Paddock Diary: Belgian Grand Prix part two

2021 Belgian Grand Prix

Posted on

| Written by

Formula 1 fans at Spa-Francorchamps were poorly served by their sport and television viewers were misled by speculation yesterday’s doomed race could have been postponed to Monday. Dieter Rencken brings his insight from the paddock after a farcical Belgian Grand Prix.

Saturday

‘The best laid plans…’: Despite having factored in an additional 30 minutes over Friday’s travel time into the commute to Spa, the local police direct me off F1 personnel-only side roads as I allegedly had the “wrong pass” – one which had been acceptable on Friday and, as it turned out, would be so on Sunday – and straight into traffic. Thus, what had taken an hour on Friday (and Sunday) extends to well over double that. A portent?

I hear similar tales of woe from colleagues, yet others experienced no issues. Clearly it’s a matter of training of local officials about the complexities of F1 car passes which range from service supply passes through the full team spectrum to media and VIP – plus, of course, designated passes for each spectator parking area and/or zone.

However, having received information on the final leg of F1’s 2021 calendar from a source late Friday evening and checked out finer details from the car, I make it to the media centre in time to share the news ahead of official publication – but it’s close. Thereafter I busy myself with rebooking of flights and hotels before team folk get around to it. For freelancers every cent counts, and fees easily quadruple once dates are confirmed.

I planned to head for Eau Rouge for FP3 but my request for a journalist tabard is denied as I would need to pass through public areas, in breach of the Covid code. For trackside snappers it is different as they are in different bubbles, and do not access the paddock. All in, a massive downer as I seriously looked forward to savouring the sight of Max Verstappen and Lewis through that most iconic of corners, on full wets.

The incessant rain also means face-to-face contact with sources is difficult as team folk obviously huddle indoors, and under Covid the media is forbidden from entering hospitality units. Still, some sources are prepared to endure the wet to chat.

I hear Alfa Romeo will announce Valtteri Bottas – as revealed here in early July – as Kimi Raikkonen’s replacement on home soil in Monza; hence delays in confirming George Russell at Mercedes. This ties in with two recent comments from Toto Wolff: that Mercedes has taken its final decision and will confirm its 2022 line-up in September.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

That said, I am somewhat surprised when Williams CEO Jost Capito later tells me that if a decision has been taken about his driver’s future he has not yet been informed. More to come from him later this week.

During qualifying I toy with betting on George Russell for a top-three grid slot, but not being a betting man I refrain – to my subsequent disappointment.

Still, he drives a stonking session to take second and at the press conference I ask Lewis Hamilton, who’s been lukewarm about welcoming the Williams driver as potential team-mate, whether he revised his opinion after the Williams star pipped both Mercedes drivers despite inferior equipment.

“I don’t feel any different,” Hamilton tells me. “I mean, George has been doing a great job all year. This just doesn’t really change anything.

“I’m sure he’s got pressure on him just as Valtteri does to do the job. And it’s great to see him delivering. I can’t fault him for it.”

A British media colleague later remarks on the world champion’s stony look. “That sure was said through gritted teeth.” The performance was probably the worst 32nd birthday present Valtteri could have wished for, we agree.

Departing the circuit at 7pm is the work of a moment as there is little traffic about on account of fans leaving immediately after qualifying to escape the rain – with most heading to their by-now muddy camping sites. Being a fan at Spa sure can be masochistic, and it won’t get any better on Sunday.

Sunday

With no difficulties commuting to the circuit I’m in the media centre by 9am and busy myself with visa formalities for the upcoming Russian and US Grands Prix, then prepare for the day.

I notice none of the paddock shuttles that transfer us mere mortals are no longer Mercedes V-Class minibuses as in the past. In Spa Renault SUVs are in use – no issue as the brand is represented in F1. However, high-rollers who daren’t get their Jimmy Shoos wet are ferried to/from the Paddock Club in Volvos and KIAs – brands foreign to F1 – and I decide to investigate this extraordinary slap in the face for F1’s brands.

