The Mercedes E300 taxi skilfully manoeuvred its way through the early morning rush hour traffic on the outskirts of Liège. André had arrived at the apartment to collect me only minutes before, coffee to go in his hand and a perfectly coiffured hairstyle upon his head.
“What time will we be at the circuit?” I asked as we sped along. “Thirty minutes give or take, but we’ll be walking the last kilometre or so, it’ll be hectic and quicker to walk. Besides, the fresh air will do us good.” Andre took a long swig of his drink and asked how my night had gone.
I suppose I should give you a short recap. The night before I’d got as far as a bar in Liege, and had been befriended by an Emo chick on the train to the city. While waiting at the bar for Andre to arrive Emily and I had eaten and then drunk a few beers. As the evening had gone on, Emily was starting to wonder where I would be staying, especially as I’d already told her that I’d be waiting to see what André could come up with.
“Of course… you must come and stay with me, at my friend’s place,” she said. “Wait….what?” This took me a little bit by surprise. It was not my intention to ask this stranger for a place to crash, and I was pretty sure that I hadn’t implied that at any point since I’d met her in Brussels.
“Look that’s a nice offer, but I need to see what André has got planned’, ‘Yes, but…. he is not here, no?’ — ‘no he is not.” She made a compelling argument, made even more compelling by the warm beer buzz that was now creeping over me.
“Well call ‘im and leave a message, tell him to pick you up in the morning, I will give you the address,” she said, without raising her head from her iPhone.
And so now here I am on my way to the Circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, with a crick in my neck and a coffee in my hand. I had slept well, maybe too well. When I woke up on the red vinyl sofa, I was still fully clothed and in pretty much the same position that I had fallen asleep in a few hours before. Just the right amount of alcohol can be a fantastic aid to a good nights sleep.
If you asked me now for the correct mix and quantity to replicate what I’d had the night before, you’d be out of luck. All I remember was a cocktail of various wines and beers, the consumption of which had started back in the UK. Either way, I felt remarkably good and was looking forward to the day ahead.
There were a lot of cool things happening at this weekend’s race. Teams that had been absent from the opening round at Silverstone were now in attendance, driver line-ups had been changed, and an extra Porsche 919 Hybrid was being raced for the first time.
One of the World Championship winning Toyota team’s cars had been heavily damaged on Thursday, the Japanese driver suffering from a severe back injury in the process. As I sped towards the track, I still didn’t know if we would see that car in the race. The number 8 Audi of Oliver Jarvis was not as heavily damaged during that same accident and would be back on track.
Tequila Patron ESM had taken things easy on the Thursday with its two new Ligier JS P2 Hondas. The team had only taken delivery of the cars recently and were still in the process of shaking them down and making final preparations before qualifying.
I was looking forward to seeing the new cars in the flesh and was glad that I’d get to see them in one piece, especially after such a wet start to the meeting. Johannes van Overbeek was back and ready to drive the new car having missing Silverstone due to a bizarre rib injury he’d sustained just before the season opener.
Our taxi pulled into a small lay-by just behind what looked like a cement works off the N62 in Malmedy. As we climbed out of the car, the light rain decided to turn a little more substantial. André paid the driver with most of the change from my pockets; I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. Despite the rain and the nip in the air, I was looking forward to our hike, especially as the traffic was starting to build steadily.
We wandered down the main road and under the A27 motorway bridge before making our way up the hill towards the track via the Route des Combes. After about 30 minutes of walking past lines of queueing cars, we arrived at the top of the hill and the gates of the Spa circuit. By now I was feeling hot and was soaking wet, but my spirits were high. André had been an excellent guide so far, and our stealthy approach to the track was already beginning to pay dividends. I flashed my pass to the sullen looking gatekeeper and made my way in.
Andrew spotted a place to grab something to eat. We ate croissants and Nutella and washed them down with strong black coffee. We sat for quite a while watching the crowds arrive. Despite the wet start most of the people looked happy and excited to be there. After a while we allowed ourselves to be swept up in the current of bodies and moved down into the circuit proper.
“I suppose I should go and find the media centre,” I said to André. “I need to spend some time getting the lay of the land, check on when I can visit some of the teams and find the media bus stop.”
André pulled a photocopied circuit map from his backpack and handed it to me. He showed me where I was on the plan and pointed me in the right direction. We made arrangements to meet up for lunch, hugged each other, and went our separate ways.
The paddock was busy as always on qualifying day. The beautiful people of the various PR departments of the teams could be seen hurrying here and there with armfuls of press releases, and occasionally, a driver in tow.
I’m often overlooked in this environment. At six feet and two inches, I’m a tall man, and my 300lbs frame adds weight to the proceedings. My trademark ski bobble hat is usually perched upon my head, and my face is hidden behind a rather splendid beard.
