A weekend at the Spa

No, not that kind of spa. Spa Francorchamps. My calamitous 2015 (and much better 2017) Belgian Grand Prix experience.

8th September 2018
Word count
Read time
14 mins

I'm what I'd call a casual F1 fan. I watch every race (my dad comes round to watch them with me), I follow the sport and know about all the news and updates, and I've been to Silverstone every year since 2013, but I'm not so hot on the history, and I don't have loads of merch and dedicated twitter accounts like some fans.

Spa Francorchamps in Belgium is considered to be one of, if not the best racetracks in the world, and has one of the most famous corners in the world, Eau Rouge and Radillion. The sweeping uphill turn is instantly recognisable to any motorsport fan.

In 2015, I decided to treat my dad to a trip away to go to the Belgian Grand Prix - I got tickets (in the grandstand at the top of Radillion), and he paid for the ferry and hotel.

2015 Belgian Grand Prix

We were getting the Ferry from Colchester to the Hook of Holland - it was an 8 hour crossing instead of 1-2 if going from Dover, but Dover was further, and would mean driving further in Europe.

I had some old Top Gear specials to watch on my iPad, and I had a snooze in the little cabin we had.

It took us 50 minutes to get off the ferry, but shortly after we got out onto the roads, we drove past this beauty.

This is a BMW E30 M3, widely considered to be one of the greatest sports saloons ever, and worth a small fortune. They are very rare, especially in good condition, and this one, I believe the Sport Evolution model, is even rarer, they only made 600 of them. I saw one of these on eBay reduced to £90k, and another one for £120k. These are incredibly sought after cars, and it was so cool to see one out on the roads. You can keep your Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Aston Martins, if there is one car that I have seen in person that I would have over any other, it would be this one.

We continued on through Holland to our hotel, getting a bit lost on the way as we got off the motorways and into the towns, but we eventually found it, albeit arriving two hours late. We had to find the owner to let us in but we got our room key. It was a small family-run hotel with really nice rooms.

I'd stay there again if we were ever in the area. We asked for somewhere god to eat, and found a restaurant still serving food, and had steak and chips.

The next day, we headed for the track, about an hour away. On the way I had to get fuel, and shortly after felt a loss of power in the car. I was flooring it in 5th on the motorway and could barely do 50 mph. I stopped to check the brakes weren't binding, and carried on, but had to stay in 4th gear to try and keep the revs up. Eventually it passed and I seemed to have full power again.

I turned the dash-cam footage from the journey into a time-lapse video.

We were there!

And now the trouble started.

We walked down to the track, and got to the ticker barriers. I gave my dad his ticket, and kept hold of mine. Mine got scanned and I got waved through, and my dad went to have his scanned.

And it didn't work.

The tickets weren't normal tickets with a barcode. No, that would be too simple. They had some sort of RFID chip in them that they scanned, and my dad's tickets were coming up on the reader as not activated.

As you can see, they cost €385 each. And it wouldn't scan. Pretty fucking poor really.

The issue was that there was obviously problems with ticket touts at the area, and people buying tickets that weren't valid. The bloke told us several people had bought tickets from people outside and they hadn't worked.

The thing was though, I had the packaging and letter from F1.com, and my ticket and my dad's were sequential numbers, so, what, we found a tout that happened to have a ticket with a serial number 1 away from mine?

Someone from the security team came over and we explained, they checked the booking, and they let us in. We thought that was the end of it.

Narrator: it wasn't.

We walked around the track to the stand, and we noticed that the tickets were all scanned again at the gates to the stands. And sure enough, when my dad's was scanned, it didn't work.

We tried to explain we'd had this issue at the main entrance and we got let through, but the guy had to double check. He was just doing his job, and he was very apologetic and was doing his best to get someone to come and verify, and was unsure why we hadn't been given a replacement ticket, but it was still incredibly annoying.

It took an hour for someone to arrive, during which we missed the driver parade and other race buildup. However, eventually someone came over, authorised us to go in, and we took our seats.

My dad went out to get burgers and chips (taking my working ticket with him so he could get scanned back in), and we watched the race. There was a group of loud Norwegians in front of us, but it was a great experience.

Afterwards, we made the long walk back to the car, and headed out. As usual with these things, getting out the car park takes longer than the race itself, and so it came to be, but once we got out onto the open roads we still had enough time to make the ferry. It left at 10pm, and there was only one we could get (it only ran twice a day).

Now, my dad doesn't like technology or trust sat-navs, and prefers to use his trusty map and road signs to navigate. I didn't have free roaming on my phone (I was on Three which has free roaming in some countries but didn't cover Belgium at the time, and free European roaming wasn't a thing at the time), so I didn't have a lot of choice.

We went through Brussels, where traffic, accidents, road works and diversions meant we were sent this way and that, but my dad insisted he knew where we were going.

Narrator: he didn't.

About half an hour after leaving Brussels, he said he wasn't seeing the road signs he was expecting. I pulled off the road to see where we were, and noticed the scale of our problem.

We'd been heading due south for the last 30 minutes, instead of north. By the time we got back to Brussels we would be 1 hour behind.

It would take us something like 2 hours and 15 minutes to get to the port, and the ferry left in 1 hour and 45 minutes.


I just said "Right. Time to fucking punch it."

I was going to make that ferry.

Narrator: he wouldn't.

I drove as fast as I could. The last hour or so through Holland, I was sat at 80-90 mph, in the dark, on the wrong side of the road having to (what felt like) undertake lorries at high speed, in heavy rain with standing water on the road. I've never had to concentrate on driving more than then.

We made a wrong turn near the port because there was a mess of junctions and roundabouts, but we eventually got to the port.

