Spa marks a little milestone for yours truly, as my travels in Formula One which began in 1983 and have taken me through 27 countries thus far, bring me to my 400th grand prix.
Back then I covered the US GP West, followed by the Mexican race in 1986, and since the start of the 1988 season I haven't missed one. When you find something that beats working for a living, you tend to stick with it.
1. My first GP
I covered Formula 3 races at several grands prix, but only count those at which I wrote about F1, which makes Long Beach in 1983 the official first. Stand-out memories are of Keke Rosberg's remarkable 360 degree spin on the opening lap which only dropped the Finn from second to third, and his later collision with that fine man Patrick Tambay which cost the Frenchman a likely victory. From the back of the grid John Watson and Niki Lauda marched through on Michelin tyres that finally reached optimum operating temperature in race conditions, with the forever underrated Ulsterman taking one of the best wins of his career.
2. The most memorable race
Jean Alesi's sole victory, in Canada 1995, was wonderful, as was Johnny Herbert's British GP triumph weeks later, and seeing Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton win their first was also gratifying. But for sheer animal pace and pathos, for me it was the 1989 Japanese GP. Alain Prost secretly had the Gurney flap removed from his McLaren's rear wing on the grid and left Ayrton Senna trailing in the early laps. You could almost see a bubble of incredulity over the stunned Brazilian's head. Then he gradually hauled it back until their controversial collision at the chicane. Senna went on to win in sensational style despite a pit stop for a new nose, before that buffoon Jean-Marie Balestre intervened to deny him his rightful success...
3. My favourite driver
Jimmy Clark was of course the greatest, though I just missed seeing him race. On a personal friendship level, my favourite was Johnny Herbert, who could have had a Schumacher-like career without the appalling pre-F1 foot injuries he sustained. Felipe Massa likewise rates as a funny and charismatic friend. When I worked at Sauber with both they were known affectionately as Little British Bastard and Little Brazilian Bastard by the crew. Right now, Mark Webber, Jenson Button and Tonio Liuzzi stand out for their personal qualities, but Lewis Hamilton is my personal favourite for his character and Villeneuve-esque attacking style. A true racing driver.
4. The most memorable drive
What could it be but Senna's victory at dear old Tom Wheatcroft's Donington track in 1993? In horrible conditions he ran rings around Prost and Damon Hill in their superior cars through sheer artistry, and destroyed Prost again as the latter complained in the press conference, and Ayrton offered to swap his McLaren Ford for Prost's Williams Renault...
5. The worst weekend
At Jerez in 1990 I witnessed first-hand the terrible accident that befell Martin Donnelly, when his Lotus was shattered into a thousand fragments. Thankfully, "Mr Juicy", a good friend, survived. But without question the bleakest moments came at Imola in 1994. First there was Rubens Barrichello's terrifying shunt on the Friday. Then on Saturday amiable Roland Ratzenberger, the first friend I have lost to F1, was killed when his Simtek broke. The next day Senna died, and the sport went into shock. It was one of those momentous occasions, an echo of the day that Jim Clark died at Hockenheim in April 1968, when other drivers were left exposed and afraid after the passing of their seemingly invincible yardstick, and when a whole new safety movement was kick-started by men such as Professor Sid Watkins, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley which led to the safer sport we have today. One day, I will not only be able to tell grandchildren that I saw Senna race, but sadly that I was also there that black weekend when God turned his back.
6. The best and worst venues
Spa or Monza? Monza or Spa? Despite the ghosts of racers past, and because of the sociability of the Hotel de la Ville and Mario Acquati's bookshop, I'd put Monza just a fraction behind Spa. That's for personal reasons, and because the track in Belgium's Hautes Fagnes region perfectly epitomises the spirit of motor racing and still challenges drivers in this era of Hermann Tilke's ghastly lookalike tracks. We have been to some pretty stupid places, notably the Aida circuit up some Japanese mountainside goat track. Phoenix was poor too, with the local ostrich race drawing a bigger crowd. But you make the best of wherever you go.
7. The greatest sporting moment
If you define sportsmanship as grace under pressure or in moments of extreme disappointment, then Felipe Massa wins this one hands down. Remember how, for 38 seconds after he crossed the line as the winner on his home ground in Interlagos in 2008, he seemed to have done enough to win the world championship, before Lewis Hamilton arrived in the fifth place he needed after passing Timo Glock in the final corner? The manner in which the Brazilian coped, and gave his heart to his countrymen, was majestic.
8. My least likeable character
Step forward Flavio Briatore. For a whole variety of reasons, the so-called colourful Italian was never my cup of tea. From the moment he took over from the inestimable Peter Collins at Benetton in 1989, I disliked his way of doing things. His talent lay in delegating and he also said some wise things about the manner in which the sport should promote itself, but his underlying style was never to my taste and as he revealed in the Crashgate scandal, his idea of ethics was totally different to mine.Reuse content