The Eau Rouge corner is the most wicked, steepest, craziest corner in Formula One auto racing. It is the corner that separates the men from the boys, to use a cliché. Or at least it was until they made a few modifications to it that made it so that pretty much all the Formula One cars go flat out up through this wall of a hill in the Ardennes Forest where the Belgian Grand Prix takes place.
So it was that because the corner no longer is entirely what it was in a Formula One car – not so long ago only fools like Jacques Villeneuve attempted it flat out, and ended up in the tire barrier off the side in a mess – I decided that I would measure myself against the drivers by attempting to take Eau Rouge on a real man’s machine: My unicycle. (It just turns out that there was a story in the New York Times today about unicycling, too, so you can get the background for unicycling on that.)
As a teenager for a brief period I worked in a circus in Canada called Puck’s Canadian Travelling Circus, and also for that circus’s predecessor company called Puck’s Rent-a-Fool. So I guess once a fool always a fool.
Eau Rouge has hung there for me as a temptation for years now but it was only yesterday that I finally got my courage up to attempt to ride my unicycle up the legendary hill.
The day before I did so, I sent off an email to a media contact at the McLaren Mercedes team to invite Lewis Hamilton, the team’s world champion driver, to join me if he cared to. For Hamilton too knows that Formula One cars are not entirely a man’s machine anymore, and he too rides a unicycle. I never heard back on that one, and I have assumed that Hamilton was too scared.
But he is certainly not afraid of unicycles. In fact, you could say he is part of a trend, and it all started off with an Irish former F1 driver named David Kennedy, who now runs a team in a lower series. Kennedy, in the 70s – when I first started unicycling – rode a unicycle. Then Mika Hakkinen, the Finnish driver who also became world champion at McLaren – like Hamilton – in 1998 and 1999 also rode a unicycle. (He went to circus school and, like me, occasionally rode his unicycle to high school.) And today there is Hamilton’s friend and competitor, Nico Rosberg, who drives as Michael Schumacher’s teammate at the Mercedes team, who also rides a unicycle. (He’d be better off here this weekend on the unicycle than in the Mercedes, where he qualified only 12th and then got a five spot grid penalty for having to change the gearbox.)
To quote from my story today from my Belgian Grand Prix Special Report about the Spa circuit, Eau Rouge “is end of a back straight where the cars run at 300 kilometers an hour, during a 23-second period at full throttle from La Source hairpin to Les Combes, at the end of the straight after Eau Rouge. Eau Rouge is the only corner in the series where the drivers have negative G-forces, here measured at up to -3.5g.”
So the challenge was there and I had to take it. I was warned by many colleagues in advance that the corner was like a wall, that it was difficult to walk up, almost impossible to ride up on a bicycle, and that I had no chance on a unicycle. What’s more, it could be dangerous for me.
Yeah, but I had to do it. I took a video of the feat, and yes, I made it!!! Not without looking like a fool and like a man on the verge of a heart attack, however. The second video, of me going DOWN Eau Rouge, was much simpler as a feat and I even managed to have the time to make a telephone call.