2002 Belgian Grand Prix Trip Report

Andrew Balfour remembers his first race in Europe, the 2002 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps.

All photos © f1destinations.com.

Growing up in Adelaide, I was fortunate to attend almost all the Formula One Grands Prix held in the city from 1985-1995. It made me a huge fan of the sport and caused many a bleary-eyed start to the week as I stayed up late on Sunday nights watching the European races. The Belgian GP, held at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the picturesque Ardennes region southwest of Brussels, always stood out. Steeped in motor racing history, it is held partially on public roads which undulate their way through the forest and is widely regarded to be one of the last great Grand Prix circuits.

My ticket was booked months in advance and after all the anticipation, it was time to head to London to meet up with my Aussie mate who would travel with me. After rising at 4am, getting to the circuit from London was remarkably easy. Taxi, train, plane, bus. Apart from the short taxi ride at the start, the Ryanair flight was the cheapest form of transport we used. Hopelessly ill prepared for camping, we did thankfully remember to pack the tent.

Arriving at the circuit on Friday morning as the F1 cars thundered around the forest was a spine tingling moment. We walked to the top of the nearest hill and pitched our tent among the towering pines and German camper vans before going to watch the action at Eau Rouge, widely considered one of the most daunting and challenging corner in the whole of F1.

In the afternoon we took the bus to the nearby town of Stavelot in search of a cash machine for my friend. I didn’t fancy funding both of us for the entire weekend, particularly after having already encountered the overpriced food and drink at the track. Despite knowing that the last bus back to the circuit left at 6pm, we still managed to miss it. I blame my mate, who insisted a serving of ‘frites’ with mayonnaise was more important than being stranded 15km from where we needed to be. It was decided that we would hitch back and a friendly local even made us a sign. To our utter surprise, the first car we hailed stopped and gave us a lift. He didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak French but I think he could tell we were grateful.

The combination of a lack of sleep, a day of trekking the circumference of the seven kilometre track and a healthy dose of adrenaline should have told us that drinking loads of alcohol was not a great idea. We proceeded to get drunk in no time. The major sponsor of the weekend was Fosters Beer. You may think we would have felt like we were at home, but the truth is that Australians do not drink Fosters. I have vague recollections of us boasting to anyone who would listen that there were in fact some real Australians at the Fosters ‘Australian bar’ that evening. Somehow, we found our tent at the end of the night. The amateur pyrotechnics and campside parties would normally have kept me awake, but I slept like a baby.

It didn’t take us long to encounter the ‘Schumi army’ as they made up the majority of fellow fans. They were an interesting breed, largely middle aged, overweight and stuck in a 1980’s time warp. Never had we seen so many moustaches, mullets and cut-off jeans, topped off of course with a Schumi cap. Their music, rubbish German dance hits, became the soundtrack of the weekend.

The pretty little town of Francorchamps bordered the circuit close to where we camped and this is where we spent most of our time each day once the on-track action was finished, resting our tired legs and downing frothy Belgian beers. It was great to share the experience with so many other nationalities – the aforementioned Germans, Dutch, English, Finnish, even a few fellow Australians. During the three days of the event, we managed to view action from almost every corner of the track. No big TV screens or audible commentary meant we were largely in the dark as to what was actually happening, but it didn’t matter to us.

On race day, we should have found a vantage point early, as our Bronze (general admission) tickets didn’t include a grandstand seat. But we arrived at our chosen spot, the Pouchon bend, at least four hours after everyone else. After narrowly avoiding violence by daring to sit too close to some menacing-looking Schumi fans, we eventually found an uncomfortable perch on the side of the hill. At least my friend provided comic relief and livened up what was clearly a long wait for our fellow fans by nearly sliding down the hill several times on his worn out trainers.

For the record, Schumacher romped away with his tenth victory of the season. It didn’t matter to us that it was another Ferrari whitewash. Just being there was good enough. As we walked along the crowded track following the podium celebrations, taking in the post-race atmosphere, all that was left to do was pack up the tent and catch the slow bus to Verviers. And we still had another week on the continent to look forward to.

READ: Belgian Grand Prix Travel Guide

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