Have you ever done an event for the first time but felt like you’ve been there a million times? My first Spa 24h at Spa-Francorchamps felt that way. I was full of confidence, had a sense of familiarity with things and most of the events that took place felt predictable. Maybe I had done my homework in advance, or maybe it was just a natural place for me to get quickly acclimatized and integrate into the flow of things with the local Belgian marshals on Team 31.
We were based on station 4 for the weekend. The home pod was at 4B and it was a place where we initially started flagging on Thursday, but the visibility was much better from 4A which was about 100 meters down track towards the famous Radillion at the top of Eau Rouge. The flagging from that point was perfect, and yet another 50 meters down towards Radillion was the track marshal station 4, as it was written on the rail in permanent marker. This spot was the launching point for marshals doing recoveries on track after a crash at Radillion, a place where I watched Pol respond to a wrecked Lamborghini Huracan in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo support race, and later during the 24 hour Mike and Jelle responded to a crashed Ferrari 458 Italia in the middle of the night.
The position of our post, while close walking distance to the famous Radillion was a world apart in that we were more sheltered from the huge crowd of spectators that flocked to the Radillion. And yet, we could see the turn (at least the very top of it) perfectly. Which means the marshal team at Radillion got all the action, we got to spectate it and wave the occasional Green flag, or display the SC board. For me personally it was a fantastic station because it was ideal for Blue flag. Cars don’t generally pass through Radillion, but they get positioned nicely to make passes right after it, which is where we were. In addition, the pit exit blend line was just before our station, so for this reason we got to display plenty of Blue flag for cars coming out of the Pits. I was in Blue flag heaven!
I have to say I was super happy with my station assignment because in addition to the wonderful opportunity to use the Blue flag, we were also very close distance to the paddock, and ultimately to the grid walk which was one of the more fantastic things I experienced that weekend. But enough talk about how lucky I got, let me share some tidbits about marshaling at Spa.
Having worked with Belgian marshals before the learning curve to adjust to the way things were done at their home track wasn’t long. The neat thing I found on station was the digi board controller which unlike many others I used around the world was fully touch screen. It was cool and challenging at the same time, because for anyone having experienced how frustrating an iPhone could be sometimes I had the same issues using this system. The scariest moment came during one of the night practices where I pushed the Blue button and watched cars came slowing down like there was something happening behind me. I quickly looked back and noticed that the Debris / Lack of Adhesion flag was displaying, which was not the button I thought I pushed. So I immediately corrected myself and everything was back to normal, but it made me think that obviously whomever designed the system didn’t get much useful marshal input because this seems like a pretty silly design flaw. I mean you’ve got to account for marshals with fat fingers, right? Though I assumed pressing the button on an angle confused the system.
The unique thing about working Spa 24h from my experience was seeing how the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium (RACB) assigned stations by teams. I was on Marshal Team 31 which most of the time either work together on the same track, or break up events over the same weekend and have part of the team work at Spa-Francorchamps and another at Zolder. Long story short, the team was assigned the turn. Throughout the four day weekend of the event, different members rotated into and out of working shifts based on their availability. Some were only available for race day, while others were able to work two days. I was super happy to be able to work all of the days we were needed as Pol managed to get vacation the week of the event.
The thing that surprised me the most about watching Belgian marshals work is how they just jump out on track when an incident happens… no delay whatsoever reporting to and asking Race Control for permission to go trackside. As soon as a car bounced into the tire wall at the top of Radillion the marshals behind the tire walk climbed over towards the stricken car, helped get the driver out, and waited for the wrecker to pull around the tire wall to drag the car off the track. Even at the incident that happened at our turn, Pol responded to a crashed Lamborghini Huracan, got the driver out and then assisted in getting the car straightened out and onto the flat bed truck once it showed up. Things seemed to go really quickly and smoothly and we didn’t have huge safety car periods or full course yellows like I’ve become accustomed to with some of the domestic series in the US.
The other thing that surprised me was the close proximity of the marshal campsite to the track. We had some of the best views there are at Spa-Francorchamps just feet from our tents and campers. Just look at the picture above. With the elevated views you could see a huge part of the track all the way down to the paddock. The ring road going through the campsite was open to spectators to pass through and at times it was pretty crowded with people watching the race right from the road, which made driving to and from station a bit slow. But it was cool nonetheless. Spa provided very modern bathrooms and shower facilities, so I was very comfortable marshaling this event with all the creature comforts imaginable. Being able to quickly access the track meant we left several times to go into town and enjoy our foodie experiences which I’ve already covered in a separate post.
The most familiar experience for me was having the predictable amount of rain cause havoc during the race. We had a wet race. Very wet at times. I got lucky in a sense that it didn’t rain for a few days leading up to race day which meant I got to experience both extremes of the weather at Spa. Having watched the /Drive video with Leo Parente and John Hindy from Radio Le Mans interview talking about this situation, I was thrilled that I got to live it. During the race itself we had so many Safety Car (SC) periods in the opening hours that I think they resorted to using to Full Course Yellows (FCY) to balance out the number of caution periods. At one point we even upgraded from FCY to SC when it was determined rail repair had to be made after a single car incident into the barrier. There were a lot of caution periods, and some spectacular crashes, many of which we were able to see from our post looking down at Radillion.
All in all, I am really thrilled with this whole experience and cannot wait to return to Spa-Francorchamps for another amazing event. Everything went perfectly on this trip. From the few hours I got to sightsee in Rome, to the excellent culinary experiences eating delicious local food and drinking tasty cherry beer. To the trip home via Helsinki sampling their famous Salmon at the airport, and then spending a night in Chicago while sightseeing around the Loop area downtown and stuffing my face with more delicious food like the Chicago deep dish pizza and hot dogs. I mean, it was perfect!
I’d highly recommend for anyone to do what I did, and I hope this post and all the pictures encourage people to at least consider it!