It turns out Mercedes stopped supplying shuttles last year but it had gone unnoticed as Covid meant bans on such services until this event – golf carts ferried the media in Budapest. However, this year Mercedes took its policy a step further and no longer supplies race control or VIP shuttle vehicles save for the (now red) safety and medical cars at 50% of events, with Aston Martin servicing the balance of races.

The promoter now sources vehicles from wherever, and thus it is not inconceivable that Mercedes VIPs are ferried to their $5,000 hospitality suites in a KIA Niro.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Some readers have asked why so little culinary information appears in recent diary editions. Simple: due to Covid we no longer enjoy (much appreciated) team hospitality, so are fuelled by media centre fare. This varies from ham and/or cheese baguettes and slot machine coffee (Monaco) to full three-course meals in Austria. In Spa we are served a variety of local delicacies, including ubiquitous waffles. Much appreciated even without frites.

As race start time nears it is obvious that the event faces massive disruption, but the word from both the FIA and F1 is that “we will have a race of sorts” – prophetic phrasing, as it turns out.

In 350 F1 races I have been ashamed of my pass thrice: the 2000 British Grand Prix, 2005 United States Grand Prix and today, each time cringing for thousands of fans, many of whom, having saved for a year to cover not inconsiderable costs of attending a grand prix and dreamed for weeks of seeing their heroes in action, were treated cynically by folk who should know better. Yes, that pans out at 1% of my attendance, but it’s a percent too many.

Television viewers, too, deserved better – particularly from certain commentators who spouted absolute nonsense that fuelled the ire as they scurried to plug gaps. For example, any so-called experts who seriously believed that the race could be staged on Monday need to devote the time before this weekend’s race at Zandvoort on brushing up on the intricacies of staging a grand prix.

For example, to stage Spa’s race with fans requires at least 2,000 support staff and officials, all of whom need to be (unexpectedly) accommodated overnight. Marshals have day jobs and family commitments, devoting their time (usually) free of charge to the sport they love. Each turn has medics on duty who need to return to work; fans, too, have commitments a race staged without ticket holders would open a legal can of worms.

In any event, forecasts predict even more rain for Monday. Yes, events conspired against F1 on Sunday, but a number of contributory factors were well within the sport’s gift, and better planning and foresight could have seen the farce avoided.

I delay my departure from the circuit until 11pm as every traffic map shows massive congestion in all directions. Indeed, social media feeds show tractors dragging cars out of sodden parking fields – apparently some enterprising farmer charges €20 per car, earning himself thousands of bucks – which simply adds insult to injury for the bedraggled fans.

2021 Belgian Grand Prix

Browse all 2021 Belgian Grand Prix articles

Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

28 comments on “Paddock Diary: Belgian Grand Prix part two”

  1. Hello Dieter,

    Firstly, thank you for allways bringing to us formula 1 fans valuable information and updates on all things formula 1.
    Personally I can relate with everything that you described about SPA, as I also attended the Grand Prix.
    As a fan of the sport of course I understand driver safety is the most inportant, terefore the decision not to race was a fair one. However the organisers coud have done a much, much better job in a lot of areas that you have mentioned.
    It was my first GP experience and unfortunatelly it concludes with massive dissapointment.

    Reply moderated
    1. Sorry to read how instead of having a great time, you ended up in the wet, cold waiting for a “race” that never really happened Corina. I do hope you manage to go another time and get a better experience!

  2. What was the issue with 2000 British Grand Prix?

    1. @sumedh April weather.

    2. Bernie disliked the race/track (or the organisers), moved the race to early spring, and the surrounding area was a mud bath with cars stuck everywhere for days.

      1. That’s how I remember it, yes – the latest installment of Bernie v Silverstone. Bank Holiday weekend in the UK, so of course the weather was going to be inclement. Very lucky that I went with a travel company by coach rather than driving myself.

        Was the only person in a Grandstand inside of Maggotts/Becketts on Saturday morning and had great banter with the stewards. Sunday not much better – fog meant the Sunday Warm-Up was cancelled and there was no Drivers Parade.

        As for travel to/from Spa, sounds like things are even worse than when I last attended in 2007. Most years had to be on the coach 1.0-1.5 hours after the race finish – not a problem. Because of the traffic one year it was 3 hours before the coach had moved even one metre from the parking place and didn’t return to Brussels until midnight.

