NURBURGRING AND IMOLA 1996
THE FIRST ADVENTURE ACROSS EUROPE WITH THE KIDS: "BUTTERFLIES & NAPPIES"
Wow it really does seem a long time ago now! In the year 1996 my wonderful wife and I were living in a house that we were literally building around us. We had moved from town and wanted a better life for our kids out in the country, but we were literally going to have to build that life around us. We just didn't have the money so we had moved into a derelict cottage. We had an old wood fired Rayburn cooker and camping stoves to cook on. We had second hand everything, including a tiny portable telly that a rarely produced a clear picture and as Shakespeare said "the coffers were bare" And you guessed it we had little ones, two beautiful children. Lisa my oldest was 8 and Charlie my son was just two years old.
Being massive F1 fans we had a Grand Prix calendar stuck on the fridge door and had already marked of the completed Australian GP. The race was won by Damon Hill but remembered for the stirring debut of Jaques Villeneuve. One morning while enjoying a yarn over a mug of tea with my brother, he looked over at the calendar and we expressed our dream of one day visiting all the circuits around the globe. With the state of our house, finances and the small fact we had two kids it was a pipe dream. To even think of going to any of them seemed ludicrous. But like all pivotal moments in life I remember that this was the moment that changed things. Instead of the classic "In your dreams" I was going to turn dream into reality and casually announced we were going to the European Grand Prix and not only that we may even carry on to the San Marino round at Imola Italy!
As I have now realised, with a lot of hard work, a bit of luck and an adventurous spirit anything is possible, and sure enough the day came that we excitedly set off for Europe. It was the day after my son's second birthday. My daughter was declared sick to the school, which seemed a good idea at the time, but after four weeks it took a bit of explaining! And our departure was definitely not in style, in fact we were going in my very old and well used Austin Maestro Van which was usually used for window cleaning. And it seems hard to believe in these days of health and safety, my Wife and Lisa knelt in the back on a bed made of caravan cushions and with no seat belts! My son had a polystyrene baby seat strapped in the front seat, so he looked straight out the front window, he always had the best of everything! We had a two man tent to squeeze all four of us into, sleeping bags, quilts, cooking stoves, deck chairs, windbreak, nappies and and tons of wet wipes. We had bags with clothes in and there was the ongoing saga of just how much Lisa could fit in? In the end we we're carrying her entire wardrobe which at eight was quite substantial! Also we had money hidden in the back lights and the head lining. This was before the Euro so we had to take four different currencies. Being much younger we had a really decent music system and some of those old songs that we played over and over, still lovingly live in our memories today.
Even the ferry across to Calais was brilliant because we were genuinely all just so excited. Well the three of us were and Charlie I guess smiled a lot because of our enthusiasm. He certainly seemed pretty happy in his favourite Paddington jumper and red cords.
The drive down toward Germany took us through Belgium and past the Spa Francorchamps circuit, we didn't visit but did get very excited seeing it from the motorway.
Our first stop was a small town on the Belgian, German border called Eupen. Camping an de Hill was remembered for two major world events, Charlie had his fist bump on the head in Europe, as he fell off a slide. The second thing to send shockwaves through our universe was that we could hear moles digging right under our tent! Oh and there was one more thing...... I discovered "Bitburger" beer! Yum yum.
The next day we passed over the border to Germany but not before the border guards checked in the back of the van. Apprehensively I waited "Yes one adult and one child in the back with no seating or belts! No problem come right in, and don't forget to go as fast as you like on our motorways".
Arriving at the Nurburgring was so cool we could immediately taste the atmosphere. The busy roads around the circuit were thronged with fans with flags and horns. Yes horns, something we had never experienced was Air Horns, and Lisa already had her heart set on one of these ear busting contraptions. We craned our necks repeatedly as we spotted important landmarks like the first glimpse of a grandstand, the first Shuey flag, the first Ferrari and then Lisa's could hardly contain herself when she spotted the Red Bull Mini with a giant can on it! Eventually we found the official campsite just over the road from the circuit entrance. I dropped Wendy of at reception to see if there was room for us. When she returned she indicated me to pull over toward the wall and we loaded a large net of logs.
"What are these for?" I asked puzzled.
"The lady at reception said it will be very cold tonight and suggested we have a bonfire" Wendy explained.
My eyes lit up and I smiled at her.
"I thought you would like that" she laughed as she saw my beaming child like face "And we can camp anywhere that's free" she added.
Finding a spot was not that easy as a lot of the site was boggy and all the best spots were taken but in the end we found a small patch of hard ground that was rather like and island in a stream. Still we were happy enough and set up camp for a few days. Sensibly we settled in, cooked food and lit the fire. And boy it was cold! We tucked up close that night!
