Blast from the past

Circuit first opened: 1921
Classic circuit length: 8.761 miles

2015 event calendar
May 2-3: WEC 6 hours
May 30-31: World Series by Renault
Jul 24-27: Spa 24 Hours
Aug 22-24: F1 Belgian Grand Prix
Sep 19-21: Spa Six Hours (classic)

Ask anybody to name a classic circuit and Spa will feature close to the top of their list – even though the original was long since sliced in two. You don’t need to go far to find the missing half… and it’s worth the trip
Writer: Simon Arron

Some people are stirred by the sight of a Ferrari 330 P4 or the sound of a Matra V12 – and I count among their number. Fewer, perhaps, will feel the emotional draw of a media car park, but this one is rather more than the sum of its parts. In essence it’s a stony, muddy wasteland riddled with potholes and puddles, but it also happens to lie in an Ardennes valley, immediately adjacent to one of motor sport’s most alluring landmarks.

It matters not how many times you’ve been to Spa-Francorchamps – my first visit was in 1983, to cover the 24 Hours – the effect is always the same. Your neck hair bristles as soon as you see a gap between the pine trees, where the racetrack reaches a crest and there appears to be little more than sky beyond. This is Raidillon, the peak beyond Eau Rouge, a symbol of speed since 1939 (when it was implemented to bypass the Ancienne Douane hairpin, and make a natural road circuit even faster).

Nowadays, of course, Spa is a permanent racing venue, whose contours have been closed to passing traffic for 15 years or so. The sanitisation has been relatively mild, however, and many parts of the modern track – Eau Rouge, Raidillon, Pouhon, Blanchimont – evoke the spirit of what went before and are in some instances almost identical. While you might no longer to be able to drive a lap of the current Spa, you can still sample much of the 8.7-mile original, from Les Combes through Haut de la Côte to Burnenville, Malmedy, the Masta Kink and the banked right-hander at Stavelot, shortly after which there are barred gates that symbolise the end of the road for this living museum, for the 21st century lies just beyond. Most of this bygone section remains unchanged since it was last used in 1978, although close to Malmedy there’s a complicated junction that rather ruins the flow of the Masta Straight. This does little to diminish an overwhelming impression of speed: if you are sufficiently privileged to visit the new Spa you should capitalise on an opportunity to explore the old.

Jackie Stewart rated the Masta Kink as a challenge as stern as any in motor racing and relates a good yarn about spotting Motor Sport’s continental correspondent Denis Jenkinson watching there, during Belgian Grands Prix in the 1960s. “You’d think, ‘Oh no, Jenks – next time I’ll have to take it flat’,” he says, “and you’d have a whole lap to think about that.”

Nigel Roebuck never attended a Grand Prix at the old Spa – more of which in a moment – but did speak at length to DSJ on the topic. “Jenks used to make a point of watching a session from a house at the Masta Kink,” Nigel says, “and the house is still there. I don’t know whether it was derelict in those days or whether he’d made some arrangement with the owner, but he’d watch from one of the bedroom windows that gave a perfect view of the exit from the Kink. As much as look, though, he’d listen. I remember him saying how unlucky Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo were to be in Matras in 1970, because it was more apparent when they backed off than it was for drivers in other cars. Jenks reckoned Masta was the truest test in motor racing, and always felt Spa was a sterner challenge than even the Nordschleife. For him this was the circuit.

He didn’t think the Nürburgring was quick enough, although obviously it was very fast in parts. It’s interesting that Pescarolo averaged 163mph in a Matra during the 1973 Spa 1000Kms, given that Jenks hadn’t rated him for lifting through the Kink a few years earlier!

