Track tests

It seems incredible now, but Spa temporarily lost the Belgian Grand Prix to this rather less inspired effort. David Malsher searches in the gloom for some redeeming features

A reader’s heartfelt letter speaks of Clay Regazzoni and Emerson Fittipaldi, a blur of red-and-black action. Nivelles, the circuit, is being torn up, apparently. To be replaced by a business park. Who gives a? No-one in this office, it seems.

A quarter-hour later, there’s a doubt. Do we really not care? Okay, so the F1 drivers did not have a good word to say about the place at the time, just two years after Spa-Francorchamps had been removed from the grand prix calendar. But most circuits suffer in comparison with the old nine-mile thrash through the Ardennes. Similarly, a Daimler Fleetline bus has no charisma compared with AEC’s RT-class. Yet Coventry’s rear-engined, double-decked boxes hold their own memories, and it’s hard not to feel a frisson of sadness upon catching sight of one, broken-windowed and shorn of wheels, in a scrapyard.

The idea of Nivelles being in a similar state of disrepair nags the conscience. The knowledge that it once echoed to the throb of Cosworth V8, the scream of Ferrari flat-12 , the spine-tingling wail of V12 Matra, is a powerful attraction. If I have neither the wherewithal nor motivation to preserve the place, at least I should pay a visit before it is erased, judge for myself what I didn’t miss.

Hurry, urged the letter, before it’s gone for good. And so, one week later, we arrive — via anti-climactically efficient shimmy of Eurotunnel and relentlessly hefty surge of BMW M3 — at ‘Les Portes de l’Europe’. On the same sign, in smaller type and perfect Franglais, it says: ‘Nivelles-Business Park’. The diagram beneath more than hints at the circuit.

A wave of the authorisation note from the construction firm, and we are in. The M3 picks a careful route over a broken, makeshift road and we come to fresh tarmac which follows the path of the pit straight This strip is as wide as it ever was, but is now bisected by a wide concrete island-cum-flower bed. Here, in September 1971, at Nivelles’ first meeting, Brian Muir and local star Ivo Grauls went doorhandle-to-doorhandle in their Chevy Camaros at the start of the Group 2 Final, 12 litres and 16 cylinders hauling these leviathans up to the first turn. Grauls’ 7-litre squeezed ahead initially, but Muir’s old-shape machine soon prevailed — and won.

Gp2 wasn’t the headline act that weekend, though it provided the most entertainment. European Formula Ford topped the bill, but the circuit proved too wide, too fast, to present a major challenge to top FF pilots. An edge in equipment, not talent, was the key.

Nevertheless, the event had proved a success for the organisers: 10,000 paying spectators turned up, and the British motor hacks seemed disinclined to criticise the efforts of their generous hosts, who promptly closed the circuit to finish its build. As a facility, it was commended, but any enthusiasm for it as a potential replacement for Spa was kept well in check.

This mooted switch had still to be confirmed by the end of 1971, though the belief was that, after an absence of one season, the Belgian Grand Prix would return in ’72.

Nivelles’ image was hardly improved by the F5000 event held there in the April of that year. Although it ran fairly smoothly, the venue still looked like a building site: the pit building was finished but unfurnished, the grandstands were not fully open, and spinners found themselves mired in muddy gloop. Graham McRae won the North Sea Trophy (hardly a heart-warming title) that day, one third and a first in the two heats ensuring a comfortable win over Belgium’s second favourite son, Teddy Pilette.

Under a misty Norfolk Broads-style sky, it is now shockingly quiet, the trees on the infield absorbing the sounds of the construction work on the main straight. There’s no wind rustle nor birdsong, and it’s scarcely believable that 30 years ago, almost to the day, this place shook to roaring 302cu in V8s.