So here we were at the Nurburgring and we wanted to watch qualifying, there was one big snag though, we didn't have enough money for tickets! It was time to recce the fences and gates. It soon became obvious that the German system of no great big holes in fences like Silverstone was going to be a tough nut to crack. Turn styles on the gates prevented us sneaking in, especially with two children. Never a family to give up we set off to the far side of the circuit to see if there were any opportunities there. On the far side of the old Nürburg village was a padlocked gate blocking a footpath up the wooded hill. It had to be worth a look so we climbed over buggy and all, and made our way quietly through the woods. As we nervously approached the brow of the steep path it opened up from the dense pine trees and there was a meadow looking out across the circuit. In front was a massive shipping container on wheels which had concealed us from any stray eyes. We walked up to it and neatly joined the throng of people in front. Not counting our chickens we quietly sat down on the grass and waited to see if we had gone unnoticed. After about fifteen minutes we realised we were safely in and we could maybe relax. Just to our right was a very large bonfire, surrounded by locals warming themselves. It really was so cold and with two kids we thought no one would mind if we went over and warmed ourselves.
The view over the circuit was terrific. Looking down the green valley topped with lush green fir trees sat the ribbon of Tarmac flanked to the sides with modern grandstands. Right opposite us was the massive Dorrint hotel that looked down on the start line. From our quite high vantage point we could see three full corners of the track, it really was a great place to watch.
The first cars came out and the hairs on the back of the neck stood up. The scream of the V10 engines filled the valley. My daughter held my hand looked up to me and smiled, it is one of the special pictures in my mind that never fade and Charlie excitedly pointed "Cars". It was brilliant, it really was the dream come true for us, we had made it. With no radio and no understanding of German we were not really able to follow the action but it did nothing to lessen the experience. The kids cheered for Michael Schumacher and I cheered the Williams of Villeneuve.
Once the session was over we thought it prudent to leave immediately and go back the same way we came in. We were already planning to return back the next day for the race.
In the old village there were trade stands, bars and exhibitions. The kids adored this stuff and a young Charlie soon found a penchant for the red Ferraris. As he toddled around an exclusive Ferrari car park. Lisa took photos of her little brother perusing the latest models. Lisa herself liked the freebies like stickers, posters and bizarrely beer mats and soon had quite a collection. We noticed that in a short time the roads were not gridlocked so we returned to the van and went for an explore around the area. We didn't really touch on the old Nurburgring, through our ignorance of its location, but we did find the beautiful village of Adenauer. We explored there and bought some provisions. The bars were crowded with fans so stopped to take in the atmosphere. After a couple of very strong German beers we returned to camp.
At shower time we were all fascinated by the lovely heated floors and massive squeegee for the cleaning of-showers after use. Alien things to 90s Brits used to tin huts in fields.
Race day arrived and we prepared for the day with a hearty breakfast then armed ourselves with sandwiches and plenty of warm clothes for the day. It was really sunny but the air was still biting cold. Charlie was set to have an easy day as I was wearing a kids backpack with him in it. He always had a fine view over my head and would shout straight in my ear to gain my attention. We set off early just incase we ran into trouble at our secret entry. We also suffered a little anxiety incase we never made it in. The kids would be so disappointed so the pressure was on both me and Wendy. When we arrived at the gate the coast was again cleared and so wasting no time we nipped over and made our way up the path. Just like the day before there was no problems and we headed over to the back of the container. A little more nervous as the stakes were higher we snuck deep into the crowds. After a little while we again felt comfortable and so we chanced our luck by making our way back toward the lit bonfire. It was warm there and the view much better for the not so tall children. We settled in and were as happy as Larry. Just as I was taking it for granted that we were safely in place for the race I got a stomach churning tap on the shoulder. As I nervously turned around towering above me was a very large German man. He looked down at me and crossly said "You watch for free! You warm on our fire for free!" He paused leaving me with dread in my tummy before finishing with "You need to get more wood from the container if you wish to stay" he then pointed and smiled.
"Of course no problem, I'll go get some wood" I then removed my son from off my back and retreated to the back off the container. I opened the steel door and to my astonishment it was filled with railway sleepers. I struggled out with massive piece of wood before returning for more with Lisa. She helped me with a few more pieces and really looked the part as she was wearing her pride and joy Desert Boots. Soon we made an impression and were made to feel comfortable by our hosts. They then explained that the land was privately owned by the large man who was a forester. The land is for invited guests and now us! We were even given a couple of beers and invited onto the roof of the container for the race. We declined the spectating offer as we were so grateful just to be able to stay. The fact we could now relax now was fantastic.
Watching the race was simply amazing and although nearly two hours it seemed to be over in no time. It had been a very exciting race narrowly won by Villeneuve from a hard charging Michael Schumacher. Within minutes of the finish the fans were streaming onto the circuit through and over the fences. We had to get back to the far side of the circuit so why not join them we thought. We quickly gathered our bits together bid farewell to our hosts and ran down to the track edge. We were confronted by a very high wire fence but it was fairly easy climb. Not thinking twice both Wendy and Lisa were soon scaling the obstacle but I had forgotten that I had the little fella on my back! "Oh what the hell I thought. Hold on tight Charlie". Up and over we went. This action is on page 32 of how to be a perfect parent!