If I’m not wearing an old pair of US Army combat trousers, I’ll be in an old pair of denim cargo shorts, topped off by a plaid shirt. Most of the time I like to wear flip-flops or Birkenstock sandals, but if the weather is terrible, I’ll be rocking a pair of Vans skate shoes. Not the traditional look for a journo in a world-class paddock such as this.
So it comes as no surprise to hear, that I get knocked back a lot when asking for interviews with drivers and team management. Today wasn’t any different. I’d wanted to catch up with a driver to ask him about how his team is doing.
Most of the time people want to talk to this particular team to discuss their star driver, but I wanted to speak with the embedded factory driver for a few quotes. At the media centre, I found the team rep intending to arrange some time to talk to “the driver”. I handed her my business card and asked the question.
She stared back at me blankly just as her phone rang. She turned on her heel, put my card in her pocket and walked away. I followed for a few paces and realised that it was a lost cause, and I now looked like a new kid at school trying to find his way to his first lesson!
Now don’t get me wrong, for the most part, the people in the paddocks of these big meetings are a jovial bunch and always try to make the time to talk.
Most will invite you into their hospitality unit for a coffee and a Danish and will go to great lengths to procure you whatever you might require. In the past I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know the teams this way, almost becoming a part of the family, at least that’s how it feels. The truth is much more simplistic.
From a PR perspective, this is seen as an investment. A kind of you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch your back affair.
Not this time.
I decided to give up on the endeavour for the time being and moved on. I wandered along the back of the pit boxes looking for likely candidates for a quote or two.
The most popular staff and drivers are surrounded by an entourage of marketing graduates and personal trainers. There are off-duty power brokers everywhere. Businesspeople in civvies & wags in tight jeans, wearing big sunglasses can be seen all over the place.
Everyone seems a little more genuine than in the hyper-polished, hyper-rich F1 paddock. I feel naked.
Engines could be heard starting as I approached the far end of the paddock at La Source. I found a place to watch some track action and waited for the first of the cars to exit the pits.
The track was still damp from the morning drizzle, and most of the cars looked to be on intermediate tyres. I watched the first few minutes and decided to move to a better location. I fired up the WEC Live timing app on my phone and headed back up the paddock to Eau Rouge, one of the most exciting corners on the circuit.
The Porsche drivers were speedy. Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard set laps within a couple of hundredths of each other to secure pole position. Hartley set a 1m54.779s, and then Bernhard went quicker with a 1m54.755s in the #17 Porsche 919 Hybrid to ending the session with a 1m54.767s average lap time. That time put them just under three tenths up on the second-placed Porsche of Formula 1 hero Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Tandy.
Hulkenberg had dropped from second to third after Audi driver Andre Lotterer went quicker in the #7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro, but Tandy improved on his team-mate’s 1m55.130s with a 1m54.920s to bring their average to 1m55.025s and back into second. Neel Jani and Marc Lieb also moved ahead of the Audi to secure a qualifying 1-2-3 for Porsche with a lap average of 1m55.284s.
Fassler followed up on Lotterer’s 1m55.114s with a 1m55.967s, which left them with a 1m55.640s average and dropped them to the fourth position. Lucas di Grassi and Loic Duval were fifth with an average almost a second behind after experiencing problems with their Audi’s electronics.
The best Toyota was the #1 TS040 HYBRID shared by Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi, who both set laps in the 1m57s bracket to end up with a 1m57.487s average.
The Silverstone-winning LMP2 Ligier-Nissan JSP2 from G-Drive Racing took class qualifying honours with Sam Bird and Julien Canal. They ended up with a 2m07.761s average, which put them two tenths up on the KCMG ORECA-Nissan 05 shared by Matt Howson and Nicolas Lapierre. Third fastest was the Team SARD Morand Morgan-Judd/BMW EVO driven by Oliver Webb and Pierre Ragues.
The fastest lap in P2 was set by the Jota Sport Gibson-Nissan 015S driven by Harry Tincknell, whose 2m07.074s moved the car he shared with Simon Dolan up to fifth in class.
Aston Martin Racing took its second GTE Pro pole of the season, this time with the #99 Vantage GTE driven by Richie Stanaway and Fernando Rees.
Stanaway was the fastest in the first group of drivers with a 2m17.167s, and then Rees went faster with a 2m16.642s to give them pole with a 2m16.840s average.
That put them nearly a tenth of a second up on Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander in the best of the AF Corse Ferraris, which ended up on a 2m16.910s average to set the fastest GTE lap and to put the 458 Italia in second.
Aston Martin’s Stefan Mucke and Darren Turner finished with a 2m17.231s average and third spot on the grid. Pedro Lamy and Paul Dalla Lana claimed a second consecutive pole in GTE Am in another of the works Aston Martins.
After watching most of the qualifying from within the infield and paddock areas, decide to head out and try to find André. It’d been a long day, and I’d been running on empty for most of it. What I needed now was a hot shower, something to eat and a cold beer.