An inspiring trip to Belgium - Derek Bell Column - November 2013

13th November 2013

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even know where Knokke-Heist was, but I do now and I feel compelled to share. Over the weekend of 10-13 October 2013, this coastal town near Bruges in Belgium hosted the fourth Zoute Grand Prix concours and rally. Named after Het Zoute, the most exclusive part of the area, and organised by the Zoute Automobile Club, it was the brainchild of local Bentley dealer, Filip Bourgoo. I was there in my capacity as a Bentley brand ambassador and I have to say I was blown away by the whole thing. What’s more, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before.

Judging from the fabulous houses and high-end retailers on the promenade along the shoreline, the area isn’t lacking for millionaires, yet there was a wonderful sense of informality about the event. A crucial role in its creation and growing stature is the town’s major, Count Leopold Lippens, who happens to be the club’s president and a real car enthusiast. I was treated like an honorary Belgian, my friendship with Jacky Ickx and past successes at Spa-Francorchamps seeming to count for something!

I was also reminded of that other legendary Belgian motor sport fixture, Jacques Swaters, on being reunited with the ex-Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 512M, the very machine in which I began my sports car career in the 1970 Spa 1000km endurance race. I always thought it looked particularly striking in yellow rather than the usual red but, before the concours proper, I was down to compete in the regularity rally. I’ve done this sort of thing before, and have particularly enjoyed participating in the Austrian Ennstal Classic, but what was new was just how seriously everyone took the local speed limits. I think there were something like 172 cars entered in 2012, and 171 speeding tickets were issued!

This year, it was a different story. Each car was fitted with a little black box that recorded your speed and penalty points were awarded accordingly. I believe I racked up something like 3000. I’m not sure if that was good or bad.

My car for the weekend was a magnificent 1952 Bentley Continental S1 fastback. I was really taken aback at how amazingly good it was to drive, considering it’s more than 60 years old. I was warned that I might find the brakes a little bit wooden, but I had no problem at all. It was a lovely old thing, and felt far more youthful than you might imagine. It was fast and surprisingly agile too, and I enjoyed drifting it on the slalom course coming onto the promenade. It probably wasn’t the done thing, but I think the spectators enjoyed it. I can fully understand why the Continental is so revered among Bentley fans.

The concours d’élégance on the Sunday morning was sadly blighted by poor weather, but it was a remarkable spectacle nonetheless. Cars were carefully positioned on the manicured lawns of Fairway 1 of the prestigious Royal Zoute Golf Club, class winners including one-off concept cars such as the Maserati Boomerang and small-run coachbuilt rarities from such marques as Bugatti, Ferrari and Packard. The really amazing part for me, though, was being handed a glossy magazine on the Sunday afternoon which covered the entire event, including photos and names of all the prize-winners: it wasn’t just a pamphlet, it was a proper magazine. I dread to think how much it cost to get that done, but you could certainly see that money had been spent.

In addition to the rally and the concours, there was also the GT Tour for modern exotics, a drive from St Martens-Latem through picturesque lanes to Knokke-Aoute. Then there were the 13 raised platforms in the streets off the main promenade, which were temporary homes for the very latest supercars and glitzy performance saloons. They were positioned in such a way that they didn’t look out of place, yet still they appeared somehow much like an automotive art installation. It was tastefully done. Then there was the Bonhams auction and, well, you get the idea.

To be honest, I had mixed emotions going into the event. It was yet another weekend away from home, which weighed on my mind. But now I’m hoping I will be invited back again. You could argue that there are too many of these sorts of high-brow concours/tour events, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Zoute Grand Prix’s fame will spread beyond Belgium’s borders. It certainly deserves to.

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