Who was I kidding? Of course this wasn’t going to be easy.
After I’d hopped between what felt like 403.99 connecting trains, I found myself in a tiny train taking me to Verviers, Belgium. This was the last train on my journey - I had to work my way through the next couple towns with buses. But it felt like the tougher part of the journey was somehow over. A voice in my head declared, “This is it, Merin..It’s happening!”..and it happened. Commentator’s curse struck and my train jerked to a halt and stayed motionless. In fate’s defence, the damn train managed to break down near a gorgeous river that I could feast my eyes on. A train official soon walked in, sang an apology in French and walked on. I looked around the compartment hoping to find someone who could translate the message for me. Nope. Not one of ALL three people in my compartment spoke English. Twenty seconds into kicking myself for not making any effort to learn French from my nice French ex-boss, I dragged myself onwards to find more people. When the train official and I finally found each other, I understood the train had broken down for good and we’d be taken to a town called Pepinster by a bus, from where we were on our own. I explained where I needed to go and he looked deeply into my eyes and told me with genuine empathy, “Good luck”.
After 25 minutes, we got onto a rattling bus to Pepinster. To distract myself from the piercing cold, I wondered how the town ended up with a funny name like that. Were its founders drunk, you know, like mine? (Merin? Pfft). Anyway, much of what happened after we got to Pepinster is a haze because my brain had frozen. Not the kind of freezing that renders me looking stupid in everyday social interactions but the 1 deg C kind of freezing. With no internet or humans around, I relied on Google’s wonderful Offline Maps to get me about. Making my way from one bus stop to another, easily annoying each of those strictly French bus drivers with half a dozen questions, I finally..FINALLY reached the small town of Spa. There’s a small chance I was delusional but I totally heard violins and pianos go off in the background as I stepped off the bus and onto Spa’s fine roads.
Surreal. Walking around the quaint town with its F1 themed restaurants popping up around every corner was surreal. But I had to get going if I wanted to reach the circuit in time for a ‘guided tour’. Maps told me I had another 12kms to cover to reach the circuit. Since the next bus wasn’t going to turn up until two hours later and absolutely no taxi was willing to take me there, I decided to walk it. A pretty walk, I’ll have you know, despite really gloomy skies (also, just FYI, Salzburg is still the prettiest). As the tips of my fingers and toes began freezing over, the saner of all voices in my head cursed my irrational need to see this race track. Keep walking, I told myself, just like Johnny Walker would’ve told me if I had him in a glass at that very moment.
A few kilometres in, I met Jean. Wonderful, wonderful Jean. A charming, silver haired cab owner who agreed to take me to the circuit. If that wasn’t great, he loved chatting F1! “When F1 comes here, we make at least 10,000eur over one weekend. Many Verstappen fans came from just over the border this year..those crazy orange men think this is his home race! But next year is going to be even bigger and exciting for us!!” ..”because Stoffel Vandoorne”, I quipped. He looked at me with big eyes that clearly had new found respect because I knew of his compatriot who’s set to race in F1 next year. “You weren’t lying! You ARE F1 crazy! Why come all the way to this track when there is no race?”. Sigh. Beats me, Jean. Completely beyond my reasoning.
The drive to Spa-Francorchamps is straight out of a postcard. Beautiful roads, ridiculously pretty countryside. Wasn’t too long before we got to Francorchamps Route de Fagnou - the bus stop closest to the circuit. I got off, thanked Jean and walked to the circuit. And I am NOT making this up - as I walked through ‘Gate B’ of Circuit de Spa Francorchamps and saw what was possibly a V8 super car zoom up and over my favourite corner in the F1 calendar, the sun found its way through the clouds and made its presence felt. That moment. Magic.
After the guided tour of the track and all its facilities, and a long, long walk, I sat myself down to a good view of Eau Rouge. The forest, sun light, clouds, tarmac and echo of mega engines around combined marvellously to make my favourite race track come alive. Genuinely, magic.
Of all the times I counted my blessings this year, this felt like the tipping point. The year’s been mental for sure. Between good old hard work, numbing cold weather and mindless sacrifices, I got to keep a swell job working with amazing folks, got to compare Ricciardo’s smile to mine, watch Verstappen behave like a fun 18 year old, ‘experience’ Rosberg’s German sense of humour and watch Raikkonen marinate in a race suit inside a sauna while I kept his wife and son company (whaa!). After Monaco, Hockenheim and COTA, I now saved myself a mental image of Spa Francorchamps. The circuit where Schumacher won his first race, where Raikkonen crashed and broke my heart in 2008 (prompting me to cry in my bathroom for hours and start this blog - have I told you this story yet? I have? Oops), where every race is..magic.
You can’t shut me up when I start talking about this year or this silly pilgrimage, but one thing’s for sure. This blog’s now come full circle.