The Social Scene Spa-Francorchamps

Formula One - A View From the Paddock
August 31, 2011, 12:00 PM

The Social Scene Spa-Francorchamps

The Spa-Francorchamps circuit where the Belgian Grand Prix took place last weekend is considered one of the best on the Formula One calendar. But the track is in the Ardennes Forest, far from any major city, and bad weather is almost a given during race weekend, so Spa is rarely a very big place in terms of visits from stars or dignitaries, or any other kind of party-like atmosphere.

Michael Schumacher celebrates 20 years in Formula One at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit last weekend.Brad Spurgeon for The New York TimesMichael Schumacher celebrates 20 years in Formula One at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit last weekend.

Come to think of it, the most memorable off-track event in recent years was probably the $100 million fine against McLaren-Mercedes that was announced on race weekend at Spa in 2007.

But this weekend turned out to be a fairly lively and unusual one. Michael Schumacher marked 20 years in the series, as he raced in his first race in F1 at Spa in 1991. His current team, Mercedes, marked the occasion with a celebration for the whole paddock on Saturday evening, and despite Schumacher qualifying in last place, he looked in great spirits.

Derek Hill, left, speaks with Paul-Henri Cahier, a photographer, in the paddock at the Belgian Grand Prix last weekend.Brad Spurgeon for The New York TimesDerek Hill, left, speaks with Paul-Henri Cahier, a photographer, in the paddock at the Belgian Grand Prix last weekend.

I was reminded of another very important anniversary when I met up with Derek Hill in the paddock on Sunday morning. Hill used to race in Formula 3000, and he is the son of Phil Hill, who was the only American-born world champion. (Mario Andretti is the other American world champion, but he was steeped in the sport while a child growing up in Europe.) I was reminded that at the next race, in Monza next week, it will be the 50th anniversary of Hill’s world championship victory — which happened at Monza.

Bernard Thiebaut, the leader of the French worker’s union, right, having a tour of the starting grid at the Belgian Grand Prix.Brad Spurgeon for The New York TimesBernard Thiebaut, the leader of the French worker’s union, right, having a tour of the starting grid at the Belgian Grand Prix.

On the starting grid I was very surprised to see a man I recognized from French news reports being walked around the grid by a Renault car company man. This was Bernard Thiebaut, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail, or C.G.T., the largest French labor union. Thiebaut, I had been told earlier by my colleague at Le Figaro, had been seen together with Gerard Lopez, the owner of the Renault team and a staunch capitalist. The C.G.T. is very, very left wing.

My colleague at Le Figaro who also informed me that he had seen Eric Clapton on the grid before the start of the race as well. So I ran back onto the grid and found Clapton just as we all had to evacuate the grid for the start of the race. I managed to get a quote from him for my next preview feature story, for Monza. He was with Bernie Ecclestone, and had just played a gig at the wedding of Ecclestone’s daughter in Italy.

Not a bad bit of social life, for Spa…

Copyright. 2011. The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.

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