It’s easy to see why good drivers were so dismissive of Nivelles. The evidence is all around. Here on the ‘Big Loop’, the part of the course that demands most in-cockpit dexterity, there is little to tax even the most mediocre of pilots. Keep to the racing line through turns two, three and four (no-one even had the imagination to name any of the corners) and only your most foolhardy pursuer would make a move, given equal cars. And yet it is not twisty enough to make it a challenge unless your car suffered the direst understeer. Yes, there is an argument that any corner is a challenge if there is someone trying to race you through it, but that’s not good enough. Not when the context is Burnenville and Malmédy.

Belgium’s favourite son, Jacky Ickx, said as much and fell out with the GPDA over what he saw as the emasculation of Formula One. Not a surprising stance from a man who excelled at the Nürburgring and Spa. The irony is that Jackie Stewart, the man who campaigned so hard for safety, the man who made a stance against Spa, wasn’t at Nivelles’ first grand prix, being laid low with a duodenal ulcer.

He didn’t miss much, but F1 certainly missed him; the Scot’s exquisitely smooth style would have served him well at such an anodyne circuit, might have formed a challenge to Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72D. Emmo was outsprinted by the Ferrari-mounted Regazzoni at the start, but took just eight laps to find a way past the scarlet screamer and led right to the chequer.

The crowd, anticipating an lckx victory, was alarmed to see the Belgian’s Ferrari miss its braking point at the first corner on lap 26. Jacky found his throttle stuck open, and only his astounding skills kept the car from ploughing into retirement. A long and very slow pitstop ensued, and a DNF eventually followed.

The exit of turn four is where the short circuit links the pit straight to the back straight by simple use of a long hairpin. Having cut off the tree-lined part of the circuit, you would assume that the short version was even more ascetic than in full GP form. You’d be right.

If the hairpin had turned in just 100 metres earlier, it would have met the GP layout much nearer turn five to form a reverse-S-bend, one that, in the wet, would have demanded inch-perfect precision and a judiciously applied throttle. Instead, upon exiting this hairpin, there was ample time to set up a car for the left-right that followed, and even if you got it wrong, there was ample grass run-off before the Armco and then the spectator fencing. Masta kink it ain’t.

Pausing on the concrete base of the grandstand and gazing back at the esses, trying to mentally blot out the prefabs and the yellow arms of the cranes, one feels close to the track by today’s standards. If the spectators felt divorced from the action, at Nivelles, that was hardly reflected by the jam-packed attendance for its second GP, in May 1974— Zolder being the site of the previous year’s race.

Perhaps the crowd was boosted by Ickx’s Race of Champions win in torrential conditions at Brands Hatch two months earlier. But their hero’s Lotus 72, a five-year-old design, was only going to stand a chance if it rained again. It didn’t. Instead, as two years earlier, Regazzoni led the early stages (this time until lap 38) before being overtaken, as two years earlier, by Fittipaldi. Now McLaren-mounted, the Brazilian again led to the chequer, albeit under severe pressure from Regga’s team-mate, the brilliant young Austrian Niki Lauda. From the rear of the paddock, looking down on the back section of the circuit, they looked sensational, the M23 and 312T. Within a second or so of each other, Niki and Emerson drifted through the right-left and onto the back straight, steering on the throttle, clipping apices to perfection. Regazzoni, by contrast was that bit wilder, driving reactively rather than finalising the car’s trajectory in advance. This was as ‘Spa’ as Nivelles would ever get.

Now, thanks to the work going on around the site, and the drainage of surrounding fields, this most individual part of Nivelles is more clay pit than Clay Regazzoni, but much of the kerbing remains, albeit in time-serrated form, like the spine of a fossilised dinosaur.

With traction control turned off, our golden BMW slithers agreeably through the mess, and onto the gentle uphill stretch to the hairpin which leads onto the back straight. Imagine it on a larger scale, perhaps bathed in late-summer sunshine, and you could be exiting the second Ascari chicane at Monza and heading down to the Parabolica — in terms of track layout, at least.

