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Spa GP Paddock – With Caterham

0.002s was all it took to top off the best weekend ever! That was how close I got to predicting my Brands Hatch qualifying time. Mine was the closest prediction across all the Caterham championships at Brands and so I won the competition for Caterham F1 paddock and hospitality passes for the Spa F1 GP…

Race win, fastest lap and competition winner… The competition was designed to offer something for everyone to shoot for, so winning the race and the competition was greedy to say the least. Coincidentally 0.002s was roughly how long I felt guilty for when Jen rang me up to let me know.

Rob Clay, Academy Group 2, had won the competition at our Donington weekend and we arranged to stay together as near the circuit as we could. Rob was accompanied by Laura and I had dad in tow. Laura and Dad did all the hard work getting arrangements sorted. After all, the drivers had done all the hard work up to that point. I almost got a blister writing the qualifying guess onto a piece of paper.

After a LONG journey across Europe, through Brussels rush hour(s) we eventually arrived at the accommodation. A great challet style house in the Belgian Ardennes.

There was no time to rest though, as we needed to pick up the passes for the weekend. Dad and I drove over to the Caterham team hotel (Mercedes were also staying there) and we met Cyril for the first time. Cyril is in charge of looking after all of Caterhams guests over race weekends and he made us feel right at home from the off. We had a great chat over a couple of beers. We also met Fatna for the first time. She heads up the front of house inside the hospitality ‘truck’. We spent a good 40 mins chatting away and generally getting excited about what lay ahead.

Saturday dawned and we were out the door early. Spa is renowned for its bad traffic. The circuit is nestled around a series of rugged valleys and the approach roads are majority country tracks rather than main roads!

It was a lovely feeling to be able to walk through so many security gates leisurely flashing our magic passess all the way into the F1 paddock. I felt like I was trespassing! We had a walk around the paddock to get our bearings and looked in awe at all the trucks and buildings that comprise the F1 circus. The Belgian paddock is split level, with the pits and car trucks on the upper level and the hospitality units on the lower level.

Linking in-between was a set of stairs. This pinch point in the paddock turned out to be a brilliant place to hang out as everyone was forced there to get around – it was easy pickings to get lots of photos there!

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We went up into the Caterham hospitality and were met by Fatina with teas and coffees whilst we waited for Cyril to arrive. As soon as he did, we knew we were going to be in good hands! He had the whole day sorted for us! Viewing area in the back of the pits for FP3. Quick lunch. Pitlane walkabout. Pit garage for Qalification. Over to the media scrum to see all the interviews taking place and then back for some afternoon tea.

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If that all sounds brilliant, I can assure you that it was even better in reality! Watching the qualification session from the back of the pits will stay with me forever! We were right there when the call was made for Van Der Garde to go onto slicks and joined in the huge celebrations when he went and stuck it in 3rd in session 1 of quali! Just before quali 3 started, Cyril took us in front of the garage and we were nearly in touching distance as all the main runners and riders queued up to leave the pits.

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Seeing the work of the mechanics, engineers, scruteneers and pirelli tyre personnel was also fascinating. The routines are all set and rehearsed. The same things happen each and every time the car enters and leaves the garage. Cleaning and polishing are constant!

Another memorable moment was the first time the two cars were fired up in the garage ready to leave for the track. An F1 car is extremely loud when out on the track and is unbelievably loud when that noise is contained inside a garage! It’s a very physical experience as you can feel the noise right through your chest.

After afternoon tea, sat next to Guido and Charles while they talked to the worlds media, we decided we’d go and watch the GP3 race from Eau Rouge. Rob made the inspired decision to flash our passes at one of the Gold grandstands and, much to our surprise, the bemused guard said we could go through! So we got to watch the race from a prime spot half way up one of the most famous corners in motor racing! Fabulous end to the day.

We all spent the evening looking through all the photos we’d grabbed through the day whilst an epic thunderstorm raged outside! We compared who’d seen who and who’d seen what! Between the 4 of us, we’d taken literally hundreds of photos but it was great re-living the day and sharing stories!

Sunday morning! Another early start and Dad and I decided to have a walk up to the other end of the track. It’s a huge track and it took about an hour to walk all the way up past Eau-rouge, along the straight and up to Les Combes / Malmedy. The F1 cars do it in a matter of seconds! It was great to taste the atmosphere of the GP in the forrest and also the views out across the valleys.

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Back in the Caterham hospitality, Cyril laid out another packed day! An early treat was watching the GP2 race from in front of the Caterham pits, litterally 3 meters from the Caterham GP2 teams pit crew whilst they changed tyres. WOW! And through the day we got to watch Guido’s mechanics put his car together again ready for the race. Hundreds of man hours every weekend go into removing and replacing all the body panels on the car to check, clean and monitor the car.

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After another quick lunch stop it was back out for the second pit walk of the weekend (oh, the chore). Watching the start of the race from the outside of La source felt the most like a normal GP but it was a brilliant place to see the action! The race itself was fairly spread out after just a few laps so being able to return to the garage was great. And then the final surprise of the weekend! We were able to go down to the podium for the celebrations! Right under the rostrum for all the anthems, champaign and trophies. Ross Brawn was just behind us in the crowd! Unforgettable.

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So, that was the weekend of a lifetime. We said our goodbye’s to the Caterham team and to Cyril and Fatna. We hung around in the paddock for one last blast of the cameras and then slowly made our way back to our cars and eventually back home to he UK.

This year was already a completely unforgettable one for me. This has put it in the stratosphere. It’s certainly going to be a hard one to beat…