X: “I hate Team Mercedes”- Xavier Jungers, motto of the weekend
It’s time for Belgium, part 3: The Extraordinary Weekend. (Yes, I gave this post a corny nickname). I apologize again for the delay, as I’ve been getting settled into Madrid. I’ve been here a little over a week now and things are finally starting to slow down, so hopefully soon I’ll start writing posts about life in Spain!
Anyways, back to more Belgium. As with the first and second posts, this one will follow in the same format breaking down each day, with some pictures at the end, although this post covers less days and will have less pictures than previously. Quick forewarning, I added a couple videos to my post but I had a lot of trouble with them since I’m still learning this whole web design; it appears when you load them they’re very jittering the first time through before they play smooth. I’m still learning how this all works so I promise next time I use videos it’ll be easier!
This post should cover the next three days, which were the weekend, and focus on my adventures at the Belgian Gran Prix and a Bundesliga match.
Friday: Practice and FiestaCity
One of the main highlights of my trip to Belgium was attending the Belgian Grand Prix (colloquially known as Spa) at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, so that was the focus of this weekend. I went to the event with Xavier and one of really cool friends, Max. We had tickets for the full weekend (practice, qualifying, main event).
Really fast I’m gonna post a picture of the track for reference, as I’ll mention the various turns and straights throughout the rest of the post.
Friday started off with us waking up quite early to head towards the track. The track isn’t very far from Xavier’s house, but we encountered a bit of traffic on the way. We were dropped off by Xavier’s mom around the backside of the track near Les Combes. We had to hike up a bit of a hill to get to the track, which provided a beautiful view in the morning because the track is in the middle of rural Belgian countryside. As we got closer we started passing through campgrounds, and seeing the crazy, passionate fans got us pumped up for the day. People had come from various European countries and drove giant semi trailers that unpacked into the most insane tailgating sites I’ve seen; we saw mobile bars, hot tubs, swimming pools, inflatable “clubs”, all built into trailers and trucks.
Once inside we took a spot on the Kemmel Straight and watched the first round of practice from the F1 drivers. After they finished and the lower series started practicing, we embarked on a full trip around the track. While the race (and the whole weekend) was extremely exciting, walking around the track might have been my favorite part of the Grand Prix. Coming from a background used the track setup of NASCAR, seeing a F1 track was an amazing experience. As a result of being located in a hilly countryside, the track is surrounded by dense woods (as well as woods being inside the “infield” of the track). In some parts, you have the fence separating the track, a few meters of a paved path to walk on, and then a forest that you could wander and get lost in. Some parts even had cute streams and fields; without the distant sound of car engines one could easily forget they were at a race track. This type of geography lends to another distinct difference from NASCAR, where fans sit in grandstands. At Spa you sat wherever you could find room. Fans would sit in the woods, find spots on fields and hills, and others would even climb trees and fences. Xavier told me a few weeks prior during the 24 Hours of Spa people were climbing the track billboards and sitting up there! Wherever you could fit a person, someone would be there watching guaranteed.
The walking lap around the track took a few hours. It’s hard to imagine how large these tracks are on TV, but walking a 7km (4.3mi) track that’s very hilly and densely wooded isn’t the easiest task! In addition, each turn or straight of the track is named and has unique history to it, so we stopped often as Xavier explained what each section of the track was named and relayed various famous events that happened at each one. Once we made it all the way around, we stopped to watch the end of practice at the Raidillon, arguably the most famous corner of the course, as it has an impressive 18% gradient, climbing 41m (134ft)! If you wanna see a short video of the cars at the Raidillon, click here, and here’s some more cars practicing as well.
Another thing that fascinated me was the Formula 1 crowd. While sitting in traffic in the morning I was seeing license plates from all over Europe – some as far as Czech Republic or Italy. Fans were extremely passionate about drivers or teams, wearing the appropriate colors and waving various flags. One driver, Max Verstappen, was born in Belgium, although he races under the Dutch flag, and he attracted an extremely large hometown crowd of Dutch people (as the Netherlands borders Belgium and isn’t too far). Xavier forewarned me that the Mercedes team (with drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton) have absolutely dominated the sport recently, and this track favored their cars heavily, so it was almost certain that they would win the race barring any major crash or rain.
After returning home from practice we had a relaxing afternoon in the pool and napping in the sun before dinner. Xavier, Olivier, and I then spent the rest of the night in downtown Verviers for FiestaCity, an annual party and free concert series. I met even more of Xavier’s friends and tried even more Belgian beers. Without a doubt, Friday night was the most exciting and crazy night of my entire Belgium trip!
