Spa, where do I begin? The history of Spa is so illustrious and full of occasions that it’s almost impossible to do it justice in just one article.
Nevertheless, I’ll try to cover a few of those moments which remain in my memory at this moment.
Le Circuit national de Francorchamps,
Route du Circuit, 55
Le Circuit national de Francorchamps, or as it’s more commonly known, Spa-Francorchamps, is one of the world’s most famous, historical, and scenic race tracks ever built. Coupled with the unpredictable weather and late in the year rains, there’s never been a single uninteresting race at Spa.
The town of Spa was established when mineral water was discovered in the Ardennes hills by the Romans. But drinking healthy water was not a very interesting occupation for the locals, so they opened a casino with the idea of helping the rich and famous to leave the contents of their wallets behind them in Belgium. When that gimmick began to wane, a local man by the name of Jules de Thier dreamed up the idea of holding car races to keep the visitors amused. In the early 1920’s, tourist developers in the region started looking for a new way to promote their region, they decided to make a race track by linking the narrow public roads between the Belgian towns of Spa, Stavelot (which houses the Spa-Francorchamps Racetrack Museum), Francorchamps, and Malmedy to create a 15 kilometer triangular shaped race track that wound its way through the foothills of the Ardenne mountains.
The first race, scheduled in 1921, drew only one entrant. It was supposed to be lost due to lack of interest (almost impossible to believe now). The organizers, however, would not be disappointed so they pushed and a motorcycle race was organized and run the following year, to be followed by an automobile race later in the year. By the end of the 1920’s the circuit was gaining in fame as more and more international races were being held. The famous 24 Hours of Francorchamps was introduced in 1924, just a year after Le Mans, whereas the first really international single-seater race, the European Grand Prix, was run in 1925. Seven cars took part in the race which was won by the famous Alfa Romeo driver, Antonio Ascari. The track layout changed marginally through the 1930’s, culminating in the development of the modern, legendary “Eau Rouge” corner for the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix, a race that saw the tragic death of racer Dick Seaman, this was the last race held at Spa for eight years due to World War II before racing returned in 1947.
Arrival of Formula 1:
When the World Drivers’ Championship was inaugurated in 1950, Spa was a natural inclusion and the 14.12 kilometer master of circuits graced the calendar, joining Monaco, Bremgarten, Silverstone, Rheims, Indianapolis and Monza on the first Grand Prix calendar. The first race was won by Fangio as Spa earned a right to be a permanent member of the World Championship.
The 14.12 km circuit as in 1950.
The circuit was impressive, starting downhill, then going into the high speed uphill ‘Eau Rouge’ before winding its way through the mountains to Les Combes, where it took a left hand sweep downhill towards the high speed Burneville and Malmedy right handers leading onto the long Masta straight, interrupted only by the Masta-kink chicane. A long straight again and then the sweeping high speed Stavelot curve that led onto a high speed section that swept it’s way uphill through the lightning-quick Carriere and Blanchimont curves leading to the ‘La Source’ hairpin at the top of the hill and end of the lap before plunging back downhill to start another 14 kilometer adventure through the pine forests. An ultimate drivers’ challenge, Spa and the Nurburgring tested the early F1 stars and their right to be called ‘World Champion’.
By the late 60s, F1 cars were reaching higher speeds and safety concerns started to arise. After Jim Clark’s tragic death at Hockenheim in 1968, a new safety revolution began. One of the first on the chopping blocks was the high speed Spa-Francorchamps, which was excluded from the 1969 Calendar. It was reinstated for 1970 before the old circuit was finally axed for good. The Belgian GP moved to the uninspiring Nivelles and Zolder Circuits. It appeared that F1 at Spa was gone for good.
In the late 70s, a new, modern circuit was built encompassing some of the most famous turns of the old circuit including ‘La Source’, ‘Eau Rouge’ and ‘Blanchimont’. The weaving and winding circuit made its way through the valley of the Ardennes, now being half the length of the old track. The old track was closed in 1978 and the first races at the new Spa were held in 1979. F1 started to take notice again, and after Gilles Villeneuve’s fatal crash at Zolder in 1982, it was announced that Spa would host the race in 1983, and back to Zolder again in 1984. The 1983 race was a success and after the race had moved back to Zolder in ’84, the drivers realized that “once you go to Spa, you can never go back. The 1985 race was disastrous as it had to be postponed due to the pavement breaking up. “.
