“I can see why Formula One team owners employ PR people,” a friend murmured recently, “because they obviously know damn all about it themselves.” He was talking about Spa, of course. At a time when F1 needs desperately to persuade its fans to keep the faith, it drops from its schedule the greatest circuit on earth.
The Belgian Grand Prix was given a provisional date on the 2003 calendar, but was subject, said the FIA, to the teams’ unanimous agreement to run without tobacco advertising. This duly failed to materialise.
Perhaps, though, part of the problem lies elsewhere. At this year’s race, Ron Dennis was rather more candid than most of his colleagues when he discussed the future of Spa: “We have to be careful about moving too far away from the heritage aspects of F1, but this isn’t solely a tobacco issue. Seventeen races are currently permitted in the world championship, and some have better packages than others. In terms of revenue-raising, this one is towards the bottom end of the scale.”
That rang a bell. One could not, for example, imagine any circumstances in which the team owners would drop Monte Carlo, first because the, er, revenue-raising is emphatically at the top end of the scale, second because their sponsors like to pose and party there. Rural Belgium just does not cut it in the same way — except, that is, for those who drive the cars, and those who watch them. Folk without a voice, in other words.
Down the years it has struck me countless times that no sport has so little regard for its heritage as motor racing. If you were to ask a contemporary F1 driver about, say, Jochen Rindt, the chances are you’d be met with a blank stare. One thing about racing drivers which never really changes, though, is that they adore ‘proper circuits’. There have been precisely two in the world championship these many years, and now there will be but one: Suzuka.
There are those, of course, who have always maintained that the ‘new’ Spa doesn’t hold a candle to the original, fearsomely quick, 8.76-mile track, which last staged a grand prix in 1970. Drive around it now and its impact is as great as ever: simply, you can’t quite believe that F1 cars used to race here. Motorway construction has removed some parts, but you can still marvel at corners like Burnenville and the kink in the middle of the Masta Straight.
“I remember 1970,” Chris Amon once told me. “I was chasing Pedro Rodriguez, and the BRM was streets quicker at the top end than my March. On the last lap I made a decision to take the Masta Kink flat — something I had never tried, even in qualifying, and I don’t think anyone else had, either. I made it through somehow, and took about 50 yards off him. Tell you what, though, it wasn’t something you’d want to do every day.”
The word ‘kink’ in this context is actually a misnomer — indeed, the first time I drove round Spa, I thought I’d somehow missed it for, rather than a left-right flick, it is in fact two very definite corners, at one time bordered by houses. So, if one day the opportunity occurs, drive through the kink, and then think of doing it at over 180mph, without lifting, as Amon did that day in 1970 — and, what’s more, in that agricultural March 701.
Although Chris adored Spa, he came to doubt its validity as a true test in later years: “That was the last grand prix there, so the next time I went back was in ’73, to drive a Matra sportscar in the 1000kms. In three years there had been so much progress with wings and tyres that now the Masta Kink was comfortably flat every lap. I reckon that before long most of the circuit would have been flat — flat for everyone, I mean — and it would have got boring, just a very dangerous slipstreamer of a track.” That same day Henri Pescarolo lapped a Matra at over 163mph, well clear of any F1 pole position speed even 30 years on.
There were always ‘Spa drivers’, who excelled there, who believed the challenge worth the risk. Tony Brooks, for example, scored his first grand prix win there, in 1958, at the wheel of a Vanwall: “I particularly loved that circuit — more than the Nürburgring. It seemed to me the essence of a true grand prix circuit, very quick and calling for great precision — and, of course, there was no margin for error at all, which made it even more of a test and even more satisfying.”
A generation later, Brian Redman became something of a Spa specialist — although his only F1 race there, in 1968, did not end well. At the top of the hill, into Les Combes, his Cooper’s front suspension broke. In those days, Les Combes was a downhill left-hander. “I hit the barrier,” said Brian, “went over it — and hit a Vauxhall Cresta that had been thoughtfully parked there! There was a bit of a fire, but it seemed under control until, suddenly, a marshal appeared — with a cigarette in his mouth! Boom!
“I loved Spa, despite that shunt. To me, it was the most difficult circuit anywhere. I got more satisfaction from a good race there than anywhere else. It was a lucky circuit for me: I think I won five times there.
“In fact, the shunt served me well a few years later. In the 1000Kms in 1972, I was sharing a factory Ferrari with Merzario, and I was leading, but Ronnie [Peterson], in another Ferrari, was catching me. At Les Combes I always took an odd line — after my shunt there, I always went in early, to give myself more room. And I saw all this activity, which always means either an accident round the corner, with no flags out, or… something’s happened, anyway. I backed off and just got round the corner — it was raining; the activity was people putting umbrellas up! Ronnie never made it — he went right round on the barrier!”
The length of the original circuit, together with the fickle nature of the local climate, often led to circumstances in which part of the track was dry, another suddenly awash. It was an additional hazard, and there was no doubt that, exhilarating as the track may have been, it was perilous.
“Spa used to frighten the hell out of me, really,” said Stirling Moss. “If you were going to have a shunt there, boy, you were going bloody quickly.” Stirling knew whereof he spoke. In practice in 1960, a wheel came off his Lotus at Burnenville, and he broke his back and both legs. The following day, in the race, Jim Clark narrowly missed the body of Chris Bristow, who had been thrown from his car; a few laps later, one of Jirnmy’s Lotus team-mates, Alan Stacey, was also killed. Clark loathed the track for the rest of his life — but still he won the Belgian GP four times on the trot.
Jackie Stewart, too, abhorred the place, feeling it was unacceptably dangerous. He had the biggest accident of his career there, in 1966, but still drove a sensational race there the following year, finishing second in the clumsy BRM H16, for most of the way needing to hold the car in gear.
By 1970, though, JYS was unequivocal on the subject: he wanted Spa removed from the championship, and this duly came to be. For the next dozen years, the Belgian GP was run at Zolder, with a couple of visits to the even more dreary Nivelles.
Fast forward to 1983, to May 20. Now we were back at Spa, and the first practice session was done. In the paddock there was a distinct ‘edge’ in the drivers’ voices as they spoke of what it meant to drive a grand prix car to the limit on a track such as this. It may have been revised and shortened, to 4.32 miles, but still it followed the natural contours, and retained the essential character of the original circuit, much of which it embraced. The drivers, raised on a diet of autodromes, were in heaven.
Alain Prost: “The point about this kind of track is that it can provide a good race. Monaco is fun in practice, but I don’t enjoy the race there because you can’t pass. Here, all things are possible.” So they were, as anyone who saw Mika Hakkinen’s pass of Michael Schumacher in 2000 can attest.
If I have seen many memorable races at Spa, one which sticks in the mind was the 1990 grand prix, won by Ayrton Senna’s McLaren, with Prost’s Ferrari second, three seconds behind, the rest nowhere. Why this one? Because it was somehow so right that at this, the most challenging circuit, no-one could get near the two best drivers on earth.
Ayrton won five times at Spa, and it used to madden him that you got the same number of points for winning there as at the silly Hungaroring. “It’s so great to come here, to the best track, right after being there, at the worst,” he said once. The best, though, is sadly gone; the worst remains.