Thrilled to be on the sacred tarmac we explored the track and around by the starting grid we took photographs of us beside some Italians with a truly gigantic heart shaped Ferrari flag ( famously featured on TV many times ). We soaked up the atmosphere and congratulated ourselves on being there. We were now part of the traveling F1 circus!
Back at camp we chilled out with an evening meal and stoked up the smoky fire one last time. Charlie was zonked by early evening and already tucked up in the tent. On the camp was a small bar about one hundred meters from the tent. We asked Lisa if she was OK to look after her sleeping brother for half an hour while we had a quick drink and she seemed OK with it!
We ordered a couple of drinks and prepared for a bit of time to ourselves. No matter what you do, parenting seems to be about the mistakes and lessons you learn along the way. It is never completely smooth and within minutes my distressed Daughter was confronting us in tears with a very sick little Brother. It seemed amazing that you take your eyes of the most precious things in the world for just a few minutes and they can be in jeopardy! We returned straight back to camp and we nursed Charlie who had been sick and we comforted our little girl. A hard lesson learnt I can still feel my anguish writing this today!
Following the Grand Prix we had to decide whether to carry on across Europe to Italy or to turn back toward home. It seems really funny today because being seasoned travellers it seems like nothing to drive to Italy. At the time with a young family, little money and genuine ignorance it really felt like a massive decision. If you think about it we had no breakdown cover, no sat nav, no mobile phones and a dodgy old van. Well we were very brave and next morning we packed up camp and prepared to head off, only to find the van wouldn't start. The battery was flat as a pancake and there was no charging light. We were on a slight hill so with a push from some friendly campers we were soon started and out the gates. Once again I had the anguish of deciding to drive on or return. Lisa knew the situation and asked in hope if we would be carrying on. I settled on a compromise, we would drive south for an hour park up on a hill and see if the battery was charging. With butterflies in my tummy I drove for the first time on a super fast Autobahn and after about forty miles found a suitable lay-by to pull in. I turned off the engine on a slight incline looked across to Wendy for moral support and turned the key. The trepidation was over, the van started just fine and must be charging. We are off to Italy kids!
After the relief of the van starting we planned our route down to Italy and boy it looked a long way. We had lots of maps that we had accumulated from car boot sales, and we also had one of the first computer route planners printed out. This was from my Father in law and it was incredibly difficult to follow. It had instructions like proceed for 656m turn left at 28m and follow road for 4 miles on page after page! Wow we have come a long way since then.
The general route was to go south toward Luxembourg then back into Germany to go through the Black Forest and to cross into Switzerland on minor roads to avoid the Swiss vignette. The Swiss Vignette sounded scary and when the Father in law said it was to be avoided at all costs he printed out a route across the mountains!
Feeling a sense of relief we were on our way again and soon picked up good speed on the Autobahn. At first we could not believe we were able to go as fast as we liked and were generally very cautious at around 70mph, but after finding ourselves stuck in the inside lane with the lorries I got braver and braver until we found the top speed of our little Maestro van at exactly 105mph. We were soon reeling off the miles and revelling in the changing scenery as we rushed through mid Germany. After just a little while we were concerned as we thought we could smell burning oil and then there was smoke pouring from under the bonnet. My heart sank as I turned off the engine and coasted to a halt in a lay-by. I popped the bonnet and looked in at what looked like a disaster zone. There was oil everywhere, but as I looked closer I could see the oil filler cap on the top of the engine had blown off! This had happened recently once before, so I had secured it tighter and then thought nothing more of it. But this time there must have been quite a lot of pressure, to blast it right off had taken some force.
“Will it be OK Dad” was a line I often heard and my reply was always “I hope so Sweetheart” before going into silent thinking mode!
The old cogs in the head had worked away until I realised that pressure must be building up in the engines case, and the breathers must be blocked. Not something that can be fixed on holiday! But the engine was blowing the cap off and then seemed to running OK apart from the oil spray. If I could just get it to breath from there, but how?
Suddenly I had it “Nappies”! Breathable absorbent and water tight.
“Can you get me one of Charlie’s nappies”……………..”Now if I place if over where the oil cap goes….. Bungee it around the side to hold it on and to seal it like so, the oil will spray into the nappy and when it absorbed more than it can hold it should just drip back in to the engine through gravity”
I cannot say we were very confident in the solution, but we topped up the lost oil fitted the nappy and headed off again with the baggage of another set of butterflies in my tummy! These however were tempered by a hand around the shoulder from my wife or from my little girl sat behind me and with the odd smile or high five from Charlie, I knew we were all in this together as a family
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO KNOW IF WE MAKE IT TO ITALY PLEASE COME BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART TWO
MOTORING-MAN is my motor racing book, picture and photo shop. I set it up about ten years ago. As an avid collector and enthusiast it is a great way to fuel my passion. I also like to convey my enthusiasm and memories through writing. Hopefully with a bit of luck next year I will publish a fun book on Le Mans. I have been to many Grand Prix over the years but my passion is the 24 Hours of Le Mans and have been 35 times up to now. My son has a Motoring shop and my Daughter is a producer for F1 so it really runs through our veins
link below is our motor racing and car book