Schönes Zuhause

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“Schönes Zuhause” (“nice home”) in a crisp Swiss accent greeted us on Friday. Another memory into the incredible collection of things that we will never forget. Another insider joke. Another piece of the puzzle that makes Spa-Francorchamps feel like a home in the racing Wonderland.

They say home is where Wi-Fi connects automatically. When we arrived at our place for the weekend, my phone did just that.

Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is her usual incredible self: with unpredictable temper and irresistible curves. The red, yellow, anthracite, and deep green – the palette of the most amazing painter.

Home is where the heart is. And seeing Timo and Brendon arrive in the paddock early on Thursday was just perfect way to start the morning. Earl, who photo bombed our picture, got his very own kiwi. And we got our very own collection of smiles. The smiles of these three makes your heart melt.

At home you know your way around the place: the stairs between the hospitalities and the garages, lovely café on top of the pit building with the best view for your coffee on late Thursday morning. The symphony played by the WEC orchestra of Gibsons and Porsches and Ferraris and Aston Martins flows along the corners: fortissimo in the Chicane and mezzo-piano in Raidillon far away.

Knowing where to be and when comes in very handy: my happy book of autographs is being filled nicely with every trip to Spa. I have finally managed to ask André to sign it, since all the Porsche Drivers are there, now he is there too. And he is slowly making his way into my heart, alongside with Earl and Nick.

Wonderland would not be a Wonderland without a bit of crazy. Our crazy involved collecting all the no. 1 drivers into one picture. First, we (as in, Neel, André, Ramona and me) waited for Nick – “Engländer brauchen immer länger” (“Englishmen always take longer”) was Neel’s comment. We almost gave up, but then decided it was still worth a go and sprinted down the stairs… just to make Neel and Nick wait for André. Nick was not too amused, but Neel was very persuasive. It was so incredibly kind of him to make it happen.

The next morning after a lovely breakfast which included Le Mans style scrambled eggs (the recipe courtesy of Liza), we headed to greet the drivers, making one or another selfie and filling my happy book. It’s always amazing to say another “good morning” to our drivers and team members and get one or another cheeky comment in Swiss German or in Kiwi English. Brendon apparently is a jealous type: “The other car…” and an adorable frown were his comments about this year’s flag, well at least the first line of text on it. What caught our attention was that no other than Porsche arrive and leave together – only no. 2 and no.1.

When Brendon’s awesome friend – a very proud Kiwi, who goes through the trouble of throwing his blue jacket on the ground – photo bombs your picture, it is a bit surreal. Watching Timo take a picture with a fan, who simply lifted him off the ground was inexcusably funny, too.

The qualifying was bitter sweet: pole and fifth, happiness and disappointment – red flag didn’t help, stacking cars didn’t help no. 2. Congratulating André and Neel – incredible, quick, amazing Neel – with the pole position in person felt good, exchanging sad smiles with Timo and Brendon was… well sad. And you could tell by Timo’s body language when he was getting out of the car, that he was quite far from happy. The saddest part is that there is nothing you can do for these amazing people – no flags, or stupid gifts, and no amount support will help, when it’s just doesn’t go their way.

The pit walk on late Friday evening was quite awesome: not too many people, so we could watch the Porsche team work for the whole time, taking the cars apart and putting them back together. Every time it’s impressive how much of the car is actually hollow bodywork, the powertrain and the cockpit are just tiny.

In the late afternoon, Naty wrote us that Mark was coming on Saturday, which the amazing Porsche Team member, whose name I would die to know, and Rich confirmed. I would lie if I said I didn’t hope he’d come, but I surely didn’t expect it. So now we had to adjust our perfect plan for the following day: missing Mark would be something we just couldn’t do. Meeting Mark was another challenge, and this one involved shaky hands, early morning, and the thrill of uncertainty. We know how to meet current drivers, we have no clue how to meet retired one.

Every night we stayed quite late at the track, with only 15-minute walk to our place from the track it was easy, so we didn’t leave before eight on any of the days. On Friday evening the lovely man, the one I would love to know the name of, laughed at us a bit and made sure, we knew Mark was only coming tomorrow. We left about eight, almost at the same time as the Porsche mechanics, and when we were walking towards the exit, they offered us a lift to our hotel, which we declined but highly appreciated the gesture.

Considering the fact that we were hoping to meet Mark, the Sunday morning was filled with a lot of decision making under uncertainty. We headed to the signing session, because we always do, and if Hans-Joachim Stuck advices you to get the flag signed, you go and get your flag signed. It was surprisingly calm, and we managed to get things signed quite quickly, and of course made sure that the lovely Kiwi photo bomber was allowed to spend time with Brendon’s girlfriend.

