Friday, March 9, 2007

Losing my V-Plates: My day at Spa-Francorchamps - JensonHerofClark

I remember the date well – Wednesday September 13, 2006 – no, not the date I became a real man. It is a date that will forever stay with me, as you will soon discover. I am cycling down the hill from my house on the outskirts of the beautiful Ardennes forest in Belgium, of Boire de la Pierre situated about 80 kilometres north of the notorious Spa-Francorchamps grand prix circuit, speeding freely into my hometown.

Anybody who cycles appreciates the sensation of freefalling effortlessly into the wind at high speed. It is probably the same for motorcyclists, but I wouldn’t know. There is an even larger sense of freedom about my pedalling this time. Normally, I cycle into the wind purely for my own enjoyment and sense of adventure. But this time it is a premeditated adventure: I am collecting my driving licence. The adventure has been brewing in my mind for days, ever since I passed my driving test on the previous Friday – lucky number five. As a fanatical Formula One aficionado, words cannot describe the relief I felt in finally passing my test.

I was free; I am free to go wherever and whenever I want. My license wouldn’t come through until the following Wednesday and unsurprisingly gave me too much time to think where I should endeavour on my maiden voyage. A journey through the willowed and perilous roads of the Ardennes forest unquestionably awaited me, culminating at what some call the most exhilarating and hardest racing track in the world – Spa-Francorchamps.

The days leading up to the ride of my life were painful, as you might expect, but that morning of September 13, 2006 every suffering in my life disappeared for the moment. Selfish, I know. Naturally, parents were told a plausible tale of where I might venture within the car on my own for the first time in my life. Cunningly told, they were oblivious to my intended destination. Stocked up with saccharine skittles and Lucozade sport to add to the buzzing vibes excreting from all parts of my body, my rusty 10 year old scarlet Volvo was up to the task and headed for the highway and on to the possible danger an 18 year old boy might come up against on the pursuing roads of the Francorchamps forest.

I was in heaven, and if this is what heaven looks and feels like, then I want to be dead. Free to go wherever I want and how fast I wanted, within the speed limits of course, or there about. Climbing the peaks through the vines of this misty yet stunning forest I head for signs of the racetrack. I reach a vantage point – you are now entering the old Spa-Francorchamps circuit de F1. This is where the very best drivers of our world are killed, Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow, Britain’s casualties to name but a few. And I am not surprised. Just driving in the midst of such dangerous public roads, I cannot comprehend how racing was ever endorsed here.

The sheer steepness of the corners, narrowness of its straights and the minimal liberty a driver would have encompassed from the screaming spectators mesmerises me. It is simply breathtaking knowing that these roads I now have in my grasp were the landmarks of which Formula One legends were born. Driving for the first time was something special for me, but hustling my way through the tricky, empty soul-filled roads of Francorchamps is unexplainable through words. I hadn’t even reached the Spa-Francorchamps circuit they use today.

I park my unorthodox Volvo at the gates of La Source hairpin at the new circuit. And from one awe-inspiring mania of driving through the outskirts of this circuit, of which is the old track, to the next by staring at this new spectacular racing roadway. I catch a gulp of air and with it want to faint as a result of the reflection that stares back at me. There in front of me, down the prominence from La Source is the infamous Eau Rouge corner – the hardest grand prix corner in the world, taken flat out. Aware that I’m not meant to enter the circuit; but with no one about and gaps visible in the fence I persevere.

Nervously I trot and take in the surroundings of this polluted forest of which lies an outer ring of death in the now form of public roads, and at this instant the inner unyielding raceway of a modern grand prix circuit. Probably without blinking I walk upto the bed of this frightening corner that is Eau Rouge. I look up and reminisce of last years race where invisible to television cameras, I watched from the grandstands’ insistently as some, and many other drivers so nearly got Eau Rouge wrong. Climbing the embankment that is the corner, I now understand why. The steepness of the banking together with the bend of the corner is unbelievable to think you could go flat out in a normal road car, let alone a racing car.

I sit in the middle of the mound, overwhelmed at the immensity of such a spectacle that it takes a few attempts by a construction worker to snap me out of my apparent gaze. He says I should not be here and I respond by telling him I just came for a quick look and that my car is parked nearby. Realising my state of shock he sympathises with my gormless state and tells me to enjoy the walk back, but whatever I do, make sure I do not imagine the past greats of Fangio, Clark, Senna and Schumacher tearing round La Source hairpin and hurtling towards Eau Rouge – it is exactly what I don’t do.

There is no real point to this story, just to try and share animatedly what it’s like to envisage history accompanied by actually being in the place it occurred, and something you feel so zealously for.

I assemble my shaken self into my car and mull over what has taken place. I eventually pull away with the zeniths of the foliage absorbing my mirrors. Losing my virginity felt good, but nothing compares to my time at Spa-Francorchamps and its charming scenery – yes, including a grand prix race track. The feeling is everlasting; they don’t make race tracks and all of its complexities like this anymore. So unequalled, I went back the next day.


MotM said...

I wish I had been able to write like this at 19 - and I still can't drive!

The great tracks of the old days are disappearing as Bernie seeks tobacco-friendly venues (glass half-empty) or exports the F1 circus to new markets (glass half-full). The Nuremburgring went a generation back and now Spa. Yes there's safety issues, but the newer tracks make a GP look like a generic video game of the late 80s.

If Spa was the best track, what is the worst? I'd nominate the Cleveland Grand Prix in one of those US series. Cones round a flat aerodrome.

bluedaddy said...

Just dont get F1, but I liked the reverie tone here.

When I got my driving licence one morning in my mid twenties, I immediately went to the pub about 11am to meet my girlfriend (now Mrs BD), and stayed til closing. One of the best boozy days of my life. Every so often another couple of friends would drop in (this was pre mobile phone days so it was quite organic rather than arranged), and the day wandered on into evening, as the Guinness flowed.


mimi said...

Worse track that carpark in Las Vegas (was in Caesar's Palace) that they once used for a US Grand Prix.
Worst of this year's lot: Bahrain, Barcelona, Magny Cours - take your pick of almost any on the calendar!

Zephirine said...

Really enjoyed this, full of atmosphere and feeling. Thanks Jens (if I may call you that).

guitougoal said...

Jenson, evocation of two names, jim clark and george best give me the goose bumps.
mimi, I went to vegas to get married on october 16 1981,and to attend to the last F1 grand prix there. I am not sure if it was the cars or the girl who tempted me to go to vegas......yet I still love F1.
But i thanks my ex everyday for sasha.

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