Saturday, 6 August 2011

F1's Spa Treatment: the history of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit

It really is genius when you think about it. Construct a fast and challenging motor racing circuit that racing drivers can race and overtake on in a naturally beautiful and undulating part of the world. What's more, ensure that part of the world is in a notorious mini-clime, meaning it rains often and with little notice. Most of us therefore look forward to races there like no other.

Credit: Nathanael Majoros / CC
You've probably worked out by now that this circuit is Spa-Francorchamps. It's for these reasons and more that it remains resolutely the favourite of many F1 drivers and fans alike. I'm sure there have been dull races at Spa, but somehow it's genuinely hard to imagine one taking place. And it's next up on this year's F1 calendar, once the fraternity return from their summer holidays at the end of August.

In an age of gleaming and expensive new facilities and high circuit standards, Spa remains a circuit apart in modern F1. Yes, the track has had to adapt to the demands of the present day, it's no longer made up of roads open to the public, it has plenty of generous run off areas where there was previously very little room for drivers to get it wrong, has a billiard table smooth surface, and the efficiency of current F1 machines ensures that some of the demands of its sweeps are not what they once were. But Spa is still very special.

Credit: Lester Klaassen / CC
The challenging fast corners, gradient and beautiful wooded scenery, already mentioned, are all part it. That it rewards the committed and brave, and gives witness to more than its fair share of overtaking, are also crucial factors. As is the large and multi-national crowd that every race attracts, ensuring a jamboree atmosphere of F1 lovers reminiscent of the Nurburgring Nordschleife crowd at its best.

Michael Schumacher, six times a winner here, concurs: 'It is without doubt the best circuit in the world. The kind of atmosphere you get at Spa is something akin to the old Nurburgring. It is the only place which still has this quality and atmosphere. Eau Rouge is really the most tremendous corner. It is like flying downhill and seeing a big mountain in front of you. You get the feeling that you are driving into the road and then you go up and it is a sensation which is probably the best you can experience and the most satisfaction you can have as a racing driver.'

It's not for nothing that many F1 drivers consider a win at Spa a badge of honour, perhaps worth two or three wins at some other venues.

Part of Spa's appeal also is its heritage, which not even the Nordschleife can rival. Though the current configuration dates back only to 1983, the original Spa circuit layout, some 15km compared to the current 7km, was first used in 1921, and the one used in F1 as late as 1970 wasn't much different from it. Furthermore, the history of circuit racing in the region is as old as circuit racing itself, with the first race at the Circuit des Ardennes taking place in 1902, on a circuit that was a snip at 86km in length, before being extended to 118km for the 1904 race (yes you read those right)! Up until that point motor races had been city to city races rather than circuits, so the concept was genuinely ground-breaking.

As the name suggests, water is a recurring theme at Spa, and not just because of the propensity for it to rain there. The Romans discovered iron-rich mineral water in the area, which led to a nearby town attracting people from near and far keen to take advantage of the water's perceived medicinal qualities from the town's springs (hence the town's name: Spa). Similarly, the famous Eau Rouge (meaning red water) is named after the red-tinged stream (so because of the iron deposits) that runs under the corner.

The uphill Raidillon that follows Eau Rouge
Credit: Paul Hermans / CC
But this appeal of the local water waned somewhat in the twentieth century, so local man and newspaper manager Jules de Thier resolved to bring motor racing back to the region. He drew out a track using existing country roads, that roughly formed a triangle between the towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot, in 1920. The first race took place on the circuit in 1921, the first Spa 24 hours race was in 1924 (an event that continues to this day) followed by the first Grand Prix in 1925. The layout was tweaked over time, Stavelot, originally a sharp turn, was changed into a long fast sweep, and in 1939 the mighty and iconic downhill Eau Rouge, followed immediately by the daunting uphill Raidillon, as we know it today was created (the track has previously followed the public road by turning a sharper left before doubling back on itself at Virage de l'Ancienne Douanne), reducing the circuit's length to around 14km.

And that's pretty much how the Spa circuit stayed until the late 1970s. It established itself as Europe's fastest track, a supreme challenge and link to the road racing tests of the sport's very early days.

The Spa circuit layout in use from 1939 to 1969
Even though the current Spa circuit is revered in modern times, it would no doubt be seen as positively sedate and sanitised compared with the original Spa. That track started with the vertical plunge into the left-right Eau Rouge, experiencing a sharp compression into the ground at the almost instant climb into the uphill left at Raidillon. The cars then climbed via the Kemmel straight to Les Combes, the track's highest point.