Saturday: Qualifying and Bundesliga Match
After a (minimal) amount of sleep, we woke back up Saturday morning and made our way back to the track for qualifying. This time around we parked on the opposite side of the track, and went into the woods around the Chicane double turn, sitting on a large hill among a large group of people. I ended up practically sitting inside a bush, as there was no where else to sit; not the most comfortable seat I’ve ever had!
I won’t go into the specifics of how F1 qualifying works, but the basic principle is that drivers have a certain window in which they’re free to race when they want, and their fastest lap time is taken at the end of period and they’re ranked. The last couple get eliminated and the remaining drivers go again; rinse and repeat a few more times and you have your field set!
As I mentioned earlier, a very very large majority of the crowd were Dutch supporters there to see Max Verstappen race, and in the final qualifying round he placed with an extremely good time – good enough to take the pole position – and the crowd went absolutely nuts. Within a few seconds, however, his time was beaten by Nico Rosberg, but Verstappen ended up retaining the 2nd position and the crowd was still quite excited!
After qualifying, the three of us left and headed back to Xavier’s house. Earlier in the week Xavier had purchased tickets to see an opening weekend Bundesliga match (the highest division of German soccer, and one of the most popular leagues in the world). The match was in Mönchengladbach and was against local rivals Bayer Leverkusen. Both teams are two of the best in the country, finishing 4th and 3rd, respectively, in the Bundesliga the prior season, so this was a very hyped-up match.
We parked a short distance from the stadium and made our way inside just in time for the start of the match. Our seats were only six rows up behind one of the goals, so we had excellent views. Seeing as how most of us didn’t have any acting interest in the game, we all rooted for the home team, Gladbach. The atmosphere was similarly crazy to my experience at Standard, with the crowd constantly singing, cheering and waving flags, although the German fans were a bit more respectful (from my point of view, at least). At the very end of the first half during added time Gladbach scored a goal from right in front of us – and the crowd went absolutely bezezrk! We went into halftime in high spirits, further fueled by the cheap and delicious 2€ bratwurst that we ate during the break. American concession stands need to take a page out of some European clubs’ playbooks…
The second half was just as exciting; Leverkusen tied the game up in the 79′, but Gladbach scored the game-winner only six minutes later. With all due respect to the Belgian Jupiler league, it was clearly evident why German soccer is (among) the best in the world; the comparison between the two matches I’ve seen so far was akin to watching a D3 school back home playing a Saban-led Alabama. The stadium itself was beautiful, and even lit up green once it got dark.
Sunday: Race Day!
Not surprisingly, most of the day Sunday was focused on the main race (as well as the lower-division GP2, GP3, and Porsche Supercup series). We unfortunately got caught in massive track; the ~20 minute trip to Spa took us over 2 hours that morning. Much like Friday, we parked on the backside of the track as we wanted to spend the day watching the race from the Kemmel Straight again. Even more so than the previous days, it appeared we were walking among a sea of orange-clad Dutch fans all there to see Verstappen race. Xavier and Max jokingly commented they felt out of place in their own country!
After barely finding a seat on the hill, we watched the remaining lower-series events, drivers’ introductions, and the national anthem before the race finally got underway. By the time the cars took the track for the warm-up lap there was an insane amount of excitement in the air. For no reason in particular I decided to root for Team Ferrari, composed of drivers Kimi Raïkkönen and Sebastian Vettel. Unfortunately both for me and the local fans, our excitement deflated faster than a popped balloon when Verstappen crashed into both Ferrari drivers in the first turn on the first lap. Regardless of whose fault it truly was, all three drivers had problems the rest of the day. The other notable event was a crash in lap 9 by Renault driver Kevin Magnussen at the top of the Raidillon, which caused major damage to the track barriers and required a red flag to repair the wall. (For a quick video of the start, click here).
The rest of race went fairly smoothly; as predicted, Nico Rosberg got off to a fast start and was never seen by the rest of the field again. The other Mercedes driver, Lewis Hamilton, had to start at the back of the field due to breaking some engine rule, but he quickly pushed back up to the front of the field and managed to finish 3rd. Vettel finished 6th, Raïkönen finished 9th, and Verstappen finished 11th. Xavier, a big McLaren fan, was happy that Fernando Alonso finished 7th behind Vettel. One thing that surprised me was that as soon as the race ended, fans climbed the fences and starting running around on the track and stealing all sorts of advertisements and signs that were sitting around the track – all while security watched and didn’t care! Talk about a cool souvenir, I suppose?
After the race ended, we went to the final night of FiestaCity to see a concert by the Ivory Coast group Magic System (who I briefly included on my September monthly playlist) and to grab one last beer before the weekend finally ended. It’s safe to say we were all exhausted from the weekend and got an amazing night of rest that night!
Thanks as always for reading! I should finish my series of posts on my trip to Belgium with my next one, covering my last couple days in the country before I headed to Spain. Have a great weekend everyone!