4 September 2019

Thoughts at Spa

Sadly, there is no time to put together a green notebook from Belgium, there are simply too many things happening and I am leaving today for Monza. Instead, I thought I would publish the column that I wrote in GP+ magazine about the weekend in Spa.

In the days before political-correctness was truly out of control, I managed to get myself into trouble by describing visits to Spa as being like having a schizophrenic mistress: incredibly seductive one day and leaping out of the cupboard with a knife the next. It’s a long time ago, perhaps even before the phrase “bunny-boiler” had entered the language, which I believe was when the movie Fatal Attraction first came out in 1987. Perhaps I was with an unstable lady at the time and it seemed a good analogy, I honestly don’t remember the details.

The comparison did not go down well with earnest folk who wrote in to complain to my editor that schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder and it should never be mentioned in such a frivolous manner.

Each year when I go back to Spa, which I do with great pleasure, I think of this and conclude that it really is the best analogy there is for the circuit because on a good day Spa is glorious. It’s exciting, evocative and sexy. It’s fast, dangerous and thrilling. And utterly seductive... On a bad day it is horrible - and downright scary. There are times when you curse the place, but we keep coming back and I think perhaps that if there is ever a day when Spa, Monza and Suzuka are no longer on the F1 calendar, it will perhaps be time to seek the pleasures of bucolic backwaters and retire from the sport.

I arrived at Spa after a summer break that was completely different to all the others I have enjoyed over the years. It was what some folk would call “a staycation”. I remained at home and enjoyed the place I live, rather than rushing around the world, as I do most of the time. As things turned out, this was not as restful as I had imagined because a while ago an architect pal of mine came to visit and noted that a very little (and very old) house that sits in my garden was covered in concrete rendering and that this meant that the wooden beams inside would rot, and the structure would eventually fall down as the wood turned to dust. So I started chipping away to see what the situation was and found that things were dire. And so I spent my time off reverse engineering this medieval construction, replacing beams and putting the whole thing back together again. The structural work took much longer than I imagined but one day soon I will have a new half-timbered cottage and also the knowledge that it is something that I did myself.

In any case, it has been an interesting challenge and, in addition to gaining some more muscles and more than a few bruises and splinters, I arrived for the Belgian event feeling completely relaxed and unstressed. It reminded me of Winston Churchill’s habit of building brick walls when he wanted to relax, which led to him joining a building workers’ union in 1928 with a membership card that read: ‘Winston S Churchill, Westerham, Kent. Occupation: Bricklayer’.

Anyway, at Spa the weather on Friday was terrific and there were conversations about whether or not there is anything better in the world than a good day at Spa...

But then on Saturday afternoon, the dark side was there again. Anthoine Hubert, a rising French star, unknown to the general public but rated by those in the business, died following a very nasty crash at Raidillon at the top of the Eau Rouge hill. It was one of those accidents that happen from time to time in the sport when things just go wrong and it cannot be avoided. Safety precautions can only do so much. Yes, one can make cars stronger and push back barriers and while this helps, it will not stop accidents happening. On Saturday night we went back to our digs, feeling wretched. The F1 world is not used to such things these days and the pain of losing a bright young talent, aged only 22, was intense.

It is part of our job to deal with such things when they occur, but this was particularly cruel, because it was one of those accidents which could have befallen any one of the drivers. It was simply a matter of Fate (or whatever) pointing a finger at someone and saying: “It’s your turn!” for no reason other than the fact that the world is fickle and some people are lucky, and others are not. Hubert was just unlucky. It doesn’t make it better to know this. It doesn’t make it any easier to accept. It simply delivers the message that no matter how much work is done with safety, the sport can never be safe. The work that has been done – and continues to be done - cannot stop the fact that things go wrong and if a driver is pushing the limits, he or she must recognise the risks, rationalise them, accept them and know that one day their name might be on the bullet. The thing that drives them to do this is a passion for what they do. They don’t want to die young and they do not believe that they will. It will always be the other guy, but they accept the possibility and this is what makes them special and different. The sport is never going to be completely safe and they are truly living on the edge - and loving what they do. The sport is much more scientific than it used to be and things are learned from each and every accident. But there are still limits and there is still luck. These are not subjects that racing drivers enjoy discussing and it is rare that one expresses what it is they do - and why.

However, at the recent memorial event for F1 Race Director Charlie Whiting, Sebastian Vettel gave a fascinating insight into the motivations of racing drivers. “In motorsport, we depend on the stopwatch,” he said. “We depend on time. We chase time. We become experts in chasing time. Sometimes it appears we catch it. We’re able to hold on to it for a moment before the moment is gone again. We go in circles, chasing time. We forget the world around us. It feels like flying. For us, it is the greatest feeling we can experience. But it comes at a cost. The risk we take is one worth taking to get that feeling, again and again.”

That was what Anthoine Hubert was doing at Spa on Saturday afternoon. He will never grow old and we will never know what he might have achieved, but if nothing else - and it is not much comfort – we know that he died doing what he loved to do. So let us remember Anthoine Hubert in that way, celebrating his victory at Monaco earlier this year.

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