“Why are you doing this?” my brain asked me as I attempted to wrench my face from the pillow at 5:30am.
We’d been planning it for weeks, nay months, but it took all my strength and resolve just to stand up when every sinew in my body was in favour of saying “Bollocks to it”, turning over and going back to sleep.
But just a few hours later I’d be so damn happy I’d done it, and I’d be wondering what all the fuss (and internal dialogue) had been all about.
My sister and I were in the Ardennes hills for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. I’ve been a Formula One fan since some time in the late 1980s, and this is an iconic racing circuit.
And the reason for the early start was that we had tickets in General Admission. This means you can sit pretty much wherever you want in special reserved areas alongside the racetrack. But anybody else can sit there too as it’s first come first served. Yes – these are the cheap seats. Indeed, these seats are so cheap that you have to bring the actual seat yourself – it’s actually just a bunch of hillsides.
And this was not a small event – something like 80,000 people would be there – meaning we had to take the logistics seriously.
Somehow we made it out of the hostel, and to the circuit. The gates were still closed when we arrived, but the queue was already well established. It was the perfect opportunity to experience the cultural tension of an international queue, with all the British people treating the queue as a sacred unquestionable entity, and others taking a more relaxed attitude towards it, in keeping with their own cultural mores.
One guy next to us, still slightly half-cut from a heavy night, was yelling “Queue’s here, mate!” at anyone who walked past, even if they were just looking for the toilet.
In we go
The gates opened and the headlong rush began, with everyone, having passed through the bottleneck ticket check, moving at somewhere between a fast march and a headlong sprint, and many carrying cooler boxes and camping chairs to boot, all legging it for the best spots from which to see the race.
The spot we were going for was a hillside on the outside of a fast double-apex corner known as Pouhon. Running along the very top of the hill was the footpath, and it was just in front of this path where we had intended to base ourselves – right on the crest before the ground spilled away towards the barriers, and the track beyond.
We’d managed exactly such a position the day before (for qualifying – when the grid positions for the race are determined). We’d been on the main straight, which also had a hill dropping away to the track. Some foolhardy types had positioned themselves down the hillside, but we wanted to avoid that if possible – it looked rather precarious, not to mention slippy as heck. Thanks but no thanks. We took up a position near the top.
However, on race day we got to our choice of corner only to find, somewhat despondently, that all the places on the brow of the hill had gone. Running right along the crest, like a battalion, was a line of other people’s seats.
This left two options:
1) Sit behind them and spend the whole time being annoyed by the specific positioning of their heads.
2) Brave the hillside.
Bollocks it it.
We began our slithery path down the hillside.
I should be clear about this – the hillside was not some sunny meadow, with oak trees and grazing cows. It was an unappetising mixture of clay-like mud, big stones and matted grass, the whole lot corrugated into inconsistent steps by previous spectators.
The reason for the steps is that you have to position a seat (well, camping chair) on a hillside to watch the race in comfort (you’ll be there for maybe 8 hours), and ideally you don’t want it to be facing down the hill. Even if you could make the physics work and not tip straight over onto your face, you’d still only get a view of the hillside.
However, you can’t just plonk a chair down and say ‘job done’ – the steps converge and diverge and change in depth and level, so you have to do a bit of landscape gardening to make it work.
Other people were already fitting their own seats when we arrived, and they all looked better prepared than us. Some friendly Danish guys in front of us had so much kit they looked like they could reasonably attempt an ascent of the Eiger.
They kindly lent us said spade and we began hacking back into the dirt and grass, trying to make the step a bit deeper so the front legs would be on solid ground. But we didn’t have long – other people also needed the spade – so we did a rough job and passed it on. This left us needing something to help finish the job, as the chairs now fitted but weren’t yet level.
At this point, as though with deliberate comic awareness, my sister pulled out a spoon.
It wasn’t as useful as it was funny, but it was still better than nothing. There was a cold mist in the air, as we scrabbled around in the wet grit and clay, digging, scraping, compacting; moving stones into place; determined to finish this minor civil engineering project – one of many taking place on the slope.
We tested our seats, made alterations, and then tested them again. Finally, we managed to eliminate all the rocking, along with most of the risk of us disappearing down the hillside partway through the race. My feet had nowhere to go that felt natural, and were kind of pointing down at an angle, but you reach a point where you know it’s the best you’re going to get.
Now we could relax and watch others build their own precarious monuments to live spectator sports, whilst hurling bread rolls at them. I mean encouraging comments. One guy practically built a cairn to prop up one of the front legs of his chair. I was glad we weren’t sitting in front of him.
People were chatting to each other and helping each other out, and together we were developing the sense of an organic and impromptu little community. There was a real sense of bonhomie, even extending to taking the mickey.
“They’ve got a spoon if anyone wants to borrow it!” called out one guy.
To be fair, it was a tablespoon.
Next time I’ll bring a teaspoon.
Slowly, the whole hillside was being taken over. Latecomers (it was 9:30 for heaven’s sake!) began to find they couldn’t sit together, and would have to make do with being merely near each other.
It was great being surrounded by people doing the same thing. That, allied with the fact that we’d all come here from different parts of Europe – the world even – for the same slightly nutty reason, gave the sense of being part of something bigger.
This was one of those situations where comfort takes on a new meaning.
