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TrackChaser update

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  • Vanden Eynde Roland
    Hello colleagues, The famous Dutch football (soccer to most of you) player Johan Cruyff once said that every drawback has its advantage, and how true this was
    Message 1 of 331 , Mar 5, 2009
      Hello colleagues,

      The famous Dutch football (soccer to most of you) player Johan Cruyff once said that every drawback has its advantage, and how true this was for me two weekends ago.

      FLASHBACK TO 1983
      During 1983 I first met Prosper Mollekens, a Belgian race team owner, who lives 25 miles from my place. He's a self made man, who got into long distance road haulage to the Middle East long before others had even heard of the Emirates, Oman or Qatar. It resulted in a very successful business, but Prosper always remained a modest man. At the time, he ran a small Formula 3 racing team (KTR - Keerbergs Transport Racing), together with two very skilled mechanics: Jacky Eeckelaert and Frank Couckaert. Both Prosper and his two mechanics shared an international outlook, a down to earth attitude and a good command of several languages with me. Over the years Prosper and Jacky have been my best friends in motor racing (together with the late Roland Ratzenberger). When his son Kurt started his career, Prosper followed him up to Formula 3000. In the meantime, Jacky Eeckelaert became chief mechanic at Peugeot, first in touring cars, later in Formula 1, and afterwards he was technical team leader with Sauber and Honda F1 operations. Frank worked mainly in France and became chief mechanic of the DAMS team.

      FLASHBACK TO 1989
      On one of our first dates, Aline told me she owned a piece of land in her native Guadeloupe and that someday she wanted to go back and build a nice home on her land. Over the years this subject has been discussed several times and a few years ago, we concluded we would start building after I retired at the National Bank of Belgium. At that time, we had a scheme to retire at age 55, which in my case would be this year. However, our Board decided to make us work at least 5 years longer, so the earliest retirement date for me is mid 2014. Nevertheless, Aline was keen on starting investigations into our building plans late last year. I set aside some days of leave for it. But I had to be at the NBB during our chosen period, so we decided to postpone our trip to the last week of February and the first of March. However, there's a general strike on Guadeloupe since January 25 and we had to postpone our trip again, this time 'sine die'.

      FLASHBACK TO FRIDAY FEBRUARY 13, 2009
      I had finalised my last 5 days of 2008 leave (to be taken before the end of February) for the last week of February and was planning on a quiet week at home, when in the early evening my phone rang. It was Prosper Mollekens. When he phones, it's usually to invite me to a race somewhere. Indeed, his opening lines were: 'Do you want to use my VIP pass for the A1 Grand Prix at Kyalami next week? The only thing you have to pay is the flight'. I was speechless for a moment while my brain measured the pro's against the con's. The major reason I never considered trackchasing in South Africa is the appalling violent crime record of the country, and of Johannesburg (of which Kyalami is a suburb) in particular. Yet such a chance to watch a series I had penciled in for Brands Hatch later this year was impossible to discard. When I found my speech back again, I answered that it sounded interesting. Prosper told me DAMS was responsible for the French and South African entries and as a token of gratitude the local entrants had offered a few VIP tickets with a Saturday stay in a four star hotel. Chief mechanic Frank Couckaert had contacted him, but he had a business trip to Oman planned for that weekend. Nice of him to think of me as his substitute.

      THE PREPARATION
      We exchanged mail address information and sure enough, when I came to work on Monday, Prosper had mailed me the electronic VIP invitation, the voucher for the hotel and a list of travel instructions. I immediately got onto the web to check flight availability. I found one out of Brussels on the Friday night and a return flight late on Sunday, which still had some seats left. Unfortunately, such convenient flight hours came at a price: EUR 1,202 to be exact. Expensive, but one only lives once. Once my flight was booked, I mailed the travel hours and the change of beneficiary for the VIP ticket 715 to the Sunnyside Park Hotel. They mailed back that everything was well received and that their shuttle minivan would pick me up me at arrival.
      As my stay would be short and the transit time on my flight to South Africa was minimal, I opted to travel with hand luggage only.

      ON MY WAY
      In pure Will White style, I worked a full day on Friday, February 20 and at 4.30PM, I left my car in the NBB parking lot and walked to the nearby railway station for a shuttle train to the airport. The plane for the first leg was on time and 75 minutes later I landed at Munich airport. I already had my boarding pass for the South African Airlines flight to Johannesburg and found the 50 minutes transit time more than enough for the security checks. I had an aisle seat with much legroom and after a nice evening meal, tried to grab a bit of sleep on this 11 hour flight plain south. Although further away from home than New York or Chicago, my flight only crossed one time zone. I'm not a good sleeper on planes, but I did sleep a few hours and was not feeling too tired when the plane touched down at OR Tambo International Airport, the largest of Johannesburg's three airports. Belgians only need a valid passport to enter South Africa, so clearing immigration and customs was a piece of cake. Showing my VIP invitation helped as well, I suppose.

