A HACK LOOKS BACK

Spa-Francorchamps

It's great to be going back to Spa this weekend. Because I'm writing this before Thursday's manure/ventilator interface scenario in Paris, I'm assuming the race itself won't be affected. There has been a lot of political argy-bargy in recent years about the Belgian GP, too, so much in fact that when it was agreed that the 2006 race should be suspended, many of the old hands in the press centre suspected it was doomed. You see, however ardently the true fans like us may adore this exquisitely scenic circuit in the forests of the Ardennes, it doesn't hit the right notes with everyone. It is just a bit too rustic (not to mention muddy) to attract the Paddock Club gentry and their taste for Sheraton luxury. If Monaco and Monza are all about lobster salad and champagne, Spa suggests fried potatoes and beer, not forgetting the mayonnaise that local custom requires to be spread on the chips. I feared that this lack of fashion appeal, not to mention some of the tricks which have been played on Bernie Ecclestone over the years by Belgian politicians, spelled the end. I'm delighted to admit that I was wrong, and to know that the refurbished Spa-Francorchamps, now with new pits and a more spacious Media Centre, is safe for the foreseeable future.

This race certainly holds some special memories for me. My first published report of an F1 race was of the 1970 Belgian GP, the last to be held on the old extended road circuit. That weekend in May would have been unforgettable, even for an experienced hand. The management at Motoring News decided that I would drive to Spa by myself, returning after the race on board the private plane operated by our chief photographer, who happened to be one of the several sons of the paper's proprietor. So it was that I set off from London in a tiny open sports car, provided for road test by a new name in car manufacturer from Japan. You may not remember the Honda S800 (yes, just over 800ccs of engine capacity), but it made an impression on me. If anything, it was even smaller than an Austin Healey Sprite, and there was barely room for my modest suitcase and typewriter. The suspension was a bit crude, but the gear change was crisp and that technically advanced motorcycle-derived engine revved smoothly to the red line.

Leaving the ferry at Ostend, I made good time along Belgium's featureless autoroutes, at least until I had left Brussels behind. At this point my main destination, Liege, simply disappeared from all the road signs. Although I was vaguely aware that Belgium has two main languages, I was unaware that the hatred between the two language groups extended to the suppression of French names in the Flemish part of the country. With the help of a map purchased in a filling station I eventually discovered that I should now be looking for Luik.

Before checking in to the MN hotel in Spa, I took a trip around the circuit. The public roads had not yet been closed for the race, so I was able to study it closely. I was utterly horrified. There were houses, brick walls and garden fences. There can't have been more than a few hundred yards of guardrail, while at some points the only barrier between the public areas and the track were lengths of barbed wire, much of it exactly at head height for the driver of an F1 car. My Honda had a top speed of less than 100 mph, but I would have been terrified to have driven it there at anywhere near that speed. Adding to the sense of danger was the local obsession for commemorating dead racers with busts and obelisks, many of which constituted yet greater hazards for any driver foolish enough to run off the road. In the course of the accident which killed the acrobatically talented sports car wizard Archie Scott-Brown at Spa in 1968, his Lister-Jaguar collided with the stone laid in memory of Richard Seaman, whose Mercedes had gone out of control in a rain shower while leading the 1939 Belgian GP. No, I'm not old enough to have seen Seaman race, but he went to the same school as me. Even today, I like to think we were the only old Rugbeians to have made a living from motor racing.

Though apprehensive about my task at Spa, I discovered that my first GP as a professional sports writer would not be too complicated to report. A machining error on the crankshafts of the latest batch of Cosworth engines had serious consequences for the early leaders, who retired within a few laps with broken engines, leaving the BRM of Pedro Rodriguez in front of Chris Amon's factory March. The BRM with its V12 engine was faster but thirstier than the Cosworth-engined March, but it had such a poor reliability record that right until the last lap I felt sure that Amon - who I later discovered had been taking some insane risks in his efforts to get past - was about to break his famous GP jinx and take a long overdue victory. It was not to be. Looking up towards La Source from the press box (a dug-out below the main grandstand, complete with earth floor), it was the BRM still in front, and the chequered flag greeted the quiet Mexican as he crossed the downhill start/finish line.

With my boss anxious to be in the air as soon as possible on the way back to England, my instructions were to be at the paddock exit exactly 60 minutes after the finish so that we could be ferried to the tiny grass airfield where our twin-engined Cessna was waiting. At a typical British club race, one hour would have been enough to trawl around for information. But it was certainly not enough to be able to cover a Grand Prix, even in those relaxed days. The consequence was that by the time I got home to my flat in London it was still daylight, but there were some yawning gaps in my knowledge of what had happened to some of the drivers.

It was therefore with some reluctance that I handed in my typewritten report next morning. The ultimate embarrassment was that the monthly magazine CAR chose that race to do a critical round-up of the Grand Prix coverage by Britain's automotive publications. My report finished a resounding last. To my knowledge, in the intervening 37 years no British magazine has repeated the exercise, which means I will never have the chance now to demonstrate that I am no longer the country's most incompetent reporter of Grand Prix races.

