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“The First Time”

October 17, 2020

Just over twenty years ago, I attended my first Grand Prix as a fan with my Dad and some family friends. Although a long-time home viewer, to actually go to a Grand Prix was, until then, a luxury beyond me.

A rare precious trip and at the age of 18 and a first break abroad, the sheer size of the event grabbed my attention with both hands.

The first thing I discovered about flying abroad is that Ryanair’s flights to Brussels do not quite go to Brussels – they fly to Charleroi, some 60km south of the Belgian capital.

In the same way, one who flies to London does not necessarily have Luton in mind, Charleroi is not Brussels. The distance is not significant by any stretch, but it does still dampen the immediate feelings upon arrival.

Thinking back, Charleroi Airport in those days – I have not returned deliberately – shared much of the charm held by Frankfurt Hahn Airport, in that neither destination has any.

There is tarmac, there is grass, there is a shabby arrival’s building and a border control guard on their lunchbreak sucking the life out of a cigarette, which is in turn sucking the life out of them.

As can be expected with Ryanair, divine luxury was not an option on an airline whose planes contain seats manufactured with recycled spinal trauma and whose headrests enjoy the supple, soft feel of broken milk bottles. In later years as a travelling journalist, it became customary to spend a little bit more cash on different airlines, if only to preserve one’s bodily integrity. One hopes soon to one be in a position where travelling to races is an option once again, but alas…

Following a pleasant drive from Charleroi Airport heading east toward deep sectors of trees and hills, the clouds above began to pull together, drawing heavy pockets of rain in their wake.

As the pockets emptied, a distinct lack of forethought made itself known given the absence of a packed coat – the Irish person’s inability to properly prepare for rain – despite or because of our wealth of experience of the stuff – can surely only be based on the guts of unfounded optimism.

We were Irish and hardy boys though – nowadays still the former, less the latter. The 2000 European Grand Prix, hosted then at the Nürburgring, was a mostly wet affair and seeking some protection, I speedily made my way to the first stall available and planted 20DM on the counter.

There was no need for translation – the rain had long since rippled through my hair and was staining my clothes, while the cold turned my rounded dimples into sharpened wrinkles. For the right price, the trader pulled out a light rain jacket from the rear of his stall.

At the time, the Schumacher and Ferrari train was gathering pace and within five months, the German maestro would have claimed the first of five titles with the Scuderia. For now, he was “merely” a multiple race winner, albeit one looking more and more likely to break the Mika Hakkinen/McLaren machine.

Such was Schumacher’s growing popularity with race-going fans, the cheap red Ferrari jackets had already been cleared from their hangers, but at this point, I was caring less and less about the colours of the thread.

With a whisp, the market man produced a yellow rain jacket and gladly took my money. Initially thinking that it might be Jordan Grand Prix, the packaging was ripped off and binned to reveal a bright luminous yellow Ferrari jacket. The zip of the jacket broke soon after, but other than that, it did the job.

Positioned at the exit of the hairpin, our seats were in an uncovered stand – always brutal at the Nürburgring – and as we made our way to our positions from the top of the stand, we passed a number of delicately groomed moustaches and windswept bleached mullets, all of which had survived the Cold War.

It took another moment to realise that the hairpin stand was red. Deeply red. And I was wearing luminous yellow. So bright was my jacket that if I wanted, I could probably be found in the dark. If I were to re-watch the race now, it would not be a surprise if my yellow frame could be found on screen.

With each pace upon the greyed dirty concrete steps, many red heads turned to gaze, and many mouths bluntly grunted stunted words. To each head, I busily flashed the Ferrari insignia on the breast of the jacket, and the grunt turned to nods of approval complete with hat tips of alcohol. This continued for three days.

As the competition turned, David Coulthard claimed pole position, but was taken by Hakkinen off the line. When a dry start turned to a downpour early on, Schumacher took charge in the inclement conditions to pass Hakkinen and go on to claim a very popular victory.

Despite the conditions, there was something oddly processional about the event. Punctured by a delicate charm, wet races can be exciting and entertaining events, particularly if ever changing conditions present themselves, but from the point the rain arrived on Sunday, the positions settled as competitors fought hard just to get to the chequered flag.

Throughout the weekend, we stayed in a village called Bitburg, situated about an hour’s drive from the circuit – even on race day. It was pretty close to nowhere, but it did have a tiny train station at a junction called Bitburg-Erdorf and while there was not much in the way of restaurants or other eateries in Bitburg, one could easily catch the hourly train to Trier.

Alas, Bitburg did have several small, comfortable bars, owned and run by men who wore only blue and/or red chequered shirts with faded jeans and exclusively served the beer Bitburger. To get food required a train; to get beer required a short walk.

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