      FIRST (AND SECOND) IMPRESSIONS
      The hotel shuttle driver was already waiting for me in the e arrival hall. He was of mixed race and the first thing he asked was if it was alright if he spoke Afrikaanders. This is a local language which relates to Dutch like Pidgin English relates to Oxford English. I was surprised he asked me, as for most non whites Afrikaanders is considered the language of the ruling whites during apartheid (an Afrikaander term meaning segregation). I can understand this language quite well and Ronnie, as the driver introduced himself, was so elated that he gave me lots of information on Jo'burg (as the locals call it) and South Africa in general during the 20 mile trip to the Sunnyside Park Hotel. He did stress that murders were indeed a daily problem and that most neighbourhoods we crosses were very unsafe. Even without this stern warning, my first impression of Jo'burg, with it's overcrowding and the almost constant switch between modern and derelict or even shanty quarters, was that is looked less European than Abidjan (largest city of the Ivory Coast) where I spent a day in 1984. Traffic and driving manners were also very reminiscent of Lomé or Abidjan, with lots of old and fume belching taxis everywhere.

      The Sunnyside Park Hotel brought relief. It was a nice Victorian building and true to its name, situated in lush parkland. The only little point of critic was that my room wasn't air conditioned, but isn't that normal? There was no air conditioning in Queen Victoria's time. Frank Couckaert had left a note at the front desk, telling me he would send the team's van over at noon to fetch me and the other VIP's to the track. In the meantime, I had a nice refreshing shower. I got back to the lobby just before noon and met the other three VIP ticket holders. One of them was former DAMS driver Arnaud Trévisiol (whom I had met several times in the eighties), the other two were two former mechanics from the team haling from Le Mans and Strasbourg respectively.

      PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING
      The DAMS van drove us over crowded highways and streets in the direction of Pretoria. All the time we were in densely populated and built areas, until all of a sudden the track appeared. It looked more compact than I expected, and much more hilly. In fact, almost no part of the track is flat. We were driven into the paddock to behind the South African pit, where we were greeted by both the mechanics and the South African team boss. First thing we did was take a detailed look at the car. A1 Grand Prix is rather unique, as all cars (made by Ferrari with a 650 bhp V8 engine) are equal, and each participating country is represented by one car. Cars don't sport numbers, but a three letter combination of their country name. It's a sort of Olympic games of motorsport. There were some famous people around in the pit lane. Emerson Fittipaldi is Brazil's team principal and Michael Andretti is his American counterpart. His son Marco drove the American car, while fellow trackchaser Narain Karthikeyan drove for India.

      The South African team had prepared a 'braai' (another Afrikaander word, this one meaning barbecue) and the springbok and ostrich steaks were succulent. It did make me miss most of the qualifying sessions, but for the last of the three I roamed the track a bit. The 2.6 mile track may have a lot of gradient, but that doesn't mean it's an exciting one. It lacks flow, speed and overtaking spots and is quite narrow as well. Visibility from the grandstands wasn't all that well either and a spot inside the hairpin behind the pits seemed to be the best option.

      The qualifying session was uneventful, until Brazilian youngster Felipe Guimaraes decided to destroy his car. It was beyond repair and in such circumstances they may use a general spare car provided by the Middle Eastern organising company.

      After practice, we stayed to witness the debrief of Adrian Zaugg (the South African driver), before the DAMS van got us back to the hotel, for a nice evening meal with a good local wine. While the other VIPs finished off the evening in the Irish pub on the hotel premises, I retired to my room, for my intercontinental travel had taken a little toll. I slept like a log.

      RACE DAY
      As I was leaving in the evening, I had checked with Frank how I could reach the airport best. Turned out he was scheduled on a flight to Paris minutes after my London flight and I could join him in his hire car. It's easy to get used to this VIP treatment.

      A very nice breakfast was my last good memory of the hotel, certainly the best part of this South African experience. The DAMS van got stuck in traffic and we only arrived minutes before the sprint race was due to start. I followed the rather processional race from my vantage point behind the pit lane. Jeroen Bleekemolen led all the way for the Netherlands, the Australian pit crew won no less than six spots with a flawless compulsory pit stop, Felipe Guimaraes drove the spare car in a gravel trap and Narain Karthikeyan finished sixth, in front of 'our' driver, Adrian Zaugg.

      Our South African hosts had provided for an excellent light lunch and when the main race got started at 2.00PM, I went to my favourite spot again. The first few laps were hectic, with a succession of crashes ending the race of favourites Ireland, France and the UK. Neel Jani took the lead for Switzerland and seemed to head for an unchallenged win. However, Brazilian youngster Felipe Guimaraes passed all and sundry and drove the wheels off his spare car. Once he got up to second, he reeled in Jani (the winner last year at Durban), but the Swiss driver made sure a pass was never on. Apart from Guimaraes, Narain Karthikeyan did his best to enliven the second half of the race. He tried several overtaking attempts, but they all ended in lurid slides. He finished eleventh. Adrian Zaugg had to retire mid race.