Dour, dank Nivelles cannot compete with Italy’s theatre of dreams in the charisma stakes, even if the last hairpin provided as good an overtaking opportunity as its Latin equivalent. Jochen Mass discovered this the hard way during the circuit’s main event of 1973, a Formula Two race. On worn tyres, he finally cracked under the strain of holding off Vittorio Brambilla, outbraked himself, and lost second place on the penultimate lap.

The German did have the consolation of fastest lap of the weekend, only 3.5sec slower than Denny Hulme’s 1m11.31sec (116.82mph), the fastest F1 lap at the following year’s grand prix. And in the longer term, his loss of points hardly mattered: in that year’s F2 table, as in the Nivelles round, he finished way behind Jean-Pierre Jarier’s works March.

Jochen’s error is easy to understand. Taking the racing line at a hairpin means leaving your inside flank open to a challenge, while protecting the inside line compromises your speed through and out of the corner. If your challenger takes the normal line, therefore, you are easy meat if the hairpin is followed by a straight.

At Nivelles, the hairpin did indeed lead onto a substantial straight, and anyone in your tow would be looking to pass just as you pulled level with the grandstand on the left — where a glassy three-storey office block now stands — and the pits on the right. In the days when weaving was frowned upon, rebuttal needed to be subtle.

The pit straight is ridged, cracked and holed now, and only the first third still has its original surface. Discerning the pitlane entry is not easy, most of it being grassed over, and of the pits themselves there is no sign. Some of the concrete base of the paddock was still in place when we went, but even this has probably gone by now.

How many of the capacity crowd at Nivelles’ second grand prix could have guessed that it might end like this, that the track was on its metaphorical home straight? They had no reason to. Its rival, Zolder, had struggled to stage its inaugural grand prix the year before, blighted by an embarrassingly crumbly track surface. Nivelles’ future thus seemed the more secure.

In actual fact, financial problems were looming, and by 1975, there were rumours that the circuit owners were bankrupt. When Belgium’s premier race went to Zolder that year, as scheduled, it wouldn’t leave until 1983, returning for a last hurrah in ’84.

Nivelles didn’t even host an F2 event in ’75, or ever again. It was closed in October 1977, and sold the following year, whereupon its new owners held some saloon races. The ‘Four Hours of the Millenium of Brussels’, held in November 1979, and won by Gordon Spice and Alain Semoulin in a Ford Capri, would be the last race there. On February 5,1980, the National Sports Committee of Belgium declared Nivelles no longer suitable to host motor-races.

Karts were allowed onto a miniature bastardisation of the course that incorporated a little of the short circuit, and, oddly, this provided the venue’s last brush with greatness: Ayrton Senna raced there that year — under the watchful gaze of an 11-year-old German called Michael Schumacher.

By the time Senna and, seven years later, Schuey arrived in F1, Nivelles was a distant memory. Ayrton won the Belgian Grand Prix five times, Michael six (so far) — but all 11 victories came at a circuit worthy of their towering talents: the new Spa-Francorchamps.

Spa was (and is) daunting, picturesque and charismatic, whereas Nivelles was ‘modern’, safe and less than 30 minutes’ drive from Brussels. Challenge was temporarily sacrificed on the altar of convenience, and the F1 drivers regarded Nivelles-Baulers with the same enthusiasm with which Hungaroring is welcomed by today’s aces.

The Budapest facility does at least have the cachet of (a) being set beside a very beautiful city and (b) hosting Formula One’s first race behind the Iron Curtain. Poor, unwanted, nobody’s-child Nivelles had no such draw.

Acknowledge Nivelles, be aware that it made two cameo appearances in grand prix history, and that, for a brief period, the great and the good raced there. But don’t mourn its passing. It has simply morphed into the soulless industrial estate it was perhaps always destined to be.

Save your tears instead for the ‘old’ Kyalami, the Österreichring and Clermont-Ferrand.

Thanks to Gert van Gelder and Alexis Callier for their help with the preparation of this feature.