A fan’s view from Spa

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Editor’s Note: I thought it may be interesting to record my son’s impressions of his second ever Grand Prix, given it is his first since the change in engine regulations.  He didn’t come away as a die hard fan of the sport, but I don’t think the sound had anything to do with it.- Dave (MIE).

I don’t get to many Grand Prix, the last one I went to was Silverstone in 2010, which was the first one that I had taken my son to as well.  He enjoyed the event even if he did find the cars very loud.  However he isn’t really an F1 fan, and doesn’t watch the races on TV.  However when asked if he wanted to go with me to Spa this year he said yes straight away.  I thought it would be interesting to compare our last experience of F1 (using the old 2.4 litre V8s) with the current F1 (1.6 litre V6 hybrid power units).

So mini-MIE and I set off for the Eurotunnel on Thursday of last week, heading for a campsite not to far away from Spa Francorchamps.  Given that Spa is one of the few F1 circuits in use these days with significant gradient, it was surprising that the hills didn’t start to appear until we were less than ten mile from our destination.  The following morning we set off for the walk down to the track.  Friday was very quiet in terms of the number of people around, but the sight of the track did not disappoint.

Spa 1

Much like other tracks I have visited with noticeable hills, this is much steeper in real life than it appears on TV.  Samuel was however disappointed that the cars would be going up the hill and not coming down it as he thought that they would look even more impressive that way.

I had not been to the circuit before, and so when choosing tickets I had wanted Grandstand seats (as I didn’t know how far away we would be staying and therefore couldn’t guarantee that we would be able to get to the track early enough to get a good spot in General Admission) and with a limited budget I selected the Silver 2 Grandstand opposite the old pits.  This gave a good view of Eau Rouge to the left:

Spa 2

and the run down from La Source to the right:

Spa 3

While on Friday the view in both directions was clear, as the weekend progressed and more people entered the circuit the view became more restricted with all seats filled.

Free Practice 1 gave our first sight of this new breed of F1 cars.  The sound was impressive enough for a teenager whose recollection of the noise of the V8s was from five years ago.  Unfortunately once the support series ventured on to the track it was clear that F1 was the quietest of the cars racing at the weekend.  While disappointing that GP2 and even GP3 were louder, the loudest of all were the Porsche Supercup.

There were several large TV screens around the circuit.  From our vantage point we could see two large screens, unfortunately neither was pointed in our direction, there was one to our right, which was angled toward those corporate guests in the hospitality units on top of the old pits, and one at the bottom of the hill angled to the more expensive grandstands on the way out of Eau Rouge.  We could see two smaller screens, one behind the large screen at the bottom of the hill, and one up toward La Source, although neither of these were working properly through much of FP1 (so we missed seeing Pastor Maldonado’s rally cross exploits, and red flag causing moment).  Commentary was provided in three languages (French, German and English) which really meant you needed to be multilingual to follow the commentary as there wasn’t time for each commentator to recap what had gone on before while the others were speaking.

Through free practice very few of the F1 cars moved around much through Eau Rouge and the climb to Raidillon, whereas the GP2 cars looked to be much more of a handful.  Whether this was down to a comparative lack of down force, or driver talent I don’t know, but it made the junior category look more impressive.

The sound of the F1 cars while not the scream of the older V8s did have some redeeming features; it was possible to tell the different manufacturers products apart, although the difference between an engine on full power and one recovering energy was far greater than the difference between a Mercedes and a Ferrari.  The Honda’s in particular sounded awful when not on full power (which was most of the time during free practice).  For the GP2 practice sessions, it was possible to hear the cars approaching the bus stop chicane and going down the start finish straight before finally coming into view.  This wasn’t possible for the F1 cars as their sound was drowned out by the noise of GP2 cars in the old pits running their engines on tickover.

The situation was a little better for FP3 and qualifying, but now it was usually the TV helicopter hovering overhead that drowned out the sound from the cars.  On the few occasions that a car was on its own it was possible to hear the Mercedes and Ferrari powered cars for the longest time once they had disappeared down Kemmel straight.  The Renaults were very quiet in comparison, and the Honda’s hardly ran at all.

The silver 2 grandstand we were sat in is directly opposite the old pits, and it would be a fantastic place to sit if those pits were in use, but for the F1 event the spectators lower down the hill block the view towards Eau Rouge, particularly those who insist on standing up to video the spectacle on their mobile phones.  This behaviour was particularly bad on the Saturday, but much better on the Sunday when the place was packed.

Bearing in mind that Spa hadn’t had a completely dry F1 event since 2007, and significant rain was forecast for late on Sunday, it was a pleasant surprise to find that Sunday was once again dry and sunny.  The crowds were much greater than on the previous days,

Spa 4

Spa 5

with a handful of general admission spectators still trying to find a good place to watch the race only minutes before the formation lap.  Around the area where we were sat there are only a couple of places maybe ten metres wide where you can stand by the edge of the track, the paths leading to other viewing spots take you away from the circuit through the trees, so it is impossible to see the race while walking to find a suitable vantage point.

For the driver introductions, the local commentators referred to Max Verstappen as ‘17 years young’, but then described most of the others with similar phrasing.

During the race some drivers were having much more difficulty through Eau Rouge than they had in practice, both Manor’s and both McLaren’s looked a particular handful all race.  Grosjean had a big twitch as commented on by Paul Charsley in the race review podcast, while Ricciardo’s moment a few laps later was replayed for all to see.

With all the cars (apart from Button) able to use full power through Eau Rouge during the race the sound was much better than it had been during free practice or qualifying.  The Mercedes and Ferrari being the most purposeful sounding, with the Ferrari having greater volume.  The Renault reminded me of the cars used in Logans Run (for those old enough to remember that film), just a whoosh rather than any traditional sound, particularly true of the Toro Rosso.  The Honda is the loudest of the four, but it isn’t pleasant and doesn’t sound healthy “a bag of spanners in a washing machine” was one apt description I heard over the weekend.

Overall, while I found it impressive to watch F1 cars being driven on the limit through one of the best sequences of corners on the calendar, my son was less than impressed with the live experience.  Seeing the cars for only a short time with a lot of waiting until they came around again, and not being able to follow the event of the TV screen due to lack of commentary (the cars while quieter than before are still loud enough to drown out the circuit PA) and the fact the screen was too small to read the cars positions.  He felt the race was too long, but as he said he is used to watching ten minute YouTube videos.  Perhaps if we had gone to more events in the intervening period between  Silverstone 2010 and Spa 2015 he may have maintained some enthusiasm for the sport, but with price the way they are this wasn’t possible.

As a final note, the grandstand erupted on the last lap when Max Verstappen passed Kimi Räikkönen at the end of Kemmel straight, followed almost immediately by a groan of despair as he slid wide at Les Combes.  A great deal was made of the fact that his mother is Belgian and he was born and currently lives in Belgium.  This could certainly help to explain the increase in attendance this year.

Oh, and the rain did come, at 6 pm and the following morning the campsite was a mud bath, with plenty of cars and vans stuck in the mud.  Fortunately there was a second exit which enabled our escape without the need of the local tractor which had been requested to assist.

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Daniel Johnson

Thanks for sharing this. I always find it interesting how seeing something live compares to watching it on tv, especially motorsports.

Tom Firth

No chance of Mini-MIE making an appearance at the Six Hours of Silverstone next year then. How about MIE?

Meine Postma

Also, the fact that Max Verstappen is dutch and the Netherlands are next to Belgium might explain why there were so many Verstappen fans ;-)

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