Track tests - Spa-Francorchamps

An amazing number of the world’s greatest race circuits lie within a few hours of Calais. Armed with old photographs and our Jaguar, Andrew Frankel sets off to discover their past. First stop on the tour was Spa-Francorchamps

“It might seem strange to say it now but, you know, Spa never frightened me. To me it was just the most glorious to drive, better even than the Nürburgring.” The words are spoken by Tony Brooks, the man who won the 1957 Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps in an Aston Martin DBR1 when the race was run to sportscar regulations, the man who won it the following year in a Vanwall and the man who, had the race been run in 1959, could easily have been crowned world champion for Ferrari.

He was a man who saw and triumphed over Spa at its best and one of the few to see it at its worst. He was one of eight British drivers to travel to Spa for the 1960 GP and one of just four to return unscathed. Of the others, Stirling Moss and Mike Taylor were the lucky ones, and were merely fearfully injured. Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey were shown no such mercy by this maverick track.

It is impossible, therefore, to approach this circuit, with anything other than mixed emotions. It’s a comfortable three hour drive from Calais and if your transport is a Jaguar XJR, make that an extremely comfortable three hour drive. The temptation to shave an hour off the journey time, a ludicrously simple feat in such a car, however, is to be resisted. The Belgian authorities are not known for displaying humour in the face of trans-continental missiles being deployed to the full, so it’s best to sit back, set the cruise control at a steady 85mph and let the mind wander.

The first place mine stopped was at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix. My memories of Schumacher’s Ferrari cutting through the spray, of Villeneuve’s deferential move aside to let him go, tacit acknowledgement if ever there were that, in such conditions, there was no point even trying to stay with the German, will stay for years to come. Say what you like about Michael’s momentary lapses of reason, I cannot believe real Grand Prix enthusiasts are not glad to have him and his prodigious, currently unrivalled talent pounding the race tracks of the world. Never was this more true than at Spa.

Certainly, if you could tune into just one Grand Prix per year these days, your priorities would need to be unusually ordered before you crossed Spa off the list. Yes, Monaco has more glamour, Monza a fraction more history; Hockenheim is quicker. But no other track used for Formula One, not Suzuka nor even Silverstone, comes close to the thrill of Spa. There is perhaps no place on earth better at proving the distinction between genius and mere talent.

To find the track from Calais, cross the border just after Dunkirk and head for Gent, then Brussels and onto Liege. From there head south on the A26, exit at junction 46 and follow signs for Spa and Stavelot As you get closer to the circuit, ignore signs for Spa itself as the town itself, though pretty is both expensive and some miles from the track. Aim instead for Francorchamps. Once there, you’ll not miss the circuit. The main road takes you over the brow of a hill and suddenly, in front of you lies the La Source hairpin. The road runs sharply downhill before climbing for the sky in the shape of Eau Rouge. There is nothing you have ever seen in any photograph or on any television screen which can prepare you for the gradient or the fact that, as soon as you have flicked right at the bottom of the hill, all you can see as you rocket up the other side is sky.

Tony Brooks calls it “the only decent corner left in Formula One today and even now it’s a pale shadow of its former self. It was one of the most exhilarating in racing, not flat by any means but you’d still approach at 180-odd mph in the Vanwall and flick it from one drift to another.”

Today, and in a road car, it’s the stuff of dreams. For a start all of Eau Rouge is a public road at the moment and white this in no way prevents you from waiting for a gap in the unpredictable but usually light traffic and having a squirt clown the hill, the idea of having a serious crack would be, to say the very least, more than a little anti-social. Still, I couldn’t help running the Jaguar hard down the hill, feeling the springs compress at the very moment you need to ask the car to change direction and belting up the other side, supercharger wailing its own and inimitable song.

This much, then, is knowledge common to everyone with the merest interest in the sport: the most famous corner on perhaps the most famous race-track in use today. But there is more to Spa than this; another 8.4-miles more, to be precise, and very little of it has anything to do with the circuit on which the drivers of today can be seen plying their trade.  

After you crest Eau Rouge, the track runs dead straight before spearing off to the right at Les Combes, away from the public road. Such was the depth of the uncleared snow when we arrived that this section, the new Spa, was good only for discovering that a Jaguar XJR makes a pathetic rally car.

Happily, this is not what we’re here for. We’re here to find the old Spa, the track in whose reflected glory the one we know today so ably bathes. All you have to do is stay on the main road. Almost immediately, after Les Combes, the track turns and starts to sweep swiftly downhill towards Burnenville. Even today Brooks talks of this comer with audible awe in his voice. It was and remains a corner truly to sort the weak from the strong. It goes on curling to the right seemingly forever, with forest on your left and oblivion waiting on the inside of the track. Brooks remembers, “If you set a car like the Vanwall up properly for the corner, it would go into a drift and stay there for what seemed about a minute. It was, of course, just a few seconds but, from where I was sitting it felt an age.”

The price of getting it wrong or even being let down by your machinery here could and did prove terrible. It was here that Bristow lost his Cooper and his life in the 1960 Grand Prix and where, in practice, Moss had lost a wheel from the notoriously fragile Lotus 18, breaking his nose and his legs.