      Even though his driver had only finished second, Emerson Fittipaldi was elated. Our South African hosts were a little less happy, but the early demise suited Frank and me well. It gave us 45 minutes more time to get to the airport. And we needed that for traffic to OR Tambo International was not that fluid. But Mr. Couckaert proved he had adapted very well to the local driving style, by forcing his way through some traffic jams. Anyway, we arrived largely on time for our flights. I hope he had a better one than I, for my plane was very crowded and I was confined to a rather uncomfortable window seat with very little legroom. Sleeping was not on and when almost 12 hours later, I arrived at Heathrow, I was knackered. A nice cup of tea while waiting for my BMI flight to Brussels did a lot of good and finally, just before noon on Monday, I set foot on Belgian soil again.

      CONCLUSION
      Was this trip worth it? Even with the VIP tickets, it was quite expensive and tiring. But it enabled me to see the duality of South Africa: a very lush hotel and a European style track (with a predominantly white and Asian public and very little black spectators) in a city where poverty and crime are intermingled with posh business districts. South Africa would never had been on my radar for trackchasing nor tourism without this sudden opportunity. And I have to add that it was nice to be in 35°C temps when in Belgium it was just above freezing. I have to thank my hosts, Frank and prosper, but also my employer and the Guadeloupe strike committee for creating this opportunity for me. At least it proves one has to have more luck than skill when it comes to international trackchasing.



      Roland

      -----------------------------------------
      Visit our website! http://www.nbb.be

      "DISCLAIMER: The content of this e-mail message should not be
      construed as binding on the part of the National Bank of Belgium
      (NBB) unless otherwise and previously stated. The opinions
      expressed in this message are solely those of the author and do not
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    • Vanden Eynde Roland
      Hello colleagues, Long before I found out trackchasing ever existed, I had a habit of going to some late season races on southern French road courses. I ve
      Message 331 of 331 , Nov 12, 2013
        Hello colleagues,

        Long before I found out trackchasing ever existed, I had a habit of going to some late season races on southern French road courses. I've long since exhausted those new track opportunities, but still there are a few French road courses I have to visit. Last weekend I added a rather remarkable one to my portfolio.

        Why drive an entire day if a high speed train brings you there in half that time? Since I discovered the multitude of possibilities of the French high speed trains, I like to take advantage of their services whenever suitable. Unlike my two previous train travels, this time, I couldn't get round Paris, but still that wasn't such a problem. I boarded a train to Paris Nord just past 11.15 a.m. and 75 minutes later it got me to Paris. In the north station of Paris, I had 85 minutes to get to Paris Bercy station by underground. It only took me 25 minutes to do so and I had ample time to take my numbered seat on the train to Clermont-Ferrand. Another 90 minutes later I got there. I had booked a hotel (Hotel des Commerçants) only yards from the railway station. The weather was a little cold, but sunny and after a long walk I had enough of an appetite to go for an early steak dinner at a Hippopotamus. These are chain restaurants a bit reminiscent of Applebee's.

        On Saturday morning I got back to the railway station to fetch my hire car at Sixt. They gave an excellent rate and handed me a Renault Twingo with only 75 miles on the clock. Unlike in Montréal, I didn't add thousands of miles to it, as my target for the day was less than 35 miles from the town centre. The French tyre manufacturer Michelin has its roots in Clermont-Ferrand and the centrepiece of those roots is its research centre at Ladoux (Auvergne region). This complex, officially called "Centre de recherche Michelin de Ladoux", is a beauty. It's in lush green surroundings. Inside a 5 mile high speed trioval, it harbours several testing grounds for dry weather tyre testing, wet weather tyre testing, braking, etc. The dry weather testing is done on a 2770 metres long flat track with numerous corners. It is on this track that twice a year countable races are held. Last Saturday, two Porsche clubs (one local and one Swiss) held a sprint and endurance meeting. This being a tyre test track, it has neither pit lane nor specific paddock area. I had to park my hire car on a piece of concrete where trailers and cars of team members were parked. Another part of that concrete area was turned into an improvised pit lane. In the morning, they held three 20 minute sprint races for various Porsche classes, while after a two hour lunch break (although there was only a local hot dog stand to get food from), allcomers got on the track for a two hour endurance race. The twisty nature of the track made for good racing, but the track surface was rather slick and there were spins galore. But as this track was surrounded by large grassy runoff areas, no cars were severely damaged. Not being a great fan of Porsches (I like Ferraris and Maseratis better), I left halfway the endurance race and had a nice drive in the hills surrounding Clermont-Ferrand. The entire landscape consists of extinct volcanoes and it's really gorgeous. I got back into town at dusk, handed the car back in and after another nice dinner, I had a good night sleep.

        Sunday morning, I got on the train back to Paris. Just like on Friday, the journey went by smoothly. So much for my contribution to tracks in November, as the rest of the month will not involve any new trackchasing for me.

        Roland

        -----------------------------------------
        Visit our website! http://www.nbb.be

        "DISCLAIMER: The content of this e-mail message should not be
        construed as binding on the part of the National Bank of Belgium
        (NBB) unless otherwise and previously stated. The opinions
        expressed in this message are solely those of the author and do not
        necessarily reflect NBB viewpoints, particularly when the content
        of this message, or part thereof, is private by nature or does not
        fall within the professional scope of its author."
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