This year’s Spa Six Hours allowed those present to immerse themselves in some fine historic racing
By Marcus Pye
Hallowed Francorchamps, home of motor racing in Belgium since 1924, is somewhere everybody aspires to race. Hewn into the forests of the Ardennes, in the French-speaking Wallonia region, today’s circuit is one of the world’s favourites. It is truly a lap of the gods, even if downforce-laden Formula 1 cars provide a very different spectacle to the bolides of yore, on a playground forever twinned in the mind with the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife in Germany’s adjoining Eifel mountains.
The current circuit’s footprint, laid down for 1979, incorporates barely half the fearsome tree-lined original on which Frenchmen Henri Springuel and Maurice Bequet (of Bequet Delage fame) won the inaugural 24-hour race. It amputates the terrifying flat-out downhill blast through Burnenville and the Masta Kink to the quaint town of Stavelot, and the equally daunting return leg, yet encapsulates much of its character.
Charismatic and logistically practicable, the 4.352-mile course links Les Combes, at its summit, with the new Stavelot Corner in a twizzling switchback. Unsurprisingly, it is considerably safer than its predecessor which, scarred by a history studded with high-profile fatalities (Richard Seaman, Archie Scott-Brown, Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey to name but four) finally claimed the lives of three too many luckless drivers in 1973. Touring car racers Roger Dubos and Hans-Peter Joisten died during that black 24 Hours enduro. Massimo Larini succumbed a week later.
A decade before cars raced in Belgium’s peak district, the first Battle of the Ardennes was among the opening salvoes of the First World War, while the splendid town of Spa itself was a backdrop to the armistice efforts of 1918. Almost 90 years later, motorised skirmishes are more peaceful and less bloody. Indeed, since 1993 the Spa Six Hours has added Historic racing to the Belgian GP and 24 Hours staples, drawing competitors from as far afield as Australia, South Africa, Japan and the USA.
Run initially by Motor Classic of Liège, the increasingly attractive brainchild of Alain Defalle and Vincent Collard is now promoted by their Roadbook Organisation and habitually attracts 100 GT and Touring cars from the pre-1966 era. A golden age for privateers, its machines still enable ‘weekend warriors’ to challenge those who take things more seriously.
One glance at the Six Hours’ roll of honour demonstrates how the game has moved on over 15 editions, for a Lotus Elan triumphed in its inaugural year. The great race quickly became the domain of the TVR Griffith, Chevron GT (homologated in Group 4, for 50 off, but banned after two straight wins) and Chevrolet V8-motivated Bizzarini GT, before Ford’s iconic GT40 almost inevitably became de rigueur.
Following four wins in seven years, there was a rude awakening for “les GT quarantes” this year in the unexpected form of a hulking Shelby Mustang which dealt them a sound thrashing, leaving owners of the exotica licking their wounds. The three Hs – Hans Hugenholtz, René Herzog (both experienced GT40 pilots ironically) and David Hart – slugged round with metronomic reliability, headlights like tracer bullets piercing the night sky as the thoroughbred racehorses all went lame.
Don’t be fooled, however. It took one hell of a wild Mustang to pummel them into submission. The number 52 Shelby qualified eighth, settled immediately into a fast sustainable race pace with Dutchman Hugenholtz aboard and – even with refuelling stops – rarely ran outside the top six. As rivals faltered, it stealthily climbed the lap chart and went ahead 20 laps from the chequered flag that flew 70 minutes early (it started late, while a Belgian motor club cavalcade was cleared inexpediently), but the result had long been beyond doubt.
The opening stages included a thrilling GT40 dogfight between former winners Shaun Lynn (chassis 1025) and Christian Gläsel (1023), which continued once young Michael Mallock and Aaron Hsu took over their respective steeds. Prior to a fuel system glitch, which cost seven laps, the sensational open GT40 (111) of Phillip Walker headed the chase. A month after its debut at Goodwood, the Linden green machine was the quickest car on track, even if preparer Andy Newall was amazed that he “couldn’t keep up with the Mustang on the Kemmel Straight”, the awesome incline from Eau Rouge to Les Combes.
