In this abnormal 2020 heading to Belgium and the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps at the end of August brings something resembling familiarity.
Only Austria – which became the season-opener – this weekend’s Belgian event, and next week’s Italian round at Monza have retained their original dates. All other 19 were either rearranged or cancelled.
The trees that surround Spa-Francorchamps are still green from summer, there is a Formula 1 paddock below the media centre and after a chilly start the sunshine broke through. And yet. There have been only six races, there hasn’t been a summer break, and there is no post-holiday socialising and catching-up due to bubbles and isolating.
Usually approaching Francorchamps temporary signs warn motorists of potential traffic build-ups but this year the dates of the race on an electronic screen have been replaced with a simple message: No Public Access. There is security in place at regular intervals and strict checks of access permits and passes. Francorchamps village itself is eerily quiet, with just locals and Formula 1 personnel roaming around, shorn of the spectators – usually Dutch, frequently inebriated – that festoon the local roads, spilling out of the pop-up bars and restaurants. Swaying orange-clad fans have often been a moving obstacle when negotiating the rural lanes.
At the circuit itself the drill is the same but different: for journalists the access point, the car park, the walk into the media centre has all been restructured. Signs – placed on each desk – inform you of the protocols – maintaining distances, wearing a mask – as well as the usual reminders over hygiene. There are mandatory coronavirus tests every five days and daily temperature checks. Where usually 12 people would sit in a group – six on each double table opposite one another – only two are permitted. A reminder of the revised operating approach was McLaren announcing an ‘Official Hygiene Supplier’ that will “supply the team with hand hygiene products.” If there’s a partner to be had someone will find it.
There was at least one sense of normality partially returning. Formula 1’s team motorhomes, usually an ever-present figure at European events, were back in the paddock for the first time since pre-season testing. At the opening six Formula 1 rounds temporary containers were used to house drivers and senior team personnel but these have not been brought to Spa-Francorchamps. Several teams installed their usual motorhomes while McLaren, Red Bull and AlphaTauri utilised more modest units – typically used at testing – instead of constructing the enormous Brand Centre and palatial Holzhaus. Only team members are permitted access to their respective motorhomes.
The absence of the Orange Army roaming Spa-Francorchamps contributed to the subdued atmosphere but the return to the circuit for the first time since last year’s awful Formula 2 accident was another factor.
The death of Anthoine Hubert and the serious injuries sustained by Juan Manuel Correa shocked the motorsport community and for a whole generation – including this writer – it was the first-time experiencing death at a race track. At 5pm the race began. At 7pm obituaries and tributes were being formed. Hubert was a close friend of several drivers on the Formula 1 grid, most notably Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc, and both spoke eloquently on Thursday about their fallen colleague 12 months on.
“I have a lot of memories with him,” said Leclerc. “Some very good moments, some others that we have been fighting and it didn’t end well! Probably the first memory I have with Anthoine is my first ever French championship races, there was Esteban [Ocon], Pierre and Anthoine. Anthoine won that race, I was second until the last corner where I crashed with Esteban. These are memories I will always remember. Karting was very good days, especially ones when we were that young, between sessions every driver used to play together, that’s the first memory I have of Anthoine and probably one of the best.”
“From the age of 13 until I was 18 I spent basically from 7:30 at breakfast in the morning until 10pm in the evening each single day together,” said Gasly. “We were in the same classes, we were training together, we were racing together. “He was a very smart guy, very dedicated in everything he was doing. And that’s why I had huge respect for him. I actually know that I would have never achieved what I did without growing with him, because we were pushing each other so much, whether it was on track or off the track, that it just made me a better athlete.”
But the most poignant sight of the day was the return of Correa to the circuit.
Correa spent two months in hospital as doctors firstly saved his life, dealt with lung complications, and then carried out lengthy surgery on his fractured legs, allaying the risk of amputation. Correa has been undergoing painful rehabilitation – both physically and mentally – in his native Miami, as well as further surgical procedures, but accepted an invitation from Formula 2 to be present at Spa-Francorchamps. It marked his first appearance in the support paddock since that dreadful afternoon last August. A wheelchair-bound Correa visited the site of the accident and paid his own tribute to Hubert. Correa’s strength, and that of his family – not to mention the Huberts – since that awful day has been remarkable. That the Ecuador-born American has a 2021 Formula 2 return in his sights is extraordinary. Everyone wishes ‘JM’ all the very best in that pursuit, while Hubert will be remembered throughout the upcoming weekend.