I felt quite fortunate as I cruised down the familiar E40 towards Brussels.
To race in events outside the UK, you must have a different kind of race licence called a National A - and to get that you need to finish 10 races in the UK and get the Clerk of the Course to sign your licence. I have only been racing since the middle of March 2000, but somehow I've managed to squeeze 10 races in. And by some miracle my little Golf has started and finished them all.
And the club I race with had been invited to enter two races which would be supporting events to the prestigious Spa 6 Hours event. So rather than turning off onto the E17 to travel to Eindhoven for a business meeting, I carried on down the E40 heading for the historic Spa Francorchamps circuit in the Ardennes countryside - this was going to be fun.
I'd spent an hour or so during the previous week studying a video of Heinz-Harold Frentzen's qualifying lap for the Grand Prix two weeks earlier - so I had a rough idea of which way to turn when I got on the track. There were cars everywhere as we all settled into our stride, and immediately I was starting to get held up by the Sunbeam of Andrew Guy as he also tried to learn the track (he hadn't been watching the video!). I got past him at La Source, but then made a right pigs ear at my first attempt at Eau Rouge and he came flying past again. I tried to pass once more at Stavelot 2, and ended up spinning onto the grass. Urrgh. By the time the rest of the field had gone by I was stuck out on my own without anyone to learn the track from, I struggled round best I could. The brakes on the Golf were giving concern - in fact they were positively scary. So the best I managed was a 3.22 - slower than most of my Group One Competitors. Frentzen managed a 1min 55 - well he has got a power advantage.
In between qualifying sessions, I decided I HAD to do something with the brakes. The pads were worn completely, but worse still the disks themselves had steeper wear marks in them than Eau Rouge! So a set of second hand (but better) disks were fitted with fresh pads.
The 1 hour race was a two driver event, so I was sharing the Golf with Jos van de Perre - a former competitor in the Maranello Ferrari challenge. He was to qualify first, and since he had neither driven the Golf nor Spa in anger before, we decided to give him the majority of the qualifying time to find his way around. That left me with just enough time to do two quick laps - the first of which was immediately ruined as I caught a slower car at Eau Rouge. So I had one more chance left. I managed to take Eau Rouge flat (easy enough in the Golf but it still puts your stomach in your mouth) and got round Les Combes pretty well. But then I go confused and thought Malmedy (a flat out right hander) was the Rivage hairpin - so lost a load of time as I re-applied the power. I got through Rivage and Rivage 2 OK and made my best effort yet at Pouhon, applying the power well before the first apex and keeping the pedal to the floor through the rest of the corner. Des Fagnes is next which I never really got the hang of, then you brake hard into Stavelot 1 before taking Stavelot 2 flat out - very important because its a long way from there to the next time you lift or hit the brakes. Through Blanchimont was flat out again (and scary) before heavy braking for the Bus Stop chicane, which I took in 2nd gear at 7500 rpm. Then its the short blast down to La Source hairpin (where Jensen Button hit Trulli). I had been braking too early for this so I kept the power on as long as possible - only to lock all four wheels and head towards the escape road - aargh. Anyway I manage to get round, missing the apex by 10 metres, and cross my lap timer beacon with a time of 3.19 - 3 seconds quicker but a long way from a perfect lap.
Jos was going first so we strapped him in the car after discussing our pit strategy, that would include refuelling. I wandered across to the pit lane more nervous than I've ever been for a race, with someone else in my car! Anyway the cars came round for the rolling start and Jos got away well. I was relieved to see him come past the pits after the first lap in one piece, and he continued to lap at a steady pace keeping my car in one piece. Good man! Before I knew it 30 mins was up and it was driver change time. Jos coolly drove up to the SPN pit garage (OK, a fire extinguisher and half full jerry can by the side of the pit wall) and as soon as he stopped the petrol cap was off and I was replenishing the car. Andrew Guy (who had just finished his driving slot in another car) helped out with the refuelling as I got strapped in. As soon as the signal was given, I fired the Golf up and blasted off down the pit lane towards Eau Rouge.
There are cars everywhere as I try to feel my way around again, then I start to push hard to make up some places. Actually I push too hard - and end up spinning at the exit if the Rivage hairpin, just managing to get the power down to the front wheels and missing the concrete barrier. Not a good start. Then I notice oil flags before the Bus Stop, I slow down a lot but there is far more oil than I thought, and I enter the chicane sideways, taking out one or two plastic cones in the process before regaining control and continuing. Mmmm, two half spins in the very first lap - this was not good.
Then as I drive round trying to gain my confidence, I notice a black flag at the Start/Finish line - car 64, Stop and Go Penalty. Aaargh, that's me! I come into the pits on the next lap and no-one can tell me why I've been stopped (I hear later that it was for speeding in the pit lane) so I lose a load more time.
I gradually build my speed up again and catch a few slower cars (as well as being lapped myself by some very quick cars, including classic TVR's, Aston Martins and Jaguars - this was great). Pretty soon its the last lap and I manage to catch an NSU who is almost certainly on the same lap as me. I've been very careful though the Bus Stop chicane after my earlier incident, but I manage to get a run on him through Blanchimont and take him just a few hundred metres from the end.
So we finished in 28th place overall out of about 45 cars - a credible performance considering Jos had never driven the car before...
Race Two wasn't until Sunday morning, so we had an enjoyable Saturday night at the drivers party, sinking a few beers and commiserating my fellow Group One competitors Andrew Guy and Rick Kerry - who had both blown their engines this weekend and would be missing this race.
My trusty Golf started no problem while I moved it round the Paddock on race morning, and soon the cars were being collected to form the grid. Suited and booted up, I started the car again - and - ping - a fuse went. Funny. It was the fuse in the fuel pump relay. We tried replacing it and - ping - immediately it went again. Bollocks - the cars are all collecting now and mine won't start. Bigger fuses are tried they also blow so we attempt to cross the connection with some 8 amp wire. The car still won't start, the fuel pump won't kick in and now the battery goes flat. It takes a few seconds for reality to sink in - I'm out of the race.
This was the big race of the two - with all my regular Group One competitors taking part (those who hadn't broken down anyway). I was gutted, so we loaded the Golf on the trailer and headed up the E40 in disgust. For the first time this year the car has let me down - and it had to be at Spa, 5 minutes before the start of the race! Oh well, there's always next year.
Next race - Snetterton, 14th October - the final Group One Championship round..