But rather than turning right as in the modern layout, the track continued straight then into a rapid downhill helter skelter section, via the banked right turn at Burnenville and the Malmedy junction. The cars then headed further down the valley towards the usually sleepy Masta village at full pelt. There awaited the Masta Kink, a corner whose name alone causes the quickening of the pulse by anyone who experienced or watched cars through there. It was a corner that defined Spa's challenge and danger even more than Eau Rouge. Like all great corners, its successful negotiation was vital for lap time and could on occasion just about be taken at top speed by a driver on top of their confidence and bravery, but much more often there was a primal urge to lift from the throttle. Brian Redman described the Masta Kink thus: 'It was so important to your lap times, such a quick corner, it wasn't flat and you couldn't see through was a downhill approach...and the second apex was a farmhouse'. This was a house that legendary motor racing journalist Denis Jenkinson used to occupy during race meetings for the best vantage point (they don't make them like him anymore).

Once through there the track went right at the quick Stavelot, turning up valley through another rapid series of turns, involving the fearsome Blanchimont, before, amazingly, the only point of the track that brakes ordinarily had to be used, for the big stop into La Source hairpin, which ended the lap.

And if all of this wasn't enough then add the fact that the track was lined with telegraph poles, trees and houses (some of which served as apexes) among other things. If you left the track invariably it would be something like that you would hit.

Then there was the weather. As mentioned the circuit was situated in a notorious mini climate which meant the rain could be frequent, heavy and arrive with very little notice (at one point, twenty consecutive Spa Grand Prix weekends featured rain at some stage). And because of the area that the track covered, drivers could be racing under blue skies only to find it like someone had turned a giant shower on above the next corner. This served to multiply the dangers of the place.

Redman, who won at Spa five times in sports cars, said: 'Jackie Stewart thinks the Nurburgring was the most difficult circuit, but I didn't, I thought Spa-Francorchamps was the most difficult, because of the speed...Every time I went there I thought "this is it - I'm dead", I'd lay awake all night with perspiration running down my head.'

It took John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix film to best capture everything that a F1 race at Spa offered. The film featured extensive footage of many of the actual 1966 season's races, including that at Spa, of a sophistication well beyond what was on offer ordinarily at the time. The Spa footage from the film can be seen below, and had the good fortune of capturing one of the most dramatic races ever seen there. The race started on a dry track (the cars in the race were accompanied on the first lap by a camera car gathering footage for the film!), but part way around the first lap through the plunge down to Burnenville, Malmedy and Masta they discovered that it had been raining there for several minutes and that the track was soaked. Several cars plunged off and only seven made it around for the second tour (look out in the footage below for Jo Bonnier's Cooper-Maserati having come to rest, teetering, on the top of a farmer's wall!). The race then witnessed a classic man to man battle between John Surtees in his Ferrari and Jochen Rindt in his Cooper-Maserati, which the film captured in part. Surtees led by ten seconds at the end of the first lap, Rindt was far back having pirouetted six times on the streaming surface on that first time around, only to discover to his astonishment that he hadn't hit anything. Even more astonishingly, he gathered himself to hunt down Surtees in double quick time and lead on lap four! Surtees managed to cling to the spectacular Rindt for the next two hours, before making his move to re-take the lead late on. Rindt's differential started to play up at the same time, leaving him to trail in second some 40 seconds adrift.

But the dangers and risks of death were constant features of Spa races. And to some extent the 1966 race was the beginning of the end for the old Spa track. Jackie Stewart was one of those to go off on the first lap, and while the accident itself was horrifying its aftermath was even more so. Stewart had spun and his car had overturned at Masta Kink, trapping him in the car as petrol, burning his skin, leaked onto his overalls. It fell to his team mate, Graham Hill, who had crashed at the same point, to pull him from his car and take him to a nearby barn to remove his petrol soaked overalls (which met the disapproval of some local nuns who witnessed it). Some time later, a van (not an ambulance) appeared to take Stewart to hospital, only for it to get lost on the way...

Stewart attributed his subsequent ceaseless campaign for greater motor sport safety to this experience, and Spa was in his line of fire in particular. But Stewart's accident was just the latest in a succession of such incidents, such were the dangers of the place, and the circuit's length meant that sufficient cover of marshaling and medical help was almost impossible. As far back as 1939 Dick Seaman had crashed in wet conditions, and was knocked unconscious as the car rolled, trapping him inside as the car then caught fire. He died shortly afterwards of his severe burns. The pressure to make safety alterations even then may well have been too great, had the Second World War not then occurred to ensure everyone's minds were elsewhere for a time.

Spa also has the unfortunate distinction of hosting the only single F1 Grand Prix race in which two drivers died: Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey were killed in the 1960 race in separate accidents, and this followed a serious accident in practice for Stirling Moss in which he was injured. Bristow's fatal crash, during which he was flung from the car, happened right in front of one Jim Clark. This left a lasting impression on Clark, who from that moment on professed an extreme dislike of Spa and its lethal nature. Not that it impeded his racing there, as he won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa four years in a row, from 1962 to 1965.

As speeds rose throughout the 1960s Spa's increasingly being outgrown on safety was put more into focus. In 1969, in one of the sport's few examples of driver power prevailing, the GPDA led by Stewart refused to race there and the Grand Prix was cancelled. Spa returned to the calendar the next year, complete with a new chicane and a few new barriers, but it was the briefest of stays of execution, as that was the circuit's last appearance in that form on the F1 calendar.

