GLOBETROTTER

The history of Belgium, smoking and sea breezes

After the British and the Prussians beat Napoleon's French armies at Waterloo in 1815, it was decided that the Belgian territories - which had been French - should be made part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

This was neat and tidy and got rid of an unseemly patch on the international map. The only slight problem was that no-one asked the Belgians and the Dutch if THEY thought it was a good idea - which they did not.

And so a few years later the Belgians rose up in rebellion against the Dutch and declared independence. The Great Powers of Europe, who were fed up with fighting wars, decided that to avoid more punch-ups that the easiest solution was to make Belgium an independent state. The National Congress of Belgium then decided that Belgium should be a kingdom and went looking for a spare monarch. It was not an easy task but eventually a Belgian government representative sidled up to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and muttered:

"Psst. Wanna be a King?"

And the German said.

"Ja."

The Dutch thought this scandalous and invaded Belgium but the Great Powers again flexed their muscles and decreed that the fighting must stop. And so in 1831 the country we now know as Belgium emerged. It was a bit of a mess. The northern part was peopled by Flems (who were closer to the Dutch) and the south by the French-speaking Walloons. The two groups have been squabbling ever since. And yet, somehow, this tribal mess of a country somehow survives and even thrives.

This year at Spa-Francorchamps the Formula 1 circus was treated to some typically Belgian division. The Belgian national government in Brussels last year voted through a harsh tobacco ban - nastier even that the European Union legislation. It has never been explained why such a thing is necessary as Formula 1 has already agreed to abide by EU rules about tobacco and there is no need for the Belgians to push the point.

Fearing that the Formula 1 circus would leave the Spa region, the Walloons - who stand to lose a lot of money and prestige if the Grand Prix disappears - decided to try to stop the ban. The local government announced that tobacco sponsorship could go ahead in the province. Brussels did not have the right to dictate such matters.

The lawyers got down to fighting and because they charge by the hour, the issue was not solved in time for the Grand Prix this year. The Belgian Health Minister threatened to send people to jail if the cars ran with tobacco branding and so the F1 circus covered up the words and the logos and muttered dark noises about leaving Belgium forever...

This would be a disaster for the sport because Spa is one of the great racing circuits of the world - even in its new truncated form. It is a track which sorts the men from the boys and the lunatics from the sane. It is a magnificent place. A place of legends and heroes; of triumphs and tragedies.

There are many in the F1 paddock who believe that it would be a tragedy if F1 was driven away from Spa because of the sport's addiction to tobacco money. I tend to agree with that but at the same time I think politicians should not be allowed to be such bullies. Formula 1 does not want to give up tobacco money. Everyone agrees that smoking is bad for you but there are no politicians advocating banning tobacco. That would be too difficult and would create a whole series of new problems. It would also deprive them of enormous tax revenues and if that money was lost more would have to be found from elsewhere - and that would mean new taxes - and such things cost votes. And so the politicians compromise and attack advertising. They do care about motor racing. They care about votes and they seem to think that banning tobacco advertising will win them votes, by making them look as though they care.

What all the politicians and lawyers of the world fail to understand is that there is such a thing as free will. Smoking is an addiction but it can be beaten. We are the masters of our destinies if we want to be.

The other problem is one of power. F1 does not want to back down to a relatively unimportant government at a time when it is fighting bigger battles over tobacco on the world scene. The Belgian government does not want to back down because being beaten by a sport would be humiliating.

And so we will probably have to leave Spa.

We will miss the excitement and the grandeur of the circuit. I will miss the chance to go around the old circuit - if only as a reminder of what the old Spa was like. Every so often I believe it is a good thing to get away from the modern idea of motor racing and remember the old days. You can do that at Spa by tripping away from the circuit to the little village of Burnenville (at the top of the hill after Les Combes) . This is the old Spa circuit and from there you can follow the road as it curls down the hill towards the old Malmedy Corner. It's gone now - having been replaced by some motorway slip roads - but if you keep on the road towards Stavelot you are quickly back on the old track. It is a flat out straight all the way down to the fearsome Masta kink. There is something evil-sounding about the name and, arriving there and threading between the houses, you realize why the place had such a reputation. And then it is flat all the way down to the slightly-banked Stavelot Corner which fans of the film "Grand Prix" will recognize as the corner at which Jean-Pierre Sarti crashed his Ferrari killing two small boys. From there the old track blasted up through the woods to rejoin the new track at the new Stavelot corner.

Back in the paddock there are many who could not care less about the grandeur of the new track - let alone the old one. It may be the best circuit on the F1 calendar but it is not an easy place to work. The traffic system is like Silverstone and it changes from day to day depending on whether a Flem or a Walloon in on duty. The facilities are pretty dire and the organization sketchy on occasion. In addition to all this, strange folk are always causing trouble. Wires are sabotaged. This year everyone had to be searched on arrival because someone had telephoned a bomb threat. What a shame, someone said, that the bomb threat had not come from the US Air Force...

The impression is that few people would miss Spa - and that is rather worrying.

If F1 does leave Belgium in all probability the end of August race will take place at Zandvoort in Holland. The Dutch - ever rivals of the Belgians - have set their sights on the Belgian date. Tobacco advertising is not a problem in Holland and the Zandvoort track, while not being exactly the same as the old days, will still have most of the elements of the original circuit - a legendary place in its own right.

The trees and rains of Spa would be replaced by the sand dunes and sea breezes of Zandvoort.

You can get frites and mayonnaise in both places...

Would that be such a bad thing?

Print Feature