24-hours, with transport this time from Toyota GB, and a rather spiffing Lexus RX450h. It wasn't the first hybrid that I had driven, but it was certainly the best, the car easily returning 35mpg, despite being driven with some gusto at various points by John Hindhaugh and Jim Roller, who both drove it on occasions.

It's not really fair to compare Spa-Francorchamps with the Nürburgring, for although they are only 50 miles apart, they are quite different animals. The Nürburgring is itself something of a 'Jekyll and Hyde', with the rather bland Grand Prix circuit attempting, but failing, on 24-hour weekend, to cast a shadow over the mighty Nordschleife.

Although Spa was modernised before the Nürburgring (in 1979, rather than 1984), somehow the Germans managed to get everything wrong that the Belgians got right. The beauty of the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring is that you get to see both sides of the place: and in some ways the German character is similarly dichotomous. Never did we see an Autobahn as empty as in Belgium, and yet we were allowed to drive as fast as the poor little Lexus would go, once the de-restricted signs were shown.

Drivers in Germany are a lot more aware and disciplined than in Belgium, for good reason.

At the end of the long weekend though, driving home provided the opportunity to reflect on two rather different races and two rather different tracks. And yet, both stir the soul of motor racing aficionados.

When I was deciding on my 'Classic Tracks' recently, I didn't include either Spa or the Nürburgring - you'll have to wait for the final part of my trilogy to see what I added to Indianopolis and Monza - but having visited both in the last month, they are undoubtedly worthy of inclusion, and certainly both are well worth a visit. Even if you've been before, Spa Francorchamps and the Nürburgring are tracks that get under your skin and suck you back for repeat visits.

1 comment:

  1. Hear heasr.. I did the same two races as you did. People were angry that the Ring had been derstroyed by the GP loop when it first opened but now they say it is quite good. No it isn't!!!