The altitude change in feet between Stavelot (Lowest Point) and Les Combes, (Highest Point)
GT3 and GT4 cars
With the European GT4 Championship joining the field.
Client: TCF Sportscars
Location: Francorchamps, Belgium.
Winner: #11 TF Sport Aston Martin.
I’ve got a confession to make. Before last weekend I had never been to Spa. It is an oversight I have now fixed so now there are just two more European circuits unchecked on my bucket list, the Nordschliffe and the Circuit de La Sarthe. Plans are in progress to tick both of these circuits next year.
British GT made their annual trip across ‘La Manche’ and for the first time, both Connor Jackson, TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk’s British GT Supports writer, and I made the pilgrimage with them.
Thursday started early and rather than setting course straight for the port my first stop was Cambridge Services. Connor was joining me by train halfway down the road because getting trains from Norfolk to Sheffield is very expensive before 0900. Of course with a route of M1 – M18 – A1 – A14 to get to the station I had to leave early doors.
Connor arrived aboard the new car, specially acquired for this trip at just after ten and we set course for the Port of Dover. We had to be at check in by 13:15 and arrived at the gate to the port just in time. A trip through the customs shed left us certain we wouldn’t be on the right boat, a feeling compounded by the 30 minute queues at the check in booths. Fortunately though we got our boat, which was running slightly behind to accommodate increased security at the port.
Coffee on the boat and a journey spent mainly out on deck saw us arrive in Dunkirk on schedule for the run to our accommodation in Verviers.
Long journeys are a fact of life for me, given my other job as a long distance truck driver but having a passenger is new. Add to that the fact that Connor isn’t a fan of Radio 4 and I cant stand most other stations, we found ourselves looking for a game to play. Brainwave came at the boarder between France and Belgium. A is for Alberto Ascari, Be is for Jack Brabham… This game kept us going all the way through Belgium, through two return trips to the circuit and all the way back to Cambridge on Sunday! Though I am sure that Connor cheated with some of his Japanese Formula 4 drivers for Y.
The hotel was basic but fine for our purposes, the food was divine, add in Belgian beer on tap and I was perfectly happy. It’s not often I drink but when in Belgium…
We were up early on Friday, both of us eager to experience the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps for the first time. We skipped breakfast at the hotel, looking to find food at or on the way to the circuit. That one failed, but I had a job to do and put my rumbling tummy to the back of my mind, returned to the car and headed out to Les Combes for FP1.
Now comes the complaints.
The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is the longest circuit on the Formula 1 calendar, its so hilly its almost mountainous and the paddock is surrounded by red zones so you cant just get behind the fence at pit out and hike to your target location. Given all this you would think that they would have more than one gate open to media to get their cars into the circuit.
You would also think that Kronos Events, the people organising the Funcup 25 Hours event that British GT was supporting, would give the media car passes that let them drive around the infield roads to get to different corners. Failing that, you would expect more than one infield and two outfield gates in the catch fencing to be open during the sessions.
All of your expectations would be disappointed.
Having failed to drive into the venue at another gate I parked the car back in the car park to the sound of GT3 cars well into a session I should have been shooting. So far I hadn’t taken a single shot. A quick rethink sent me in the direction of the Bus Stop chicane, which was locked up tight so I headed through the tunnel aiming for Double Gauche (Pouhon).
I finally found an open gate at Double Gauche and got myself trackside, five minutes after the red flag came out due to a massive accident for the #17 Aston Martin Vantage and the #24 Bentley Continental at the entrance to Les Combes. I try not to be angered but I cant stop my blood boiling a little when I think that if Spa offered similar access to Silverstone for an event, I would have been there to capture the accident.
Those shots could have been the difference between profit and loss for the weekend.
So I finally got to turn the camera on and do some work at the start of the Miltek Sport Volkswagen Racing Cup qualifying session. Through the 20 minute touring car session, the following 20 minutes of Protyre Motorsport Ginetta GT5 Challenge qualifying and the first session for the BRDC British Formula 3 Championship I worked my way from Double Gauche, through the corner with no name and what we know as Rivage, the Belgians call Bruxelles, getting just to Les Combes in time for the Lotus Cup Europe race.
I wasn’t shooting the Lotuses for anyone and knowing that I was going to have thousands of photos by the end of the weeekend, I didn’t feel like shooting it for my own benefit either so I went looking for a place to shoot the second GT session from. Bad news for me, I was on the wrong side of the circuit because the infield side of the Kemmel Straight had been designated a red zone while I was trackside due to massive damage to the catch fencing after the Bentley accident.
The racing surface is divine, a flawless loop of tarmac draped across the Ardennes Forest. Beyond the armco though the place is a nightmare, a sea of locked gates and massively inflated prices.
Which is more shots than we take in total at a Britcar meeting.
Thats a round trip and doesn't include driving around the circuit.