The 1970 race itself was approached with much nervousness, sharpened by Bruce McLaren being killed testing his Cam Am car at Goodwood five days before. Such were the fears over Spa's notorious changeable weather the 1970 Grand Prix start time was permitted to be any time between 1pm and 3:30pm, depending on what the weather was doing. But, fittingly, the old track signed off with another classic. Pedro Rodriguez won in his BRM with Chris Amon's better handling but less powerful March not far behind for the whole distance virtually. Rodriguez's winning average speed was just shy of 150mph, and for the latter half of the race he and Amon consistently ran quicker that their qualifying times. As Amon explained after the race, driving to the limit at Spa gave drivers an exhilaration that no other circuit could match: 'That was the thing about Spa...if you were satisfied with your driving there, it gave you a high for days. No other track did that.'

How the modern Spa layout (in black) overlaps with the old (in grey)
So, Spa was lost to F1 for the moment, to be replaced by characterless Belgian tracks like Zolder and Nivelles. Spa continued to host the likes of the Spa 24 hours and and the Spa 1000km, but the deaths continued there, including three deaths in the 1973 24 hour race. Eventually, time was up for the layout and work began on a new version in 1978. If anyone feared an emasculated version of the track being the result of this, they needn't have worried. The new, shorter, layout very much retained the character of the old, keeping a lot of the previous track, such as Eau Rouge, Raidillon and Blanchimont, pretty much in their original form, and linking Les Combes and the return leg before Blanchimont with a new, purpose-built downhill section that was very much true to Spa's heritage, and included a new testing downhill long left turn at Pouhon. Of course, the beautiful scenery and volatile weather also remained in place.

The new track was first tried out by Formula Two cars in 1980, to universal praise, and by 1983 the famous setting and names such as Eau Rouge, Malmedy and Stavelot returned to where they belonged, in F1. 'It is the perfect track', opined Keke Rosberg upon first experiencing the new layout, 1983 winner Alain Prost said 'the track is fantastic, and it's a pleasure for any driver to win on this type of track', while Autocourse reckoned that 'Grand Prix racing of the Eighties had a new yardstick'. As an aside, subsequent attempts at creating new versions of classic tracks, such as at the Nurburgring and Osterreichring, didn't do anything like as faithful a job in retaining the original circuit's character unfortunately.

So already Spa was back to being an F1 drivers' and fans' favourite, which is the where it remains. This is despite the odd hiccup along the way: one further round of intra-Belgian politics was required in 1984, wherein the Zolder track in the country's Flemish region had to hold the Belgian Grand Prix one last time, and in 1985 the Spa race was postponed for three months after a new track surface melted in hot weather. In 1994, with safety sharply focussed after the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger earlier in the year, a silly chicane neutered Eau Rouge, though thankfully that disappeared for the next season. Also, thanks to commercial considerations such as a local tobacco advertising ban, the race disappeared from the calendar altogether in 2003 and 2006. Mercifully, such threats appear to have receded for now.

And Spa retains its status as a circuit on which things happen. This includes Rubens Barrichello's surprise first pole position for him and his Jordan team in 1994, Mika Hakkinen's stunning chase down and late race pass on Michael Schumacher, three abreast with backmarker Ricardo Zonta, in 2000, the exhilarating late race dice between Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen in 2008 when the rain came down (what a pity the stewards took attention away from it with their subsequent actions) and Force India's extraordinary pole position and close second place with Giancarlo Fisichella in 2009. However, the undoubted master of the new Spa has been Michael Schumacher.

There are a host of astonishing drives from Schumi on his Spa canvas: he took his debut F1 win here in 1992, outfoxing the superior Williams FW14Bs in wet-to-dry conditions, he won in similar conditions from sixteenth on the grid in 1995, the next year hauled an off-the-pace Ferrari with deranged steering to victory with immense bravery, and the year after that he won yet again after routing the field in the wet early stages.

My personal favourite Schumacher performance at Spa was that in 2002. It was a season of astonishing Ferrari supremacy, in which the two Ferraris often toured around at the front, at half throttle it seemed. Schumi claimed the championship early, by the French race in July, and had been content it seemed to allow team mate Barrichello to win in Hungary, to help him finish second in the championship. Spa, the next race, in Schumi's mind was something else entirely, and there was no way he was going to cede that one. He simply went for it and lapped often a second or more faster than Barrichello - further underlining that Spa was very much his fiefdom.

Spa-Francorchamps: a special place with a long and amazing history.


  1. Sorry it's taken well over 12 months to read this. Enjoyed it thoroughly and might just take a trip around the old track when I'm there in August!!!

  2. "How the modern Spa layout (in black) overlaps with the old (in grey)"

    this picture is wrong... the old spa in the picture is bigger than in real life if you compare to the new... take a look at satelite images and you will see... take a closer look to les combes too

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