And there was no ferry.

Another car turned up shortly after, who said he'd called up to say he was going to be late, and had been told the ferry would wait for him (I guess a 30 minute delay on an 8 hour nighttime ferry crossing wouldn't have caused any problems). Nevertheless, it had gone.

So now we had to find a place to stay.

The town by the port was completely deserted, there was nobody around at all. Not a single car on the road, not a single person walking around. It was chucking it down with rain, and it just felt weird.

We drove around trying to find a hotel. My dad got out to try and find someone to ask, but didn't have much luck, and just came back soaked.

I ended up putting my sat-nav on, and tried to find somewhere, but it kept routing me onto a cycle path (of which there are plenty of in Holland) before jumping back onto the road, but I kept following the directions and getting confused.

If you can bear to watch, here is a 3 minute clip of me doing this. I've removed the sound because it was just me swearing and getting more and more worked up.

I had been driving for 6 hours, the last of which required a lot of concentration, and I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. It was the most mentally drained I think I've ever been. I was cross with my dad for the whole situation even though it wasn't really his fault, but ended up snapping, getting out the car and letting him drive.

We eventually found a hotel, we got a room each, and I could finally go to the toilet for the first time since we left the hotel in the morning (I do have an abnormally large bladder). I'd had 6 cans of Coke that day, and let's just say all that colouring has to go somewhere and it's not something I'll be doing again.

Neither of us got great sleep, and in the morning we laughed about all the noises we could hear - the windows wouldn't shut, church bells chiming throughout the night, the fridge clicking and whirring every five minutes, seagulls and jackdaws outside, the bin lorries coming, and just general noise.

We went to the ferry booking office to see what we had to get home, and we had to pay an additional fee to get onto the next ferry. We queued up right at the front so we'd be first on and first off. Surely this was the end of things going wrong?

Narrator: it wasn't.

The ferry arrived, the gates opened, and we headed towards passport control. I headed mine and my dad's passport to the guy in the booth. After a few minutes, he looks up.

"What happened to your passport?"

"Um, I gave it to you? What do you mean?

"What happened to it?"

"I don't know what you mean"

"It's damaged"

"What? How?"

It turned out there was a printing error with my passport. There was a perforated image of a bird's head as a security feature; if you were to remove the plastic to change the photo, the perforation would tear, thus showing the passport had been tampered with. What had happened was the top of the beak had torn, and had folded over the bottom part of the beak, so you could see through.

Now, I got this passport in 2007, and I noticed this see-through bit when I got it, but I just assumed it was intentional (after all, I don't know how the security features in passports work, and have to assume the Government wouldn't send me an invalid passport). Rather worryingly, I had been to Australia, and, more surprisingly, America, twice, on this passport. A passport with a failed security feature that was supposed to flag it as being tampered with. Thank fuck I never got held in either of those countries over this.

I explained this to the man in the booth but he wasn't satisfied, kept hold of my passport, and told me to go and wait over by the side for some border officials to come over.

Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me.

We waited, and two men came over, and I explained again. I basically said, look, you are completely correct, this passport is damaged, I didn't dispute that at all, but I explained I had had it since 2007, it had always been like this, and I showed them the stamps proving I'd been to those countries.

Ultimately, they let us go, but told me I would not be allowed back into Holland on that passport. Maybe I'm on a list somewhere now. How exciting.

So we boarded the ferry, and headed home. We watched Ant Man in the on-board cinema.

We had seen a guy with a sports car on a trailer when we were boarding. My dad asked him what he did for fuel, and explained the performance issues we had in my car, and he said a lot of the fuel in Europe, especially from the small independent stations, had water and high levels of ethanol in it, which explains why I had so little power, presumably until some of the poorer fuel had been burnt off. He said he brought fuel over from the UK in barrels on the ferry, to which my dad asked if that was allowed, and he replied saying probably not, he just doesn't tell them. Fair enough. I guess it's alright as long as they don't explode...

When we disembarked, as a final act of fuckery, the door wouldn't open on the ferry, so after waiting for 30 minutes, we all had to reverse off the entrance ramp. Honesty, I'm surprised the ferry didn't fucking sink or something.

I later complained to Formula 1 about the ticket, and they refunded me the full cost of that ticket, which was something at least. I also complained to the passport office, and they confirmed it was a manufacturing error and would give me a replacement free of charge.

2017 Belgian Grand Prix

We went again in 2017. This time, we got the ferry from Dover as it was a much shorter journey, and we also got a flexible booking, so we could get any ferry +/- 4 hours of our "main" departure time. So that would solve the issue of having to rush for the ferry.

This trip was a lot less eventful. We stayed in a different hotel, which seemed to be some sort of castle for £106 per night.

We went out to find somewhere to eat, got a bit lost, and ended up coming across someone who needed a jump start. Well, it makes a change form people having to jump start mine I suppose.

Our tickets worked this time too!

Getting out was even worse this time though. We were parked in a field and there was only one exit, and nobody official directing traffic, so everyone was trying to push in front, and there was about 10 lanes of traffic weaving between the parked cars all trying to merge in. There were even fights starting to break out, one guy started to push in front, and someone from further back in the queue got out and started to have a go at him. The road out of the field went through a small village and people came out to direct traffic. The traffic was going nowhere, over two hours later we were still trying to get out of the village, and I had to crawl forward with the bonnet open to try and get some air into the engine and cool it down.

We eventually got out onto clear roads, and we were aiming for the midnight ferry. Even though we could get another one, I still drove fast the whole way, and we arrived early for the ferry, and it left late, so there was no need to rush after all.

Keeping the pattern of going every 2 years, I'd next be due to go in 2019... let's see ;)

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