        Have seen tour coaches that needed to be pushed/slid out of muddy car park fields. Not surprised at all to hear about the unscrupulous farmers (some of whom had already charged for parking in their field…)

        Really felt for the fans at the circuit yesterday

        1. In previous years we’ve driven out of the field thinly disguised as a car park only by turning off TC and sliding along at 45 degrees

        2. Correction – Silverstone 2000 Warm-Up was delayed, not cancelled

        3. I think the disruption to train services in the region (those floods – repairs not nearly done) also hurt traffic (as well as some roads still waiting for repairs) Simon.

          In the past there were quite a few fans travelling by train, not sure that worked as well this year.

    3. Bernie wanted the BRDC to upgrade Silverstone. So he punished them with an April date.

    4. sumedh, there is a long tale to that. Bernie wanted to move the Grand Prix to somewhere not run by the BRDC – he wasn’t picky about where. However, the then-owner of Brands Hatch, Nicola Foulston, successfully pitched for a Grand Prix. However, environmental factors scuppered the attempt. According to the book “Bernie’s Game”, Nicola never seriously expected the race to be held at Brands Hatch but saw value in making the bid. She was able to re-sell the rights quite favourably to Silverstone and got some sort of commission from it. Because of the way it was done, Silverstone ended up not having to make upgrades Bernie wanted and would usually make pre-requisite for new contracts (Nicola being happy to waive those in exchange for more profit – after all, Brands Hatch was hardly going to benefit from its rival improving its facilities…) Nicola proceeded to have an early retirement and became one of the few people ever to defeat Bernie in a commercial deal.

      Bernie, keen to make sure the BRDC knew it didn’t have all the power in the relationship, scheduled the British Grand Prix to April. It is believed he hoped Silverstone would negotiate the upgrade obligation in exchange for a more favourable date, but it didn’t happen, partly because there wasn’t time for the upgrades Bernie wanted to happen before an April 2000 date. Bernie knew that British springs tend to be rather wet, but I don’t think he planned for it to be quite as wet as that particular April turned out to be.

      Two weeks of constant rain filled the water table to the point where the campsites were already soggy before anyone turned up. Back then, most of Silverstone’s car parks for F1 were grass fields (no longer true due to frequently hosting major events), so on Friday, 60,000 people turned up in about 25,000 cars and promptly turned everything to mud. On Friday night, Silverstone and local police had to order spectators not to travel by road on Saturday, in the hope this would salvage the car parks in time for Sunday’s race. Pedestrians (whose cars were mostly stuck in campsites), coaches (which stuck to the tarmac roads) and anyone using their car strictly to go to the paddock (and its tarmac car park) were exempt from the order, which is how Simon got to his grandstand.

      While car parks were open on Sunday, cars didn’t do very well in the grass ones, traffic jams hit a record 25 miles (usually the tailbacks were 10-20 miles on Sunday) and the problems hit the regular news rather than just the sporting headlines. Bernie was super-embarrassed, insisted on even more upgrades from Silverstone (including all-tarmac car parks, which hadn’t been on the original list*) and used the bad headlines as an excuse to consider the contract null and void unless it was all completed by 2002. Unsurprisingly, the boss of Silverstone quit his job.

      * – The orginal list of upgrades included a bypass for the A43 and enhanced traffic management (to avoid the massive traffic jams – they’re mostly a thing of the past, though warnings on nearby motorways on the relevant weekends continue to this day so motorists trying to get from Derby to Milton Keynes don’t get caught up in it), improved media centre (though Silverstone later managed to get that delayed to 2010), a park-and-ride service (which ran until 2010), better signage and generally improved aesthetics.

      1. @alianora-la-canta

        Thanks for your informative summary (and the namecheck) 😀

        I remembered (vaguely, before reading your words) Nicola Foulston’s involvement – just Googled her name and she’s Chief Executive of a law firm now

        1. That early retirement didn’t stick… (In Bernie’s Game, it was suggested that one of Nicola’s motives in the affair was to get an early retirement and avoid an early death through overwork. It also indicated that she in fact was able to retire on the back of this particular deal).

