Spa. Simply Perfect Atmosphere.

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Porsche 919 Hybrid passing by the LMP2 of G-Drive racing during the Free Practice on Thursday 05.05.2016

You close your eyes and listen: the birds singing, the wind rustling through the lacy tops of the old pines, the tiny river with an infamous name flowing along the stones overgrown with moss… this peace and quiet makes you forget about time. But once the lights go green and the sound of the engines enweaves neatly into the calm timelessness of the Ardenne countryside every thousandth of a second counts. It was my third time at the WEC 6h of Spa-Francorchamps, and it was magic.

Francorchamps

I’ve stayed in Francorchamps all three times, and it always amazes me how tiny everything is here. The old stone houses with low ceilings, wooden windows, squeaking steps and small door frames remind you somewhat of Tolkien’s Hobbitton. In one of the interviews from his F1 times Mark Webber said, that every time he came to Spa he was staying at the same place, owned by a lovely old lady… somehow I wonder if he has to mind his head through the doors at that place.

It feels amazing to wake up to the sun shining through the windows, to take a short walk up Rue de Spa to a nice little shop called Aux Mille Délices to get something for breakfast: amazing croissants, baguette and a couple of fresh eggs – they sell them from the basket, straw still sticking out here and there. You stand in line with the marshals in their fireproof overalls, and share with one or the other a knowing smile. You get your food and practice Bon Journéés and Merci Beacoups. Eat breakfast on the sun soaked terrace out of those baby blue IKEA plates and then head to the track. It’s just a ten-minute walk: turn left following the infamous road sign then just follow the street. You can also get a nice coffee to go at another bakery, and by race day the lovely lady will know that you don’t take milk or sugar.

The entrance leads to the grandstand at the exit of La Source and the first thing you see is Eau Rouge followed by Radillon running up into the crisp blue sky. It was the first time for me that there was no drop of rain throughout the whole weekend. Somehow you never trust the weather forecasts with Spa, and despite the promise of sunny and warm weather, you take the raincoat anyway. This weekend it was over 20 degrees from Thursday to Saturday, and my rain jacket turned into a sun jacket.

Practice. Perfect.

The atmosphere at the track on a Thursday is very different from the atmosphere on a qualifying or a race day: there are fewer people, yes, but also the team personnel is very relaxed.  I usually spend most of the free practice Thursdays in the paddock, because the amazing WEC gives you this incredible access, something which would be unimaginable at a Formula 1 race. You get to see the paddock itself, with the old pit buildings and rusty stairs, you can watch AF Corse mechanics washing the tyres after the practice runs or go up the pit building to the terrace at the Pit Brasserie to have a coffee with an amazing apple pie, while overlooking the best panorama ever: from Eau Rouge and Radillon to the Bus Stop Chicane.

This is an indescribable feeling when you stand close to the fence on the inside of La Source and hear the cars accelerate out of the corner – the engine sound washing over you, that vibration going through every cell of your body. With the different categories it’s a symphony of sounds so different and somehow entwined into pure perfection. In comparison to the rough and vibrant turbos of the GTs or harsh and sharp V8s of the Rebellions the hybrid LMP1 engines sound like watercolour images – gentle and subtle but precise. Being able to hear the tyres adds another dimension to the sensory overload you feel when these cars rush past you.

It is somehow almost beyond the comprehension that the cars that are capable to travelling at such speeds are designed, produced and put together by people. The level of professionalism in motorsport is incredibly inspiring. Professionalism fuelled by passion, dedication, willpower and bravery. Somehow it always takes me a conscious thought to realise that these beasts are driven by the very same people who just walk past you.

There are so many incredibly inspiring personalities in motorsport, people whose names immediately pop into your mind when you hear ‘courageous’, when you hear ‘committed’, when you hear ‘never giving up’, when you hear ‘strong’. WEC gives this privilege to meet these incredibly inspiring people, to say congratulations in person, to wish them luck and to thank them for all the great emotions they bring into your life.

In terms of meeting people, this weekend gave me everything I ever dreamed of and so much more. I have met everyone from the Porsche Team I wanted. The bosses: Fritz Enzinger – who said they were still buzzing from the Championship win last year – and Andreas Seidl; ever lovely Neel Jani who smiled and said we were “sunbathing” when he passed us for 10th time in the paddock; Marc Lieb – serious and concentrated standing between the trucks at the back of the garage with the sheet of telemetry in his hands and his eyes closed behind his glasses, Romain Dumas – smiling and very quiet.

