Atlas F1 My First Grand Prix

  by Marcel Schot, The Netherlands

Funny as it may sound, I've experienced my first ever trip to a Grand Prix at Spa this year. The race itself was dead boring of course, but the excitement of actually hearing those 22 engines roar just a few feet away more than makes up for the lack of racing (or as it was mentioned by someone - "why did they do 45 parade laps?")

To give you a little insight into what it's all about, I've made a little diary of the weekend.


I Left home at 11:15, on my way to Brussels, where my hotel was. Around 13:15 I reached the city. After a careful study at home, I had decided to follow the signs pointing me to the central station, since the hotel was right across the street from it. Obviously stations aren't important in Belgium, since I never ever saw one single sign pointing there. After driving around the city in what I continuously believed was the right direction, and asking for directions about five times in three different languages, I finally reached the hotel around 15:30.

Now that was one luxurious place! There were all of those people asking "How do you do, sir?" "Shall I carry your suitcase, sir?" "Do you want me to park your car for you, sir?"... Not the stuff a simple guy like me is used to. After picking up the race tickets and meeting Barry Simpson of Grand Prix Tours, I walked around the beautiful city for a while, somehow ending up at the local McDonalds for some fast-food (well I said I'm a simple guy!).


Friday was the only day I had a wake-up call at a reasonable time all weekend: 6:30. We made our way to the track by bus. Checked out my seat and what a joy it was! Directly opposite the Stewart and Prost pitboxes, exactly were the cars started braking into La Source. After the practice sessions, which were obviously dominated by Jacques Villeneuve's snapping suspension crash, we made our way back to the hotel for the race preview party, hosted by Bob Constanduros. I had never heard of him, but he seems to be the one doing the PA commentary at English speaking Grands Prix. He's a very knowledgeable man, who had a good story and all the latest news, since he drove in directly from the press conference. After his preview he took a lot of time for Q&A, which was great too. After the party, I went into one of the bars in the hotel and talked with a couple of my fellow travellers about F1, while enjoying some Belgian beers.


Help! Wake up call at 4:30. After just 2 hours of sleep that is. Honest, I wanted to sleep more, but it just wasn't meant to be! After chatting in one bar, I decided to go to sleep at about 23:30, but on my way to my room I passed one of the other bars, where other people from the GP Tours were having a drink. I decided to join them for a drink, we got chatting, I decided to go to bed after all, another couple walked in, we got chatting, I finally went up to my room around 01:00. As a force of habit I turned on the TV to check CNN for the latest news, did a final round past all channels.... and ran into a Jerry Seinfeld One Man Show on the BBC. At 02:30 I finally went to sleep.

Again our trusty bus took us to the track to see the day's events. First up was Formula One practice, which showed improved times but nothing too sensational. Took a walk up to the bus-stop in between the sessions and it's really bigger than it seems. Bob Constanduros is actually partly responsible for the name of the bus-stop - he asked a driver in an interview, back in the early 80's when the track was just reopened, what he thought of that chicane and the guy replied, "it seems like a bus-stop to me," and the name was there - since the chicane actually didn't even have a name until then.

At 13:00 it was time for qualifying, which saw Marc Gene putting in a terrific display of what the bicyclists call 'sur place': standing in front of the pit exit without moving, while time was already running. It appeared the green light that shows the start of the session just wasn't working, and Gene was waiting for it to on green. It was quite an exciting qualifying, except for the fact that it soon appeared the McLarens were way in front of anyone else. Then it was BAR time. This time not with beers, but more exciting as you all have seen. First Villeneuve went off big time in Eau Rouge. This caused the session to be stopped for some time, during which about 90% of all people in the pitlane were in, up or around the BAR box.

Just a few minutes after the session continued, Ricardo Zonta tried to do a replay of his teammate's crash, ending up in what looked like a very interesting aerodynamic concept. This was just when Villeneuve was getting ready to go out again in the spare car. After Zonta's crash the session was once again red flagged, delaying the end of the session by half an hour or so. When Villeneuve finally went out again, he showed Eau Rouge much respect, losing three full seconds on the lap.

After qualifying, the F3000 race started. It soon turned out to be one big mess. The cars were going all over, crash after crash happening in the first few laps, one of them up close when Gonzalo Rodriguez spun after almost hitting Montagny who had crashed when exiting the bus-stop. When Alex Yoong and Justin Wilson went into Radillion side by side with only room for one car, it got really scary. Yoong was launched over Wilson's wheels and banged into the tyres at Eau Rouge sideways without losing any speed at all. I think everybody on the track feared Eau Rouge had taken another life and it was only back at the hotel that we heard he had survived the impact and was left with both legs broken.


Wake up at 4:30 again, which is slowly becoming a habit. The usual trip to the track, where the action started with the warm up. All of the audience wanted to see just one thing: would BAR have two cars or one? Much to the surprise of a lot of people they actually had two. After the warm up the Porsche Pirelli Supercup got underway. Now that's very exciting racing. It's all the same cars, with the same engines and the same tyres, so close competition is guaranteed. In a great display our Dutch pride Patrick Huisman won the race and I believe his brother Duncan even came in third to make the Dutch success complete.

This was followed by the drivers' parade, where all F1 drivers are showed around the track on the back of a truck as if they were cattle for sale. Of course, this is a great photo opportunity for the public. Then the race started. It was a breathtaking sound, especially from the horns on the stands, which were louder than the cars. After the race finished we went back home really fast, only taking 5 hours for the usual 1.5 hour trip. Back at the hotel, we saw the TV footage of the race on video. This showed the main difference between Bernie Ecclestone's digital TV and the normal feed everybody gets to see. If you ever believed there were just two cars with an onboard camera, think again. Every car seemed to have at least three cameras. Actually I think the digital TV station shows too much on board footage, such as having to look at Jean Alesi for one and a half lap from behind his steering wheel. At times it gets hard to follow what's going on when all you see is a driver's helmet.

Overall, I enjoyed myself very well. I met a lot of great people from America, Canada and South Africa and I had a wonderful Grand Prix experience. If you ever pondered on whether to go to a Grand Prix or not - the answer is a definite Yes. It's a weekend to remember.

Marcel Schot© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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