Tales from a Spa Virgin

PaulPaul Ugo, of Dell’Ugo pasta fame and a sometime Daytona Racer recently had a midlife crisis and went out and bought a Ferrari 360 Challenge Race car. Here is his experience of racing at SPA with no practice:

       Eau Rouge, Rivage, Pouhon, Blanchimont . . .  Legendary, exciting, challenging, dangerous.  These renowned corners consumed all my thoughts during the week prior to my very first race weekend at Spa-Francorchamps.

How will I cope with this fabled circuit, realising I will have to qualify without even a second of testing?  Am I mad?  Surely it will be wet, it always is.  I haven’t even driven my newly acquired 360 Challenge car in the wet – anywhere!

A week before I am due to arrive in Belgium my only hope is to get on to PlayStation.  The snag is, with both my teenage boys abroad, I fail miserably attempting to navigate my way around Gran Turismo 5, eventually realising that the Spa track is locked out!  In desperation I try YouTube.  I’m keen to show my wife where I am going, and keen for her to come along too.

I click on Spa and the first words we hear are ‘Welcome to the most dangerous track in the world, that has claimed more lives than any other.’  Kate’s response is immediate.  ‘Forget it.  I’m not bloody coming.’  She follows this up with ‘Does your life insurance cover you for racing abroad?’

With that I dumped everything digital and went analogue.  I dusted off my 1999 Autosport Circuit Guide.  I immersed myself in every detail of Spa.  Its late apexes, early braking and the patient progression of power apparently required to master the circuit without incident.

Roping in my oldest mate and racing buddy, Iain, for company we zoomed over to Spa in my Nissan GTR.  The Nissan impresses Ferrari owners about as much as a Datsun Cherry Turbo might do.  To our relief the receptionist at the Hotel de la Source greeted me with a promise of a dry weekend.  That’s one issue dealt with.

Sipping my first Belgian bière pression I realise I haven’t even seen my car.  Is it here yet?  Has it arrived safely?  I call my race engineer, Stuart Bitmead of SBR Racing.  He assures me that he and his merry band of mechanics have everything sorted.  But then they always have.

At dinner that night, at the Pizzeria just up the road from the hotel (and full of half-cut Ferrari Owners’ Club drivers) my admission that I had never driven at Spa before was met with looks of amusement and worrying wry smiles.

At midnight I hit the sack and spend a while tossing and turning in an attempt to devise a strategy for qualifying the following day.

I arrive at the circuit the next morning, eventually finding the FOC contingent wedged neatly mid-tier below the F1 pitboxes.  My car, along with Paul Bailey’s 458 Challenge, looks resplendent in the morning sunshine.  Before I know it we are called to the Assembly Area; my ticker starts to beat faster and louder.  I look down from La Source and see a cliff face in front of me.  It’s Eau Rouge.

We are released from assembly and I find myself behind Paul Brooks in his 456GT.  I decide to tuck in behind him and follow him round.  I had previously been told he drives Spa like he nicked it from a Drift club meet.  This is my baptism of fire.  I go blank.

All the nights of research from the Circuit Guide disappear from my mind and the survival instinct takes control.  Down the hill into Eau Rouge do I go flat out?  No way.  Brake?  Certainly.  Change down?  Probably, I can’t remember.  The next thing I know is that it feels like my first solo flight in an aeroplane.  All I can see is blue sky and then the BARRIER.  I twitch the wheel left and I’m through.  Now it’s hammering along the Kemmel Straight which seems endless.  I hope the 456 will take longer to brake than my nimble 360.  If it doesn’t I’m going to end up as his luggage.

Thankfully I’m right and just as I approach the 100m board I see his brake lights flick on.  I stamp on the pedal and knock it down to 3rd.  Then I roll it round the right/left sequence at Les Combes – all okay – give it a little squeeze and feather it around the next right, then floor it towards Rivage.  Brake, brake, brake – it’s a tight one.  A little twitch from the rear end on the exit but it’s fine.

Next a quick left and down the hill to Pouhon.  Down from 5th to 4th, a little dab on the brakes but in quite quick – patience – then full throttle using up all the space I can.  Quite rapid into the next right/left (Fagnes) and ease up for the next right.  Power on with a little lift before Stavelot.

Here comes Blanchimont a little voice reminds me.  I keep it flat but lose my nerve before the second left-hand kink.  I dab the brake then on the brakes hard and down to 2nd for Bus Stop (although it isn’t at all like it said in the Circuit Guide – I think it’s time to update).  I get a little oversteer out of the last left and make for La Source.  Easy, I tell myself, you’ve almost done it!  A flick right and I’M A SPA VIRGIN NO MORE!

Qualifying went well.  I get P6 and P5 although I soon came to realise that Graham Reeder in his 360 Challenge would be my Nemesis all weekend.  His 2:44 qualifying time would be my target but so far I have only managed 2:48.


ferrari_360_challenge_1Race 1

Warm-up?  It is already over 30°C and I’m simmering nicely in my Nomex.  We drive around for what seems an age, wiggling our cars to get heat into the Pirellis.  Eventually, at Blanchimont, the pace quickens, we bunch up, the lights change to green, and we’re off.

I get round La Source and find myself on the bumper of Tim Ingram Hill in his 430.  I manage to stay on his bumper through Eau Rouge and get his tow all the way up the straight.  We both brake hard and late as Les Combes rushes up.  Tim over-cooks it and spins right in front of me.  I just manage to avoid him by giving it full left oversteer off the circuit, but it’s all tarmac so I floor it back to the track.  Paul Brooks’s 456GT and Lee Moulden’s 355 go flying by and I join them on the run down to Rivage.  I stay with them all the way to Blanchimont and then find enough power in my 360 to give me the edge to pass them.

For the next few laps I am on my own; the leading four cars are out of sight.  On the final two laps I come up on the 308GT4s.  I’m impressed at how they can go round the corners so fast on those Pirelli road tyres.

The chequered flag comes out and I’ve finished 5th overall, my best lap is 2:43.810.  I’m hot but happy!

Race 2

Sunday is another scorching hot day.  The race goes well but I can’t match the pace of Graham Reeder.  Suddenly, coming out of Rivage on a hot lap (well, hottish) I see Arwyn Williams in his 458 GT3 going backwards across the track in front of me!  Thankfully I have braked a little late for the corner and end up on a late apex enabling me to keep right while he rolls left.  A lap later he passes me with ease and is soon out of sight.

Paul and Lee are busy in a battle of their own, a safeish distance behind me.  I finish 5th (yesterday’s result was re-issued and I had actually come 4th!) marginally improving my best lap time by a tenth.

I have to thank all the Ferrari Owners’ Club members for welcoming me into the fold.  I had a great weekend and am now looking forward to Castle Combe.  I last drove there in 1998 – I wonder if it has changed . . . ?