The no. 1 car drivers, the World Champions… so surprisingly approachable and mindful. Mr. Bernhard with that big grin on his face that makes his eyes all shiny, his arm wrapped around my shoulder for the picture, doing that funny pointing thing. Mr. Webber, who had that lovely smile on his lips when I said that no. 1 on the car and a World Champion title suited him greatly, he signed the photo I had and then, when handing it back said that he liked my outfit and how the shoes had the same colour as the jacket. Bloody hell, Mark Webber, who was surrounded by quite a lot of us noticed what colour my shoes were. This was surreal, to be honest. Brendon (somehow I always get incredibly exited and never manage to call him Mr. Hartley in person, which is awfully impolite on my part) smiles his warm smile and thanks for the congratulations and for every “good luck”. He is incredible. All three of them are.

The Point.

Walking through the paddock relatively early in the morning, when the majority of the fans have not arrived yet is quite a nice feeling: you smile at the sleepy mechanics clenching on their paper cups with black coffee, Mari holding the one for Graham Lowdon while he signs autographs.

I managed to get a picture with Mark on Friday morning before the free practice 3. It was very kind of him to take his time, to make sure he was looking into the right camera. Afterwards I did a nice ‘little’ female version of the Webber – jump. It really made my day, my weekend and I guess quite a chunky time period of my life all together. (Plus, when he places his hand on your waist, you are quite happy that you have spent the last two month getting one.)

The qualifying day is really my favourite part of the weekend: you have some real competition going on, the points are awarded, but at the same time you still have the whole day of magic the next day. The qualifying of the 6h of Spa was awesome result wise. Saying congratulations to Brendon in person was an honour, as it was wishing him and Mark – who walked by carrying a plush kangaroo – a great race. We were sitting at the usual spot next to the stairs, and didn’t even stand up. When Mark finished signing something he looked up, gave us a wave, smiled and said another thank you.

Turns and curbs.

The morning of a race day always has that bittersweet feeling to it: it’s the anticipation, the excitement, the tight knot of nerves and the realisation that once the sun sets behind the hills it all will be over. The paddock gets a lot busier – they say there were 56.000 people there for the race – a lot more people re waiting for the drivers, but mostly the superstar ones. It’s funny how Marc Lieb manages to sneak past the crowd almost without effort, how Neel Jani has that moment to smile to us, recognition in his eyes. Mark, on the other hand, really has a lot of signing and photos to do, and he takes his time, even though the crowd on the race day really gets quite big.

Initially, I didn’t plan to go to the autograph session during the pit walk on Saturday: three signing sessions disorganised by Porsche at three races I attended before suggested that it might not be the best idea ever. But since Ramona and Deb were going I decided to join them. It was predictably disorganised; I guess this time even worse than usual. Porsche have really outdone themselves this time around. I wonder if it’s on purpose though, some sort of artificial shortage impression.

I had the pictures I would have loved to get signed for myself, but there was a guy in the crowd, who seemed to have a slightly suboptimal position, so I offered to try to get the autographs for him as well. I have apologised to Mark for having three things for him to sign, he just smiled said it was no trouble. Brendon also commented on my shirt which was a very nice surprise (I ordered one with a custom made design). On top of that I got my picture taken by the Porsche photographer, they tweeted it, too, which was very nice.

After the signing session, I decided to give it a go with that platform in the fan area they lift above the circuit. Surprisingly there was no real queue and that was quite nice, to look down at Eau Rouge and La Source from the height: you don’t see the elevation change, but with all the people on the ground looking so tiny, it’s quite a cool experience. Nothing for people with acrophobia though.

I watch the start from the main grandstand every time, and since it’s first come first served, getting to the grandstand early was a good idea. I am usually a mess at the start of any race, WEC is marginally better because of the rolling start, but just marginally. The nerves build up pretty quickly and awe is mixed with apprehension. The WEC starting procedure is a beautiful sight: the way the cars are lined up on the grid, the way the drivers and the crews stand in line next to their cars for the national anthem, and that “gentlemen start your engines”, before the peace and quiet of the Ardennes is filled with the symphony of engines.

