The early morning drive into the Spa circuit is a relative breeze, causing colleague Sandor and I to reflect on the same journey a year ago, when we were forced to use muddy forestry tracks to beat the traffic.
The 10:00 FIA press conference is significant for two reasons: We learn more about PU26 – F1-speak for the incoming power unit regulations – but nothing about the Oscar Piastri fiasco save that he was (allegedly) conducting a simulator session when Alpine team boss Otmar Szafnauer notified him that he would be racing for the team in 2023, that he smiled at the news then published social media messages refuting any such deal.
A right royal mess by any standards!
After a quick bite Sandor and I each grab a tabard, then catch a shuttle to what I consider the most beautiful segment on the F1 trail: From the right-left Les Combes complex down the hill to Les Fagnes – a roughly two-kilometre walk which perfectly showcases the incredible power and breath-taking speed of current F1 cars, and, crucially, the commitment required to hustle what are now one-ton machines. Some drivers have it…
Being trackside for around a quarter of the 7,005km track’s length enables me to gauge crowd demographics: I’d heard a figure of 10% local fans spread across Belgium’s French-speaking and Flemish groups and the same again for each French and German nationals, with a whopping 40% being Dutch and the balance (20%) being rest-of-the-world. Based on dress regalia, waved flags and language during cheering I’d say it’s about right.
However, I don’t buy the bandied-about figure of 360k over the three days: 120k three-day tickets may well have been sold – although I believe that number to be inflated by 20% – but Friday/Saturday attendances were visibly lower than Sunday, when a crowd of 120k is claimed. The problem is that whenever politicians get involved – as at Spa – numbers suddenly multiply…
Which brings me to the Belgian Grand Prix’s one-year extension: F1 allegedly offered a three-year deal back in March, but local politicians insisted on “five years or nothing.” Once Las Vegas was signed and (very public) discussions were held with South African promoters, the grey suits rapidly backpedalled and agreed to a three-year deal, but it was too late. SAGP’s failure to cut a deal, though, re-opened the door – for a year.
Whether Spa returns thereafter depends on various factors, not least the willingness of the circuit’s owners – a consortium consisting of the Walloon government, Liege province, the towns of Stavelot, Malmedy, Spa and Verviers, plus a collection of local motor clubs – to invest in the infrastructure and facilities.
Flagged for action are all-weather access roads, more grandstands and fan zones, better parking areas, improved VIP facilities, and no doubt, higher hosting fees. Clearly the days of simply winging it as the ‘world’s most beautiful racetrack’ and hoping for the best are over, certainly where F1 is concerned. Brace yourselves, though, for no Spa after 2023 or a rotational arrangement facilitated by exorbitant ticket prices.
As night falls, I head for a Rolex media reception where I chat with some of F1’s high and mighty. Given we’ve just had Audi’s F1 announcement, I ask when to expect details on Porsche’s much-vaunted entry (with Red Bull), adding that I’d heard speculation about a possible announcement in Zandvoort (Max Verstappen territory), failing which Monza (on Ferrari turf). Much clearing of throat… then, “It’s a complex situation…”
“Because Honda is pushing to stay with Red Bull after 2025 and has many supporters within the team. Don’t expect anything soon…”
First follow-up is Spa’s extension, due at 2pm with details being much as above – although the timing suggests that slot was chosen to bury the bad news that it’s a one-year deal and that South Africa’s project is off. Kyalami will not be mentioned, I learn – because it was never officially on the calendar. Maybe, but numerous F1 figures stated unequivocally, “We’re going to South Africa in 2023…”
Next, I chase Honda’s future plans and discover that Koji Watanabe, CEO of Honda Racing Corporation is present in Spa. While attendance of top management (from any motor company) at an F1 grand prix is not unusual, a trip to Spa is not exactly glamorous. Why not Zandvoort, situated close to Schipol Airport?
I learn that he met with Japanese media, who are, though, adamant that he emphatically refuted suggestions that Honda planned to remain in F1 beyond 2025. I treat that, though, with the pinch of salt it deserves: Honda’s comments in the past disingenuous, most recently when it announced its exit at end-2021 yet is currently ramping up on its involvement through to 2025.
Thus, post-race I ask Red Bull F1 consultant Helmut Marko what the chances are of Honda remaining with the team beyond 2025; what chances of the Porsche deal not going ahead. He echoes that, “It’s a complex situation,” adding, “Nothing has been signed (with Porsche)”.
Could it be a negotiating tactic? Could it be that the VW Group has suddenly U-turned and will only send a single brand (Audi) into F1? Has Honda upped the ante?
At a subsequent media session I quiz Red Bull team boss Christian Horner and receive broadly similar answers to those given by Marko, although Horner stresses that post-2025 the team will race with power units produced by the company’s nascent Red Bull Powertrains division as part of the team’s determination to secure their independence.
“Strategically we have to do what’s right for the team and company,” he explains.
“Could you stay with Honda?” I ask, implying RB-built PUs bearing Honda badging.
“Nothing is fixed,” he says, adding that RBPT has “300 people recruited” before confirming that RBPT will register with the FIA as power unit supplier by the deadline for 2026, namely 15 October. Then, tellingly, he adds, “That doesn’t preclude any deal being done after that date…”
“But the tappet covers could say ‘Porsche’, ‘Honda’ or whatever?” I venture.
Nod of the head, then broad smile…
With that my weekend at Spa is over – and what a weekend it’s been: Audi’s announcement on Friday followed by revelations that Spa is safe (for a year, at least) albeit at the expense of South Africa’s hoped for return, a wonderful trackside excursion and speculation about Porsche/Honda.
In between all that Verstappen and Red Bull won a dry Belgian Grand Prix by 18 seconds after starting 14th – which should be the main story but that’s now somehow gets taken for granted.