Lynn appeared to have extended a decisive gap to Gläsel at the second fuel stops, but both cars fell within four laps, with an hour to go. Cooked brakes and ignition maladies were responsible, and the Shelby crew could almost be heard rejoicing over exhaust notes, hanging on the breeze, when the last GT40 challenge of Richard Meins/Chris Lillingstone-Price (1070), was blunted by a puncture.
Given that three-time winner Simon Hadfield could only match their lap times in Wolfgang Friedrichs’s magnificently-prepared Aston Martin DP214 clone, handed over by David Clark, Hugenholtz’s men were home and dry in a marathon which was interrupted only briefly when a ‘frog-eye’ Sprite shed a wheel and beached inconveniently.
Third car home was the 2002-winning Jaguar E-type low-drag coupé of Oliver Bryant, Gerry Wainwright and owner Jon Minshaw, which went clear of Grahame Bryant, Howard Spooner and Bryant Jr’s AC Cobra, at the end of a busy evening for Oliver B. The quickest Cobra in qualifying, incidentally, the Chris Chiles Sr/Jr and Paul Ingram example, retired in the early stages with a suspected broken camshaft.
Among the Aston Martin DB4GTs, TVRs, Porsche 911s and MGBs which chased the leaders in, the ninth-placed Ford Mustang of Richard Styles/Stuart Prior merits mention for winning the Touring Car section for the second successive year with another faultless run. Sixty-two of the 86 starters finished.
The Masters Series provided the majority of the supporting cast in a delightful weekend of high-quality racing. Gläsel’s World Sportscar victory in his Ferrari 312PB provided consolation for the Six Hours dramas ahead. Manfredo Rossi di Montelera’s win in a gripping Sunday 3-litre F1 bout (in which his Brabham BT42-3 pipped the Lotus 76 of Hervé Regout and Saturday’s star Peter Dunn’s Vixencraft March 761) was another highlight.
The gloriously warm sunshine that bathed the legendary Francorchamps battlefield only added to its manifold joys. There was little sign of the often dank, wet and antisocial Ardennes microclimate, which had provided glimpses of all four seasons over some Six Hours events. The switch from September to October, of concern to stalwarts, was clearly agreeable to the weather gods. Same again next year, please.
What’s so special about it
Ten reasons why you must attend the Spa Six Hours meeting in 2008
1. Spa is very close
Three gentle hours from the tunnel’s exit will put you trackside at the greatest circuit still used at the top level. Go via Dunkirk, Brussels and Liège, being sure to avoid Brussels at rush hour.
2. It’s not just about the Six Hours event
It’s a four-day, 12-race fixture of which the six-hour race occupies just 4.00-10.00pm on Saturday. There are short sprints for those lacking attention span but with many longer races of up to two hours, there really is something for everyone.
3. Sitting in the grandstand outside Eau Rouge
Seeing 3-litre F1 cars pile through by the dozen at speeds you cannot comprehend is one of the greatest sights and sounds in all of motor racing. Watch the different lines, try to distinguish the brave from the foolhardy and imagine it is you shrieking down that hill at 170mph, looking at the mountain that is Eau Rouge growing ever larger before you.
4. The track is not just about one corner
It is one of the best spectator circuits in the world: you can watch them slide through La Source, shimmer through Pouhon and slam through Blanchimont at near-maximum speed.
5. The breadth and quality of the racing cars
Wander around the paddock and you’ll struggle to know where to look next. Do you pore over the Lola T70s, McLaren M26s, the lone Ferrari 312PB or go for something earlier? In the Woodcote Trophy there were C- and D-type Jaguars, a brace of Maserati 300Ss, a Ferrari 750 Monza and a couple of Aston DB3Ss – the cream of 1950s sports racers and some of the most beautiful cars ever made on one of the most beautiful circuits ever conceived.