Cups of Coffee
We love French coffee.
Unable to get the shots of FP2 that I wanted I headed back down to Double Gauche to get the start of the session from there and head round to Stavelot and the start of the Blanchimont red zone. Just as I was passing no-name the most beautiful sight I have seen at the race track appeared behind me. A media shuttle bus!
The shuttle offered to drop me back to the media centre so that I could import the photos I already had and get ready for the second practice session. Importing took longer than I expected though and by the time I got back out the shuttle had disappeared. I tried to find another way in to the track but by the time I had found my second open gate of the day, at La Source, it was Lotuses again.
I hung around at La Source for the start of the racing, catching the Volkswagens and the Formula 3 cars, moving down through Eau Rouge as the Ginettas headed out on track. Soon after the Ginetta race it was time for British GT qualifying and I had made it up to Raidillon so made the decision to start shooting there and work my way back down to Eau Rouge. I was in public areas by now as all of Eau Rouge was red zone.
Then I caught a break, the kind marshals at the top of Raidillon had a cabin to stand in and they were happy for a couple of us photographers to shelter behind the hut and shoot Eau Rouge. I spent a large part of the session there, getting some of the shots I had hoped for on the way over. Finally something was going right.
After the session it was a hike back to the media centre via something very cold and wet. I had been out for about four hours in blazing sun, broken only briefly by a welcome shower of rain. I was parched and fancied a drink. Next complaint: Three euros for a can of Pepsi!! The offer of lunch for eighteen euros was rejected pretty easily too.
Photo processing took up the remainder of the day, with Joe Hudson from TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk covering the last of my photographic duties for the day. A long planned photo processing session was a bit waylaid by dinner and a great political discussion with Connor but after hiking what felt like Mount Everest for the day I was shattered. Time for bed.
Race day dawned and knowing that there was no chance of eating at the circuit breakfast was taken at the hotel. We shot off to the track for the first of the races and thanks to Joe’s new role as second shooter, alongside his British GT writing duties, I could put a serious dent in the couple of thousand photos I still had to process from Friday’s action.
The shuttle bus had proven highly unreliable so I thought better than to trust it for the race. I instead opted to work in pit lane and its surrounding environs for the important bit, which gave me a chance to shoot the start and the podium and opened up yet more frustrations.
At the start of the year I invested £250 in gearing up for British GT 2016. I ordered a rock climbing helmet and firesuit for pit lane, both being mandatory in British GT. Of course with the European GT4 Championship visiting there was a little leeway in the rules on pit lane clothing as their rules are different but I was doing BGT so I was stuck on British rules.
There I was, snapping and sweating in equal measure in full three layer nomex on a scorching day as team members, VIP guests and even other media were walking around a live pitlane with hot refueling in shorts and tee shirt. If I had tried the same thing the SRO would have been well within their rights to revoke my season accreditation.
I headed to pit in for a while, having wanted that unique pit in shot you get at Spa since I decided I was heading out there. That finally enabled me to shoot some angle on the Bus Stop Chicane, though it wasn’t the best angle available. Just after the halfway mark I headed back to the media centre to import, process, drink coffee and get out of the fireproof onesie. I was shattered but still had a little work to do, grabbing what podium shots I could before calling it a photographic day.
I had originally wanted to shoot some of the 25h Funcup race but I had too much British GT work to do and too little time. As a team we headed up on the roof to watch over a hundred Volkswagen Beetles pile into Eau Rouge. It was impressive as anything I have seen in motorsport so far.
With the action for us over and done with we packed up and headed back to the hotel. The return trip started on Sunday, via a McDo, the Port of Calais and a quick stop at Cambridge Station again.
So my opinions of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps then. The racing surface is divine, a flawless loop of tarmac draped across the Ardennes Forest. Beyond the armco though the place is a nightmare, a sea of locked gates and massively inflated prices.
Following a ‘minor’ race at the circuit is very hard. There were no cut pictures so Joe and Connor had their work cut out for them. Track side it was even harder as the commentary switched at random between English, French and Flemmish. My French is passable, my English is spot on unsurprisingly, my Flemmish is non-existent.
The marshals are delightful, easily as friendly as the British marshals but the parking stewards are a nightmare. I spent more time trying to get places than I spent shooting the Ginettas. The shuttle bus was as regular as alien invasions and the local Fritrie gave both Connor and I gut rot.
Still, the circuit is what we were there for and its the most amazing piece of tarmac I have ever shot. Several of my photographer friends have shot major events at Spa. F1, WEC and the 24 Hours of Spa. They all say that Spa is a very impressive and welcoming place.
That tells me that British GT 2016 isn’t going to be my final visit to Spa. Plans are in the works to get to one of the big ones in 2017, probably the FIA World Endurance Championship. Perhaps I’ll get on better at one of the larger events.