The number 1 race track in the world
That’s it then, holidays over ’til Christmas as Formula One enters the second half of the season and a particularly busy spell on the road. Only two more European races left before we head further afield for a series of long haul trips, squeezing 7 races into just 9 weeks.
From day one, F1 2012’s had us all spellbound at the on track action, wondering what else the racing could possibly throw up in terms of different winners and possible championship contenders. There’s been controversy all over the place, stirring up intense debate amongst insiders and fans alike and the official FIA stewards rule book needs replacing already due to the constant and frantic thumbing it’s had at every event so far. In short, whether you agree or not with this season’s regulation tweeks, tyre characteristics or driving standards, no one can argue that Formula One hasn’t stirred up this much excitement or provoked as many talking points for many years and that can only be good for the sport.
With the next race almost upon us after a 5 week break, those who’ve suffered withdrawal symptoms can begin to relax and for those involved on the inside, it’s time to put the beach and tequila to the back of the mind and refocus on the job in hand.
The Belgium Grand Prix, up next, provides a welcome return to one of the most historic and majestic circuits on the tour. Just confirmed as having it’s place secured in F1’s calendar until at least 2015, Spa provides drivers, spectators and tv viewers with an absolute spectacle, both in terms of racing and scenery. Unlike many circuits of the modern ‘Tilke’ era, this one isn’t clinical, it isn’t set in miles and miles of deserted, flat or baron wasteland and it isn’t the ‘standard’ 5km long compact track designed to be visible at every point from a stadium style grandstand.
What it is, is 7km of undulating, spectacular, high speed beauty. It’s old fashioned, absolutely everyone involved in motorsport’s been there at some point in their careers and I’ve never come across a driver who doesn’t love racing there. Michael Schumacher described it this week as “clearly the number one race track in the world” and he’ll celebrate his 300th Grand Prix start there next weekend at the place where he also made his debut, way back in 1991. Incidentally, as Michael took to the famous circuit that day for his first ever F1 race, current world champion Sebastian Vettel had just turned 4 years old!
I first remember going to Spa many, many years ago for a sports car race and whilst it was certainly just as beautiful a place, it wasn’t actually that different from the norm back then. My early racing memories were formed at tracks like Brands Hatch, Imola, Monza and Le Mans. These were places where, without the tv coverage, you only saw the cars for half a lap, before they disappeared off into the trees and you’d keep your fingers crossed that yours would return and be in a decent position when it came back into sight.
In more recent years Spa’s infrastructure’s been updated, F1 teams now enjoy some of the largest and best facilitated garages of the season, but the place still thrives on its historical importance and it really would be a travesty if it were to succumb to financial struggles and disappear from our yearly schedule.
I do have some amazing memories from this track, that double overtaking move by Mika on Schuey and Ricardo Zonta, that catastrophic pile up at the race start in the rain wiping out 13 cars and that brilliant sole race victory for McLaren in the otherwise drought stricken season of 2004. Disappointingly though, the memory of this place which sticks most prominently in my mind, is the day my teammates and I discovered our fate as a result of the infamous ‘Spygate’ drama of 2007.
On Thursday evening at the race that year, having finished the cars and with everything ready to go for FP1 the following morning, we left the circuit and headed back to the hotel. At the time, despite the obvious tensions between our drivers, as a team we were looking good. Both cars were consistently scoring points and winning races and both championships were, for the first time in years, a distinct and realistic possibility.
Half way back, the phone rang and it was Dave Ryan, our team manager. We were instructed to turn around and return to the circuit as the team expected a verdict to be delivered from a court room in Paris at any moment with the outcome of the FIA’s investigation into an espionage case between us and Ferrari. It was a big case, which carried the very real possibility that we could be eliminated from the championship and effectively have to pack up and go home. Despite Ron’s earlier light hearted assurances that, were that to happen, we’d “just go and do Indycar for a year”, there was a certain amount of concern for our jobs.
Upon arriving back at the circuit, there was still no news. We all tried tuning into internet radio and different websites for any updates, but we could only wait, desperately speculating ourselves as to any outcome. A couple of very frustrating hours passed inside the garage, doors down, car covers on and people strewn everywhere across toolboxes, the floor and in every corner, simply trying to pass time. Occasionally someone would find a lone story breaking on some obscure website or forum announcing a result and everyone would frantically crowd around the laptop or phone, only for it to be retracted or denounced by our own people-in-the-know, moments later.
Eventually, quite late into the night, Dave Ryan’s phone rang and it was Ron from Paris. The entire garage and everyone in it fell silent, watching Dave’s expression as Ron was obviously delivering the news we were all desperate to hear. After a very brief and one sided conversation, the phone went down and Dave passed on the verdict.
I’m sure at that moment, the only words most people took in we’re the ones that confirmed we all still had jobs and would continue in Formula One, but as we drove back through the tree covered mountains for the second time that evening to our hotel, the enormity of the verdict began to really sink in.
Whilst being fined $100million was both unimaginable and unprecedented, the truth is that we were fairly sure it wouldn’t directly impact on us as individuals too much. The punishment which hurt most and to be honest, still hurts now, was being excluded from the World Constructors Championship (WCC) of 2007. Many within the team, myself included, felt incredibly angry that, in a year where we had a real chance of winning the ‘team’ championship, something we hadn’t done for almost ten years, the stupid actions of one or two individuals had taken it away from us all through no fault of our own. The chance to win the award that really means a lot to the guys in any team doesn’t come around very often and for the first time in my career it was definitely on. It’s hard to describe the sinking feeling I felt after digesting what had happened, but it was very difficult to find the right motivation for the rest of the weekend. After Ferrari won the race and, now with no realistic challengers, with it the WCC, to some extent the rest of the season became hard too.
At the last race in Brasil, with both Lewis and Fernando first and second in the drivers championship, many perhaps felt it was some form of karma that somehow manipulated that race result into an unlikely single point lead and championship victory for Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. Looking back now at everything that went on at McLaren that year, it’s difficult not to agree.
Aside from that extraordinary season, I’ve been lucky enough to experience, and be part of, some great races and great results at the Belgium Grand Prix and next Sunday afternoon I’m looking forward to being at another one. At a place where the only thing you can guarantee about the weather is that it will play some part and with some of the most famous and challenging corners in the world, it’s very rare that Spa doesn’t give us an exciting race. In a season where we’ve had excitement even at some of the most ‘boring’ circuits in the world, this one’s a particularly mouth watering prospect.
Originally published by http://www.formula1blog.com