6. The atmosphere
Peter Flood drove his vintage Bentley from Surrey to Spa, raced it, along with a Healey, then jumped back in it and drove home. “It’s a very special meeting,” he said, “it has that end of term feeling to it. It’s the end of most people’s seasons and we know we’ll not meet up again for months. Everyone seems determined to enjoy themselves as much as possible.”
7. The Six Hours
Sit trackside as day turns to dusk and to dark, and when you can see no more, try to identify each car from its sound. The GT40s, Cobras and Mustangs thunder, the Astons and Jags howl as the Porsches scream. With a good friend and a few beers at your side, you’ll struggle to find a better way to pass an evening.
8. Seeing the old track
Don’t stay within the confines of the new Spa, head out down through Burnenville to Malmedy and Stavelot. It’s all still there but if you didn’t know it was raced on, you’d never believe it.
9. Eat chips and mayonnaise outside the Masta Friterie
Situated right on the apex of the Masta kink, you can imagine what it must have been like to see Pedro and Jo approach in their 917s at close to 200mph, flick left and right and disappear down to Stavelot. Know where to look and you can still find bits of old rumble strip.
10. The route home
You can either drive gently back home, head awash with memories, or spend a few less frantic days holidaying in the Ardennes or, better still, head one hour east and try your luck around the old Nürburgring Nordschleife. AF
Formula Junior Historic Racing Association
1. G Pickering Lotus 20/22
2. M Blees Brabham BT15
3. U Eberhardt Lotus 27
1. M Blees Brabham BT15
2. G Pickering Lotus 20/22
3. U Eberhardt Lotus 27
Historic Sports Car Club
1. J Cottingham Chevron B8
2. C Allison Chevron B8
3. R Shaw Chevron B8
1. R Shaw Chevron B8
2. J Cottingham Chevron B8
3. A Hill Chevron B8
Historic Motor Racing News U2TC
1. M Gustavsson/C Gustavsson Lotus Cortina
2. R Shaw/J Oliver BMW 1800 Tisa
3. A Wolfe Lotus Cortina
Grand Prix Masters
1. P Dunn March 761
2. H Regout Lotus 76
3. M Rossi di Montelera Brabham BT42
1. M Rossi di Montelera Brabham BT42
2. H Regout Lotus 76
3. P Dunn March 761
The RAC Woodcote Trophy
1. L Hüni/G Pearson Jaguar D-type
2. B Von Schenk/G Fisken Maserati 300S
3. M Devis Maserati 250SI
Sports Racing Masters with WSM
1. N Whale/D Grace McLaren M1 B
2. M Wanty/J Vandewauver Lotus 23B
3. P Knapfield/D Franklin Elva Mk8
Spa Six Hours Endurance
1. H Hugenholtz/R Herzog/D Hart Ford Mustang Shelby
2. D Clark/W Friedrichs/S Hadfield Aston Martin DP214
3. J Minshaw/O Bryant/G Wainwright Jaguar E-type
4. G Bryant/O Bryant/H Spooner AC Cobra
5. M Taylor/M Vergers/P Bennett Aston Martin DB4
6. R Meins/C Lillingstone-Price Ford GT40
7. P Thornton/A Willmott/T Alexander Aston Martin DB4 GT
8. M Johnson/T Smith/ N Reuben TVR Grantura Mk III
9. R Styles/S Prior Ford Mustang
10. R Caresani/P Pandelaar Porsche 911
Top Hat Racing
1. A Hammond Chevrolet Camaro
2. K Michael Ford Escort Mk 1 RS
3. J Twyman/N Twyman Lotus VII Series 3
Motor Racing Legends Pre-War Sports Car
1. H Fabri/A Stoop Alfa Romeo 8C Monza
2. N D’Ieteren Alfa Romeo 8C Monza
3. M Williams/J Baxter HRG Le Mans Model
British Sports, GT & Saloon Challenge
1. C Scragg Aston Martin V8
2. M Jordan RAM Cobra
3. P Foster/R Stephenson Aston Martin DB4
GT & Sports Endurance Masters
1. G Bryant/O Bryant AC Cobra
2. S Hitchins/P Harper AC Cobra
3. J Minshaw Jaguar E-type