Paddock Diary: 2023 Belgian Grand Prix

2023 Belgian Grand Prix

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If the Formula 1 field weren’t looking forward to the summer break already, they undoubtedly were after a sodden weekend at Spa-Francorchamps.


I arrived at my hotel in Luxembourg on Wednesday – the race may be in Belgium, but I was staying in a completely different country for this round. Tired after spending just a handful of hours back home after Hungary, I was keen to get started.

My first media commitment of the weekend was a group discussion with Aston Martin’s Mike Krack, after which I spent some more time with him for an exclusive feature which will appear here later. He confronts the high-pressured job of team principal with an unshakeable calm and a reserved nature.

We chatted about the tough schedule and how exhausted we all were heading into the summer break. We were all getting a bit tetchy from the back-to-back race weekends and high workload, we agreed.

In contrast, Daniel Ricciardo was up next with his trademark wide smile. “I thought you would all have forgotten me by now!” he joked as we sat down for our second pre-weekend chat with him since his return.

Videos of Ricciardo shouting Pierre Gasly’s name across the paddock keep popping up in my social media feeds. We shared a joke about it afterwards and Ricciardo threw his head back with a belly laugh. It’s not hard to make Ricciardo laugh but it still feels good.

Max Verstappen was swamped by 30-odd journalists. His maturity is growing seemingly with every race and he very calmly answered every question thrown at him. One that did strike me as interesting was when I asked about McLaren’s pace and how he felt finally having a little competition out there.

“No, I like solo racing,” came the response. I followed it up by questioning his reason for being a racing driver then. He again shrugged it off and said it was fine with a little twinkle in his eye. Walking away I couldn’t work out if he was joking or not.

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Lando Norris, McLaren, Spa-Francorchamps, 2023

With rain already hammering down as I left my hotel, I didn’t have high hopes of seeing any cars on track. Strolling up the paddock, I made way for Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff who bellowed a ‘hello’ as he sprinted past, with the practice schedule about to get underway.

The rain came down and practice was interrupted. After the chequered flag, I popped out quickly to grab a coffee as I heard my phone chime. Alpine had sacked their team principal Otmar Szafnauer and sporting director Alan Permane.

CEO Bruno Famin was to become the new interim team principal and Alpine very kindly arranged for a small group of media to speak with him in greater length after his appearance in the FIA press conference. He had a few key themes which he returns to several times as he was probed for explanations for the ousting of Szafnauer, who was appointed to run the team less than a year-and-a-half ago, and Permane, one of the most loyal and long-serving employees anywhere in the paddock.

An exciting qualifying session for the grand prix featured Verstappen setting the fastest lap but falling to sixth due to a penalty, promoting Charles Leclerc to pole position. Sitting down in the press conference I caught Leclerc’s eye as Tom Clarkson, the press conference mediator, told Verstappen of his eight-tenths margin over the field. Widening his eyes and raising his eyebrows, Leclerc smiled at me and I understood what he was thinking: the Red Bull is just too fast.

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I left my hotel early, made good time – and on entering the track was immediately sent in the wrong direction. After around an hour or so of touring campsites and back roads I found myself at the medical centre where a stern policeman started shouting at me. Politely pointing out I had been sent this way, I spotted other cars had bore stickers which were slightly different to mine, and I had been sent on a wild goose chase.

Trying to keep my cool, I eventually found my way in. Finally reaching the circuit in time for the sprint race’s qualifying session, I tried to put my frustrations with bad traffic management at tracks behind me and remind myself how lucky I was to be there.

It turned out I could’ve extended my tour of Spa’s car parks as the session was heavily delayed by rain. Once it began, a groan rippled through the media centre as Oscar Piastri’s provisional pole position time was beaten by Verstappen. Don’t mistake this for a media vendetta against Red Bull or Verstappen – many would just like the opportunity to write about someone else at the top.

Not having an opportunity to speak to any of the drivers before the race, I headed for the grid. The sprint race grid is frantic – once you’re on and the cars are in place it’s quickly time to get off again. As I stepped back into the media centre the heavens opened and the sprint race was delayed further.

Birthday boy Fernando Alonso was first to appear afterwards. Drivers have a wonderful way of saying very little when they are at fault for a retirement and he was not playing ball with short answers.

As most drivers filtered through I noticed how tired they were starting to look. Ricciardo was the only one to arrive with a big smile on his face. The summer break definitely couldn’t come quickly enough.

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Leaving early for our normal Sunday morning interviews with technical staff, the traffic was already building around the circuit. The 35-minute journey took an hour, but regardless I was in and ready for race day.

It was a busy morning of speaking to teams ahead of the race. Pirelli added an extra session with Mario Isola following criticism of their wet weather tyres by many drivers the day before. George Russell branded them “pointless”. Isola conceded changes are needed but indicated the route forward rests partly on F1’s ongoing tests of ‘spray guards’ to improve visibility in wet conditions.

The grid was packed as usual. As the national anthem finished I encountered Toto Wolff, whose appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme aired that morning. “I didn’t realise how big it was in the UK!” he admitted as I explained even my sister had heard it. Among his picks was a favourite of mine by Paolo Nutini.

When Oscar Piastri and Carlos Sainz Jnr collided at the start, I headed down to the media pen to speak to them both. This makes it difficult to follow the rest of the action as there are no screens in the pen.

Sainz took a long while to appear so I managed to catch quite a bit of the coverage of Verstappen skilfully working his way to the front. A standout performer was Lando Norris who had started the race on medium tyres, changed to the hards, dropped down the order like a stone but switched to the softs ahead of the rain. It was perfect timing as he started to climb his way back up. He finished seventh as the softs cooled down.

The weekend ended with a long drive across three countries to get to the Channel Tunnel where long delays awaited. However, for the second race weekend in a row, I found myself being followed by an F1 driver. After spotting Sainz in my mirrors in Hungary, this time it was an Aston Martin with Lance Stroll in the passenger seat.

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2023 Belgian Grand Prix

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Author information

Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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9 comments on “Paddock Diary: 2023 Belgian Grand Prix”

  1. Coventry Climax
    1st August 2023, 18:35

    Nice read again. I like these diaries!

  2. Thanks, Claire.
    All the flavor of the weekend without my getting wet!
    I’ve been to Spa on a rainy weekend before.
    Not only wet, but cold, too!

  3. Stop being so submissive
    You’re a pro, earning a living and amplifying the message of F1 to the world

    “Making Daniel laugh”
    “Wolff bellowing”
    “Wolf loving the same song”
    “Charles looking me in the eye”
    “Alpine so kindly held a press conference”
    Etc etc

    1. Yep.

      It’s Spa. Try paying for a ticket to be there and missing half the morning because the coach was stuck in traffic and/or misdirected. Or find that when you do finally arrive, ordinary ticket-holders can’t enter the circuit at La Source anymore – that’s reserved for Paddock Club and VIPs. Entry for ordinary ticket-holders is (at best) a half-hour walk to the entrance between La Source and Eau Rouge.

      Try being on a coach waiting to leave the circuit and moving one metre in 3 hours…

      “Stern policeman started shouting at me” – how about being attacked by a policeman’s rottweiler-type dog. While standing in a General Admission area? 🤨

      Plenty about Aston Martin again. Yet nothing about Alfa Romeo or Williams (to name but two)

  4. No screens in the media pen is pretty bizarre. How are people meant to cover both the race and the behind the scenes?

    1. Behind Piastri

      and another one (switched off) at 12:22

  5. Many thanks Claire. Always good.

  6. Nice how you delete comments you don’t like even if they are honest feedback….

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