Watching the grid walk from the grandstands is pretty awesome: you notice a lot of tiny things, which you never see on TV, or even if you do, it’s out of context. I have always found the whole bunch of random people on the starting grid a bit too much, though: the VIPs, the sponsors, the celebrities. I have to admit it’s quite interesting to watch though: who talks to whom and who shakes hands with whom.

Brendon was the one starting for the no. 1, as he had been last year. I love the way he seemingly unconsciously brushes his sunny hair up with his right hand, it’s always the same gesture. Mark and Timo navigated their way around the crowd that was getting bigger and bigger. Matthias Müller, the current VW CEO and former Porsche CEO, was there, too, giving Mark and then Timo a hug and parading his drivers for the guests, taking a couple of pictures. Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich made sure to hug his former driver Timo, then by the looks of it asked him where Mark was -who was chatting to the FIA officials – and purposely went over to shake his hand.

Once the VIPs were cleared away from the grid (which is quite funny to watch from the grandstands, as if the grid is being stripped) Mark was so busy watching a helicopter, that he almost got run over by an Aston Martin mechanic with a pile of tyres. He is also usually the last one to take his place in the line for the anthem, always fashionably late. He made sure to drop by by Brendon who had already been strapped to the car before leaving the grid.

At the start of the race my heart is always pounding like crazy, but when you see it with your own eyes, and you had a quick chat with one or the other man now strapped into the cars, it takes the terror to entirely new level.

Brendon starting was an extra element, not because I don’t believe in him, but after Silverstone he needed to do a good job, and to keep the lead at the start was an integral part of that job. And what a cracking job he did! With the Audis and Toyota busy fighting he managed to extend the lead to 10 seconds. It all was looking very good for the no.1. After the race on his instagram Brendon wrote it was an important stint for him personally after what happened in Silverstone, and he did a stellar job. With Toyota double stinting the tyres it was totally confusing from the grandstands, but Timo kept catching up. What happened next we all know…

It is devastating really, not only because of hard facts – lost points and lost track time, but also because the three of them made me very happy over the weekend, and on a personal level it’s very sad that they didn’t get the result they hoped for. This is life, this is racing: sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. The team worked so hard to change the gear box, to get the car back on track and to complete the 70% of the distance. Every lap at Spa was testing for the big one. The car itself was quick, and these are the positives to take away.

Seeing the sister car hit by the hybrid issues – again – drop ever further down was rather painful, and it is actually an incredible job by the team and by the brilliant drivers, to bring the wounded no. 2 home at all, let alone in 2nd. I am a no.1 car fan, but to be honest, the way the WDC was won last year, no. 2 deserves a WDC of their own. Now despite all the problems and bad luck them and Porsche Team encountered leading both championship is a great achievement.

But in racing there are things that are so much more important that any trophies, points or championships. The most important thing is that Stefan Mücke is fine after that horrible shunt in Radillon. Not knowing, just seeing the medical car rushing up the hill, getting the snippets of the French commentary at the circuit, updating twitter. Thank God, Ford were pretty quick to tweet. This reminds you – luck is relative.

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We watched the Podium from the top of the pit building, and watching the podium from the top is quite an interesting angle: you see the officials hanging the flags and sorting out the German national anthem in their playlist, all the trophies backstage, of which there are quite a few. You also see the crowd under the podium – it’s not a big one, mainly the teams and a couple of fans – which is a bit like watching the grid.

What surprised me was the fact that Mark was there with Andreas Seidl and Fritz Enzinger and the rest of the team to cheer for the no. 2 under the podium. I don’t know whether the cameras caught him there, and he left quite quickly after the anthem, but he was there, looking up at the podium, looking quite pleased for the sister car crew, and this speaks volumes about the spirit in WEC.

As does the fact that Toyota have brought the car out for the last lap. I love this about endurance racing: never give up, no matter what, and it’s not just about points and prize money, it’s about the spirit.

 

After the race we sat a bit in the paddock, but after Deb left, I made my way to pack the flags I had hung on Friday. The no.1 car was parked in La Source, and I couldn’t help but give her a tiny stroke with the fingertips. Bruised and battered, she has still made it to the end.

Leaving Spa is always sad, but I guess some traditions are worth keeping, and this time around, I wasn’t saying “good bye” I was saying “see you next year”.

The next stop is Le Mans. See, I am working on my bucket list.

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