They have destroyed a small part of the track at Malmedy to make way for a motorway. Even so it is not difficult to make out the course of the right turn onto the perhaps the most hallowed of all Spa’s expansive turf. For this is the Masta Straight, where the cars would quickly reach maximum speed and be asked to maintain it, engines within a few rpm of destruction while the driver sat and waited for something to break. Such straights on other circuits, such as Reims and Le Mans’ original configuration, were actually welcomed by the drivers. It allowed a period of relaxation where all a driver need do it keep the throttle flat against the floor. Derek Bell said he’d drive down the Mulsanne Straight at 230mph and look at the stars. It also provided time for office administration, a few vital seconds to check all the needles remained pointing at the right part of their dials.

The Masta straight offers precious little of such relief and time only to contemplate the ‘kink’ half-way along its length. The word comes in inverted commas as, from where I sat, it seemed hardly to do justice to the terrifying left-right flick. And there’s more than just the course of the track to prey on your mind. The fact that it threads its way in between the houses that make up the hamlet of Masta helps the concentration too. Today the Masta straight is home to columns of rumbling lorries and there are too many pedestrians to risk running through the kink at much effort.

It’s better, at this point, to abandon the car and take refuge in the Masta Friterie.

The Les Hunaudieres restaurant on Le Mans’ Mulsanne straight never boasted a view like this, nor are its frites in the same league. If you sit by the window and look back up the track, you can see precisely where the cars would have flicked into the corner, travelled briefly straight towards you before, hopefully, changing direction and belting on down the straight.

It takes you to the edge of the village of Stavelot There you’ll find an almighty corner, beaten for drama only by Eau Rouge and Burnenville in its day, which curves around to the road back to Francorchamps. Today it’s the best corner on the track being two lanes wide with traffic running in only one direction. Except that, during the many hours we spent at the corner, there was no traffic. It’s one corner you can still have a proper stab at. The temptation is to turn in too slowly, underestimating the helping hand provided by its gentle but significant banking. It’s the perfect curve for the Jaguar, quick enough for disguise its bulk and sufficiently long to allow the car to settle on its springs and hammer through, pouring torque into the Pirellis, goading them into stepping a few degrees out of line.

It was a crucial corner, your exit speed determining your pace through the gently uphill sweeps that take you straight back to Francorchamps. Brooks says the need to be quick here is greater than almost anywhere else of the circuit as the gradient punishes doubly the smallest mistake in lost time.

Suddenly, you’re back on the current Grand Prix circuit, hurtling up to Blanchimont, and if you cannot take this flat, you probably have no business in a modern F1 car. They turn in at around 180mph. It is here, more than at Eau Rouge, that the abilities of modern Formula One cars seem at their most outlandish.

All that then remains between you and the La Source hairpin is the Bus-stop chicane located by the old Clubhouse corner. Much derided by drivers, the chicane looks out of place on this curling, diving track. Even so, it breaks the rhythm no more than La Source which follows soon afterwards and bypasses the site on which two of Britain’s greatest talents were needlessly lost.

Both Dick Seaman and Archie Scott Brown crashed here. Both were leading their races, both driving through the relentless Ardennes rain. And both were driving too fast. Seaman was not, in fact, badly injured by the impact of his Mercedes against a tree, just knocked unconscious. It was the ensuing fire that claimed his life the following day; As Scott Brown’s Lister-Jaguar lost control, nineteen years later, a wheel spinner actually grazed Seaman’s memorial. Archie also succumbed to his burns the next day, having been left in the apparently none too caring hands of the same doctor who had treated Seaman all those years before.

Certainly there is no denying the horrors that took place at this circuit and it is impossible to spend any time here without, however briefly, taking time to remember those who raced their last here. In the end, however, your thoughts linger not on those who died, but on those who conquered this circuit. Try to imagine standing at Stavelot during the 1973 1000km race when Jacky lckx’s little 3-litre Ferrari 312P8 came around in the middle of a lap which took just 3min 12.7sec to negotiate the 8.761 mile circuit. He averaged 163.7mph for that lap. And then try to think of the Rodriguez/Oliver Porsche 917 coming through the Masta kink during the 1971 race. They covered 622miles in four hours and a minute, at an average of 154.8mph.

I would have liked, too, to have seen Brooks and Moss taking Burnenville in the Vanwalls. But if l could watch one race it would be the 1963 Belgian Grand Prix. Their one of the greatest displays of driving virtuousity ever seen took place. The race was run, again„ in pouring rain and, as the flag fell, Jim Clark’s Lotus 25 was just another car, starting from eighth place. But by the time the field came round again, the Lotus was leading. Thirty-two laps later it took the flag, just a fraction short of five minutes before the next car crossed the line.

We left Spa as we had arrived, swaddled in the Jaguar, minds full of the contradictions of this place. There is little to find here that celebrates the circuit beyond its shortened, current course. There’s an interesting but small museum at Stavelot, but if you want further evidence of its history you’ll be likely to find just fragments of rumble strip under the grass verge at Masta and a grave stone in the Forest by Burnenville. But at least that part of the track which remains in use does its best to honour the spirit of the old circuit. For whatever else you say about the new Spa, its boast today is as great as any from the past. Now as then it is the greatest circuit for the greatest racing cars. And as the XJR swept onto the next track in the tour, it is this, more than anything else, for which the circuit at Spa-Francorchamps should be remembered.