The Belgian GP subsequently moved to Nivelles and Zolder. My memories of Nivelles (now converted, deservedly, into an industrial estate) were of the publicity stunt dreamed up by someone from the local division of Philip Morris, whose Marlboro cigarette brand was sponsoring the race. Because Marlboro was using cowboys in its worldwide advertising campaigns at that time, it probably seemed a good idea to bring along a stage coach and park it on the grid before the start. Not only did this ancient piece of technology look ridiculously out of date, but the six horses drawing it became nervous because of the engine noises. You won't need me to tell you what happened next. The glamorous image which Marlboro was generating at huge expense on billboards all across the world was badly tarnished in Belgium as the TV cameras zoomed in on the coachman dashing forward with a bucket and shovel to clear up the mess.

Zolder was much closer to my idea of a real race circuit. It was perhaps too narrow, and there were more chicanes than most drivers would have preferred, but you could get surprisingly close to the action. For the 1980 Belgian GP at Zolder, as Sports Editor at the now defunct Motor magazine (the top selling car weekly at the time), I had to find someone to stand in for our regular photographer, whose trade union had called him out on strike. I immediately called up a cheerful freelancer who had been sending me examples of his work from club events and minor internationals. Like me, Keith Sutton hailed from the North West and had learned his craft from his father, Maurice, a keen amateur photographer. I told Keith to get the train from Manchester to London and we drove to Zolder together. His pictures were excellent.

Keith soon picked up some good contracts, having shrewdly targeted the growing Japanese taste for F1 racing. He also had a knack of making friends with some of the top drivers, among them Ayrton Senna. His skill and hard work started to pay off handsomely, so well in fact that he now employs 12 people and has an impressive property portfolio. With his statuesque wife Tracey, he also has two delightful children. Although my friends will conform that I am not a jealous person, I must confess that I sometimes wish that back in my youth I had picked up a camera instead of a typewriter. To my status as Britain's most incompetent F1 reporter we may perhaps add the uncomfortable fact that 35 years ago I failed completely to appreciate that the priority in the minds of most F1 editors would be shifting from words to images.

Keith, I am glad to say, does not forget his old friends. Two years ago, to mark the 25th anniversary of our first trip to Zolder together, he invited me to join him in driving to the Belgian GP at Spa. After a trip to his six-car garage to remind himself of what was available, he decided to take the Ferrari 360 Stradale instead of the Mercedes SL. Due to some unpleasantness with the gendarmes involving speed limits on his trip to the French GP some months earlier, Keith said it would be my job to drive it on the French section of the route.

I would love to be able to report that we drove flat out all the way and reached Spa in record time, in the spirit of the days - back when Keith and I got started in the F1 business - when Gilles Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter raced each other from their homes in Monaco to the Scuderia's HQ in Maranello. You never heard about those guys hitting anything, did you? Driving with Nelson Piquet from Paul Ricard to Monaco, I remember seeing 280 km/h on the speedometer of his V12 Mercedes S-class while we listened to tapes of the latest Brazilian music on the car's hi-fi system. But with cameras and radar guns now infesting Europe's manor roads, the days of automotive hooliganism are over. Even at 130 km/h in a bright red Ferrari 360, you're not safe. It's not the speed that's dangerous, it's the rubber-neckers who come wobbling alongside in their diesel Peugeots to get a closer look. You can only respond by accelerating to 200 km/h for a brief period, escaping for a few minutes until the next pack of curious commuters edges in, just a little too close for comfort.

The most joyful moment during that ride to Spa with Keith was arriving at the circuit and driving through the crowds to the press car park. Gunning the throttle to warn people, we were the object of hundreds of admiring glances. A couple of guys actually sank to their knees in ecstasy. It was probably the closest that any of them would come to a proper red Ferrari all weekend.

Keith doesn't like Spa as much as I do, with good reason. The local police are a particularly stupid example of the breed, and for some reason they like to pick on properly credentialled photographers. In 1985 they arrived only a few moments before the start at La Source, complete with dogs and batons, and tried to arrest 30 lensmen. Although they eventually had to admit defeat, not one of the photographers was able to get a picture of the start. In 1989, another group of cops, suspecting (incorrectly) that Keith and two colleagues were responsible for cutting holes in the wire fence overlooking the Bus Stop section of the circuit, they dragged him away so violently that his leg was badly cut. He was only released after some marshals interceded: the police ran away, laughing. Not surprisingly, Keith no longer attends the Belgian GP except when he's celebrating anniversaries.

Two years ago, Keith and I drove away from the track before the end of the race to get an early ferry. Once in England, he got a call from his brother Mark to say that the police had been in action again, also at La Source before the start. Despite clear written instructions from the FIA, including diagrams, they chased away the photographers, insisting that the designated spot in which they were standing was "too dangerous" for photography. The policemen then took the snappers' places ... and some of them started taking pictures with their phones and digi-cams.

By rights, such appalling behaviour is more than sufficient justification for the FIA to ban the Belgian GP from the world championship. As a journalist, I am glad that it has survived. But if those Belgian cops continue to harass my photographer brothers, it could spell the end of F1 racing at Spa. If you enjoy great scenery and seeing the most skilled drivers in the world tacking some of the most difficult fast corners, then get yourself to Spa before the FIA wipes it off the calendar.

You should try the fried potatoes and mayonnaise, too.

Print Feature