  3. AJ (@asleepatthewheel)
    30th August 2021, 15:56

    Television viewers, too, deserved better – particularly from certain commentators who spouted absolute nonsense that fuelled the ire as they scurried to plug gaps

    Thank you thank you @dieterrencken for addressing this.

    The only thing worse than not having a race yesterday, was not having a race and listening to Croft, Brundle, and Chandhok spew no end of garbage over the microphone. Sometimes, the best thing a commentator can do is not speak.

    1. I agree wholehearted. All I can say thank you to my two year old. He insisted that we switch the channel. We had a very afternoon watching the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse …

      Reply moderated
    2. @asleepatthewheel
      Agreed, they were talking utter rubbish.

      Whilst it must have been difficult to fill the air to hear Crofty going on about moving the race to Monday and Brundle wittering on about how many laps they’d done, whether the clock had started, etc was painful.

      Chanhok I can forgive as he was being drenched in the paddock and was not as insensible as those two.

      1. Genuinely curious to know what else you think they could/should have talked about/presented during the 4 hours?

        1. Brundle has been to hundreds of Grand Prix as a driver and a commentator and he is a brilliant narrator, so why not fill those hours telling anecdotes from past (rain) races?

        2. Accurate information would have been a good start.

        3. Hm, Emma, I would think that other broadcasters did better, an example being the F1TV pitlane channel. As @alianora-la-canta mentions, the first thing would be to supply accurate info on the reality we get.

          And (I admit, i did not watch all of it since I took the oppertunity of the delay to drive home from our weekendhome before watching the “race” at home) they used the opportunity to show some tech talk, talk about all sorts of things, shift in interviews they might use for pre show or after show otherwise etc. Overall they did a decent job of a hard situation, as others have done in the past.

  4. certain commentators who spouted absolute nonsense

    I don’t know… I stayed in my seat for the whole thing, myself the masochist, but I think Sky did quite a good job with what they had in hand. How can you endure 4 hours of nothing? Crofty plays the role of someone who doesn’t know anything and might ask ridiculous questions, and the others try to answer. They commented on the possibilities of having a race on monday and if I remember correctly, Brundle quickly said that was far from possible…

    I don’t like Crofty at all, and not a fan of Karun either, but I think, considering the situation, they did a good job. I mean, not even the FIA nor the teams knew what was happening, and Crofty and Brundle’s confusion was just the broadcasted version of a lot of other respected journalists on twitter, for instance.

    1. Had I meant Sky specifically I would have said Sky specifically. I know of at least four broadcast teams who spoke about a Monday race.

  5. …enterprising farmer charges €20 per car…

    This is relatively fair given cost of fuel, wear and tear etc. I mean, he didn’t have to trod out into the rain and help out (even if for a fee).

    1. Just doing the basic maths, for €1,000 to be made at €20/car, assuming a relatively tight 6 minutes per car: (€1000/€20) * 6 min = 300 minutes = 5 hours (also assuming no breaks). So to crack into the thousands as suggested seems completely unfeasible (unless of course, the enterprising farmer did indeed pull several hundred vehicles out over the course of 10+ hours).

      In my experience pulling out vehicles, it takes longer than 6 minutes…

  6. For those of you that want to park in wet fields , and not need help getting away:
    Use snow chains, works nearly every time!
    I know a lot of people have them but none who take them to the field trips.

    1. Belgium forbids snow chains on anything other than ice or snow.

      1. Belgium forbids them on the road. But the Spa-parkings / meadows aren’t roads, are they?
        Off-road you can use whatever fits your need, as long as you don’t damage anothers property.
        Using snow chains will help prevent spinning your wheels, and you’ll do less damage to the meadow if you use them with common sense.
        I’ve never had complaints, not even when the farmer and the cops were seeing me pulling a van with my Golf I in the early nineties… But as I said, common sense: no trench-digging.
        Nowadays I don’t go to F1 anymore, too expensive and far too restrictive.

        1. Snow chains damage mud fields, so…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments are moderated. See the Comment Policy and FAQ for more.
If the person you're replying to is a registered user you can notify them of your reply using '@username'.