Comfort is a camping chair with arms. Comfort is wearing warm clothes on a chilly morning, with the sun still yet to come over the treeline. Comfort is a hot filter coffee with powdered milk and a pan chocolat on a muddy hillside in the Ardennes at 8:30am. Comfort is being dug in to lean back slightly, so you don’t feel that you’re going to fall downhill. Comfort is noticing that it’s starting to rain, but knowing that this is fine, because you’re ready for it.
As we got peppered with raindrops, we finally had something to offer other than just conversation (and a spoon). Because what you really need on a muddy hillside is bin bags. You can put your regular bags in them and put them down on the floor in mud avoidance, put your (non-waterproof) shoes in them, cover jeans with them, use them as a barrier to sit on wet things and all sorts of other things.
We were pretty much used to the weather by that point. The previous day – during qualifying – we’d been given a real taste of how quickly things could change in the Ardennes, and how severe it could get, whilst sat on the crest of the hill
You would think that wearing waterproofs and having your booted feet in bin bags would make you completely impervious to the weather. But this wasn’t just a shower. It rained so hard that it was coursing off me and pooling in my seat, leaving me grateful for my waterproof trousers. My sister, next to me, had the bright idea of wearing a good solid poncho that went round the seat, allowing the rain to drain off.
A couple of Aussies from the same hostel were sat just in front of us. One of them was sat on a teensy wooden chair and had one of those disposable ponchos, like a glorified sandwich bag. As the rain lashed us, driving hard from the side, he clung to his seat, desperately trying to keep most of himself covered. Meanwhile the wind whipped at him, causing his sandwich-bag poncho to snap and flutter violently.
Like him, we were being blasted relentlessly and were all holding these fixed positions. It was so severe as to become absurd. And we all just sat there, grimly clinging on and laughing out loud with the sense that nobody could do anything until the rain had stopped toying with us.
Back on the hillside at Pouhon, on race day, the sun finally came up. And now we regretted not have brought sun block. We were left trying to keep our faces out the sun using our rain gear, but would still end up with a mildly crimson tinge.
There was still time to go before the race, and people were filtering up and down the hillside on supply runs, or toilet visits. Slippery pathways form organically between the chairs, without any one person designing it – it just kind of happens. There’s a sense of precariousness about the whole structure, too, as though if just one person were to fall, the whole lot of us would end up in the fencing at the bottom in big pile.
As Jackie Stewart points out,“Make no mistake… on the back of the ticket… ‘Motor racing is dangerous’.”
The sense of community, however, was enhanced even more by this situation, with pretty much everyone offering a hand to those going up and down, like it was a civic duty. As a point of interest, my sister noted to me that when she offered her hand, almost all the women accepted, whilst almost all the men declined.
We both stroked our chins.
The really late comers now started arriving, but with something different about them. They hadn’t been through the initiation procedure; hadn’t queued bleary-eyed with the rest of us; hadn’t dug in early on and become part of a community.
They shouldn’t have come, dammit!
A twenty-something couple plonked themselves down near us, with the pathway the only space now left. But instead of sitting behind one another and preserving a route through, they just sat next to each other and blocked it off. With hindsight, the good people of the hillside should have set up a community court and tried them. Actually, looking back, I’m surprised we didn’t already have our own de facto stamps, currency and health service.
Everyone has to leave the hillside at some point, be it for a toilet break or whatever, me included. It was a tortuous ascent, and I found myself having to make a mental note of where I was, a bit like when you park your car in a massive shopping mall.
The smell of waffles and French (well, Belgian) fries wafted across from the food stalls as I surfaced at the top of the hill. Things had gone crazy up there. In some places, the entire footpath had now been sequestered for use as seating space, leaving little room for people to pass by. I wasn’t convinced some of them could even see the track where they were sat.
I looked back across the hillside, and it was just a sea of waterproof jackets, fleeces and caps.
Descending again was problematic to say the least, especially whilst holding a coffee in each hand. They should make that one of the clips they show in office Health and Safety training videos, along with the one of someone standing on a swivel chair trying to reach something, and the person somehow managing to start a photocopier fire.
By the time I got back to my seat from the chaos above, I was so happy to have it. It was like a sanctuary.
Following the race, my sister and I decided to take our time leaving. We’d let the first wave of people go – we didn’t want to get caught up in the madness.
It turned out that the first wave consisted of everybody: people were either charging up the hillside or scrambling under the gate and onto the track. In fact the speed at which our little community dispersed was remarkable. Entropy is a more natural state than order.
I went off for a toilet break, and when I came back, all that was left was a post-apocalyptic scene of grey mud, abandoned chairs and rubbish.
At least some people – entrepreneurial types no doubt – were taking the abandoned chairs. After all, you can’t take them with you. I mean on the plane, rather than when you die, but that’s true, too.
As for the race – the whole point of us being there – well, for about an hour and a half we were consumed by the vehicles flashing past, committing themselves to the challenging high-speed corner in front of us.
In the end, the Australian Daniel Ricciardo won a popular victory, to warm and sincere applause. The guy many were hoping to see win – Lewis Hamilton – was involved in an early collision with his team-mate and didn’t finish the race.
But it hardly seemed to matter. When you go to a grand prix, it really is all about the experience.
Have you ever been to a grand prix, or other sporting event and seen a community spring up like this? Is that too specific? How about a hillside – have you ever dug yourself into a hillside? Still too specific? Have you ever been on a hillside? Ever seen a car go past? Come on, work with me…