Despite the problems of the 1985 event, Spa-Francorchamps was given a permanent home on the Formula One calendar. The new track, although slightly slower than the old one, has become one of Formula One’s classics. Very few changes to the layout have been made, except for a mickey-mouse temporary chicane at Eau-Rouge in 1994, Spa now has one of the most dramatic first corners with the very slow and tight “La Source” hairpin.
In the late 1980s Ayrton Senna was the established winner at Spa with five wins in eight years but in the 1990s it was Michael Schumacher who emerged as the star with four wins in six years.
Despite the loss of the race in 2003 due to tobacco sponsorship issues, Spa has since been returned, and if the drivers and fans have any say, it’ll be on the calendar for as long as possible.
Le Circuit National de Francorchamps, one of the world’s greatest modern circuits that replaced one of the world’s greatest classic circuits. Since 1979, it has come to be regarded as one of the most thrilling, challenging and exhilarating circuits on the F1 calendars.
Most memorable moments:
I started following F1 in 1992, and here are a few of the most memorable moments of Spa that I can remember (I’m not mentioning any specific crashes, there’ve been many here);
- 1992 – Ayrton Senna sprints from his car to help the injured driver Erik Comas during qualifying as other cars speed by at Blanchimont corner. It was one of those characteristics of the man that makes him such a great character and quite rightly earns him the respect he still demands after his tragic death.
- 1998 – The mother of all pile-ups in 1998. There’s lots of videos of it on YouTube if any of you haven’t already seen it. It was raining heavily as the race began and seconds after the start McLaren driver David Coulthard crashed violently across the track causing a 16-car pile-up. It still remains one of the worst pile-ups in F1 yet. Damon Hill came through to claim Jordan Grand Prix’s maiden GP that day. Jordan had their first victory and it was a 1-2 with Ralf Schumacher finishing second.
- 2002 – “Räikkönen, what a f****** idiot”…
On a hot lap of Spa-Francorchamps during the 2002 Belgian GP qualifying, Juan Pablo Montoya was approaching the final bus stop chicane and he was certain he would better his previous time. Unfortunately, for the Williams driver, his future team mate Kimi Räikkönen failed to allow him to pass unimpeded. Montoya’s fury was impossible to miss in his expletive-ridden reaction and I was laughing my guts out!
- 2009 – Force India’s maiden pole…
In a season of the unexpected, where Brawn GP kicked off the season shocking everyone with the fastest car and serial wins and Red Bull became the raging bulls of F1, Spa looked to throw perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Three teams which were not really anywhere at the front of things started the weekend on top. BMW, Toyota and Force India looked the fastest of the lot through all the practice sessions. The most surprising of the three, of course, was Force India.
After practice, most people guessed Toyota or BMW were in for a pole and Force India could have the best qualifying of their lives with a top 5 grid position.
But, at the end of Q1, that was not the belief anymore as it was becoming clearer that Force India were hunting for pole no less.
Q2 saw Fisichella going for top trumps again. Among all the chin wag in the paddock about Fisichella going to Ferrari, he delivered a stunning pole for Force India.
It was one of those moments when I didn’t really know what to do after the initial scream I let out at the end of Q3. I’d recently been back in India and that was the moment I missed the whole group of mates in London and what a scene it would’ve been there! Not being ablw to watch Free Practice and the shoddy broadcast of Star Sports didn’t make it any better, but, I wouldn’t let anything spoil that moment and it had to be celebrated. So, I called a couple of friends and said I was buying them a round of drinks at a nice bar. Once we were there, they asked me what it was about and I told them Force India just had its first pole position. While some were surprised (they kind of followed F1 but passively), a few others were clueless what that meant (what did I tell you about my friends in India and F1?). Anyway, they didn’t mind, it was alcohol after all and a free first round. 😉
That moment and the race and podium next day (I remember pulling my hair at the Safety Car), was the best weekend in my entire F1 journey which is quite a few years. I’ve watched the whole thing at least a two dozen times now and it feels just as exciting as ever.
This year, we still have the straight line speed advantage and a repeat of 2009 is not impossible at all. It will definitely be a tough ask and a challenge but that’s the game! We’ll be back at the Mecca of motor racing in less than three weeks time and we’ll find out what it’s going to be.
This article was first published on my clubforce.gp blog on the 25th of Aug, 2010.