14 September 2009
James Innes Williams travels with Kingfisher Airlines to the Belgian Grand Prix.
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited by Kingfisher Airlines to travel with them to the Belgian Grand Prix, deep in the heart of the Ardennes forest. We were heading there to see the Force India F1 Team - for whom Kingfisher is the primary sponsor - compete against motorsport legends such as Ferrari.
And what a weekend it turned out to be. Our small group met up in Croydon to watch the qualifying session and were amazed to see these Formula One minnows, who have spent their first few races plugged in at the back of the grid, astound the entire paddock by taking pole position.
Inspired by Giancarlo Fisichella’s impressive form we hopped in the car and headed for the Eurotunnel. For a Bank Holiday weekend, it’s fair to say we arrived at Folkestone in a surprisingly short time. And what a difference it is checking in here compared to an airport. The automated check-in system noticed we were early enough to get on an earlier train than we were booked on and on driving down to the platform we were then herded on to one even earlier. There’s none of this two-hour wait you get so used to at airports.
Arriving in Calais we set off for Brussels to the sounds of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and Tomtom’s satnav - ‘Turn right in 30 metres and drive straight for 185 kilometres’, I kid you not. The journey, it has to be said, is a little monotonous. It’s just 185 kilometres of flat, mostly straight road passing fields and the odd town. The only clue to passing from France to Belgium is a sign warning drivers that in three kilometres they’ll be in a different country, but no actual sign when you do cross over.
Tempted though we were to carry on to the track at Spa-Francochamps to join Force India’s celebrations, it seemed prudent to instead check-in to the hotel - the pleasant if not spectacular Four Points by Sheraton - and meet the rest of the Kingfisher group over beers, moules and frites. Delicious.
The next morning was an early start to ensure we made it to the track in good time. So we set off at 7am and joined the end of a traffic jam, backed up from the circuit gates, at around 9.30am. It was a good hour or more before we actually set foot in the grounds of F1’s best, and longest, track - home to the legendary Eau Rouge, La Source hairpin and several kilometres of bitumen snaking through pine forest, climbing and falling as the topography dictates.
A quick tip to those of you thinking of attending an F1 race meeting: bring cash. An obvious suggestion you might think, but several of our members assumed the world’s richest sport would have a plethora of cash points available to tempt fans into parting with their hard-earned for a T-shirt with a prancing horse emblazoned across it. But no such luck. This mistake becomes more horrifying when you realise the race organisers would like to charge you 60 cents for the use of their loos. One of our party chose to head out to Spa, the nearest town, to find cash. Unfortunately the taxi back to the circuit nearly took it all off him and left him stranded a mile away. After a trek through the forest, he made it back to the grandstand as the F1 cars roared off on their parade lap, missing the GP2 and Porsche Supercup support races.
When the lights went out, Fisichella immediately took a commanding lead in the Kingfisher Force India, while Kimi Raikkonen steered his Ferrari up to third place before pouncing on Robert Kubica’s BMW, thanks to his power boost KERS button. But our hero, Fisichella, looked safe up ahead, his car transformed. Seemingly the only Force India supporters there, our delight was short-lived when Britain’s Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton were punted off the track, necessitating the Safety Car to be deployed.
Once the mess was cleared Raikkonen was swarming all over the back of the Force India, and, thanks again to that power boost, he was soon past. But Fisichella kept him honest for the duration of the race, never falling more than a second behind. Impressive stuff indeed. Each lap we would leap up, with our fingers in our ears, hoping to see the Force India do the impossible and close and pass the Ferrari as it snaked uphill through Eau Rouge, each time we were disappointed as the Ferrari boosted away. But, for sure, this was the way to be initiated into Formula One, and the Ferrari supporters in front of us, while delighted to have won their first race of the season, were equally pleased to see the minnows being so whole-heartedly supported, and were gracious in their victory.
Soon we were storming the track, heading round to the start finish straight to see the mechanics clear up the garages, and later were lucky enough to be invited into the highly exclusive paddock where the real driving force of Formula One, where the wheeler dealing by members of the piranha club, as it has become known, can be found.
This meant that the roads had cleared by the time we set off and we were soon back in Brussels to celebrate the team’s first ever podium, and back in London by lunchtime on Monday. Three days, three countries, one second place and not much sleep makes for a fantastic and unforgettable weekend. Feelings, I am told, that passengers on Kingfisher flights also experience.
Last weekend, though Fisichella is now driving for Ferrari in place of Felipe Massa, Force India continued to excel, taking second on the grid at Monza, Italy and fourth in the race. I fully expect them to continue to be right up there in the races to come - especially at Singapore, where Kingfisher Airlines will soon be flying to, starting on 16 September 2009.
Experience the glitz and glamour of Formula One at the Monaco Grand Prix.