Oh and we did see Mark. Seeing him this weekend was the bonus, I didn’t dare to hope for. The thing is… Mark moves from A to B by running, he is not easy to miss, and the biggest tell is the body language: all lanky and confident and measured and very-very quick. We saw him run to the hospitality, but missed him by – using the phrase of the man himself – a bee’s dick. We did get a wave and the recognition in his eyes though, and a gesture meaning – later.

We stayed in front of the hospitality, waiting for Mark. Hans-Joachim Stuck – who has almost adopted us, greeting us every single time, staying for chat – has at some point stood up, and came to us asking whether he should get us Mark’s signature. We thanked him, but Ramona (and not only she) wanted a picture, so we kept waiting.

Mark is a man of his word – or in this case his gestures – he did come: all equipped with the sunglasses and his awesome looks. “So… let’s go,” he said and started signing stuff and taking pictures. Rebecca with her professional camera and skills was just incredible, since it was quite busy. We chatted a tiny bit, of course told him we missed him…
Moments like this, are something you never expect, something you cherish, but never remember in full. You are so much in the moment that you can’t be bothered to file all the details into the memory. Apparently Mark came out of the hospitality just for the fans – and it’s so not him. So you appreciate it even more.

With this unexpected brick of happiness which has fallen on our heads and the feeling of an accomplished mission, we went on with our plan: watch the grid walk and the start from the main grand stand – where my old Canon turned out to be very handy – and then walk around the track: through the paddock, stopping by on the inside of La Source to feel the sound vibrate through your body, uphill from Eau Rouge to Raidillon, along the Kemmel straight to Les Combes, spending a while watching the cars up close from the hill over Bruxelles and then back to watch over Pouhon. Bruxelles and Pouhon are probably my favourite spots around the track. It feels amazing to do it for the fourth time, and every time it is breath taking.

Watching the race live has its cost, namely, actually following the race. In this respect, WEC is quite friendly with the first three in each class distinguished lights. With the live timing and twitter it is manageable. Considering the fact that at home I watch the races with a note book keeping an eye on the strategy and lap times, I felt insufficiently informed.

The no. 2 had the pace, once it got colder, Brendon was just incredible, but the slow puncture in the first hours has cost. No. 1 had such a back luck with the FCY. It was expected that Toyotas will be quicker, but somehow you always hope for a miracle. The miracle just didn’t happen this time. When later we asked Brendon how the weekend was for them, he just shrugged.

We watched the last couple of hours of the race on the screen in the paddock, it was nice to sit down and to have an opportunity to follow the lap times and the gaps. At some point Daniel, who runs the Team 75 Bernhard accounts on social media, came over to introduce himself: it was amazing to finally put a face to the accounts and to chat for a bit.

After so many races, I thought there was not too much that could be new. Well, watching the fireworks standing behind the overjoyed mechanics of G-Drive Racing, watching Roman and Alex hug on the pit wall under the sparkles, it was new and unforgettable.

We stood under the podium watching our beloved no.2 spray some champagne. Timo looked so happy to see Tom Kristensen.
Being surrounded by happy Toyota fans and employees, standing just a couple of steps away from Alex Wurz, felt surreal. The thing is, in WEC you support your team, you love them, you cheer them on, but if the competitors do a better job – you acknowledge it. And with Toyota… they have a couple of tough years behind them, while we have been spoiled by consistent brilliant results. Porsche will fight back of course they will, but every battle needs a competition. And this year’s Toyota is the biggest challenge Porsche have faced since their return in 2014.

We headed back to the paddock, not planning to leave any time soon – these evenings after the races are magic: it gets quieter, the paddock transforms in matter of minutes, and you just watch the Wonderland being taken apart and packed into boxes to move to the next spot. To our surprise, we spotted Mark run to the hospitality, we expected that he had left long ago. He hadn’t.

Mark spent some time talking to Fritz Enzinger and Andreas Seidl and drinking white wine, before heading back up to the debrief trucks to hide away with his former teammates. Meanwhile we asked Kyle for a selfie, and he made one, just the way he does with his team – I think it’s my favourite picture from the weekend.

Around half past ten, Brendon came out to chat to us, the first thing he did, was make sure we knew “our man” was here. At this very moment “our man” got out of the truck, his arm wrapped around Timo’s shoulders. Seeing our beloved trio, just like in the old days, was the best way imaginable, to finish this incredible, amazing, indescribable weekend.

It would have never been like this, if it were not for Ramona. Shared memories and insider jokes, the incredible chemistry, just the right amount of shared craziness. I will never be able to thank her enough for making these memories.

We will be back next year, because this place feels like a “schönes Zuhause” in the racing Wonderland.

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