“In the past I’ve spoken to three drivers who particularly adored Spa: Chris Amon, Phil Hill and Tony Brooks. Amon always talks about chasing Pedro Rodriguez during the 1970 Grand Prix, when he was literally hanging on by his fingertips. Rodriguez overtook him on the uphill drag towards Les Combes and Chris says Pedro didn’t even have the decency to get a tow – he just drove past. Chris was in his awful March 701 and decided he was going to have to take the Kink flat on the last lap in an effort to tow the BRM in. He did, but soon lost out again. He was back in 1973, to drive for Matra, but for all he loved Spa he concluded that by then it almost wouldn’t be a Grand Prix circuit any more. In 1970, in a dreadful car, he’d managed to take the Kink flat once and it was a real hold-your-breath number. In the Matra it was easy flat every lap. Even 40 years ago, the aero was starting to remove the challenge from some corners and, ridiculous as it might sound, it could have turned into a giant Monza-type slipstreamer. How lethal might that have been?

“Phil interested me, because he was always blindingly quick here. It didn’t frighten him and he never understood why. It was the same with Brooks, who thought the Nürburgring – where he also won – bore no comparison. Jenks always reckoned Tony was the best he saw around here.”

The Belgian GP stayed away from the original road circuit after 1970, so does Roebuck have a valid excuse for not embracing what has come to be accepted as one of racing’s great lost spectacles? “Not really,” he says. “After leaving school I periodically attended events abroad – Monaco and Le Mans, for instance – but can’t offer any logical explanation for why I didn’t watch F1 at Spa. In 1970 I went to Zandvoort, but didn’t come to Spa even though I knew the axe was hanging over it. I saw only one race on the long circuit, the 1000Kms in 1972. I watched from a variety of places and for part of the time was up at the old Les Combes. It was always going to be a Ferrari walkover, but it started to rain and that’s an aspect of the race that has always stuck in my mind. People started putting up umbrellas left, right and centre, but while it was raining at Les Combes it wasn’t raining elsewhere. Brian Redman noticed the umbrellas going up and just about teetered through, then Ronnie Peterson arrived, didn’t notice the umbrellas and went straight into the guardrail.

“It was a pretty unremarkable race, because it was just a Ferrari demo, but it was still one hell of an experience.”

Nowadays head of Red Bull’s driver development programme, Helmut Marko harbours vivid memories of the original Spa from his own racing days. “I didn’t compete there in Formula 1,” he says, “but I did drive a Porsche 917 – and that was probably worse, much more frightening! At that time we had a problem with the 917 because the rear tyres were moving on their rims, so all of a sudden you’d get a puncture. At Spa once I was following Pedro Rodriguez when he had a deflation and began to spin, three, four or five times, left and right, within a narrow road. There were wooden telegraph poles instead of guardrails, but he was lucky not to hit any of them. The circuit layout was unbelievable. The very first time I saw it, I thought, ‘Jesus Christ! How on earth do you go quickly here?’

“I first raced at Spa in a 908 and got sideways at the Masta Kink on my second or third lap [he makes a shivering sound]. That tended to frighten you for the rest of the day. Today you see racing cars sliding around, but they seem easy to control. At that time, if a 908 or 917 got sideways it wasn’t quite so easy to get it back in the right direction.

“During the 2014 Belgian GP, Daniel Ricciardo was taking Eau Rouge as though he was sitting in a comfy chair having a drink. That’s the biggest way things have changed in modern racing. He was flat, no problem at all. In my day you could hardly breathe after you’d taken Eau Rouge, because there was so much pressure on the car. We didn’t talk about g forces at the time, but there was plenty of that. You needed the whole of the following straight to recover. The corner wasn’t flat back then, but you knew you needed to take it as quickly as possible to keep your momentum up the long hill that followed.”

Did he hold the Nürburgring in parallel awe?

“No, funnily enough,” he says. “I did a lot of races at the ’Ring, in Formula Vee and so on, but never had the same kind of feeling I got at Spa. The Nürburgring was challenging, but Spa was by far the scariest circuit I’ve ever seen.

We were doing about 300kph on the straights in a 917, and if there was a bump it would be enough to upset things. The circuit surface wasn’t smooth, either, so it was more like dancing than driving. When they resurfaced any part of the track, the new bit was always one centimetre higher than the old – and whenever it rained that meant there was always so much standing water. And that was the other thing, because it was quite regularly dry on one side of the track and wet on the other, but there was no way anyone would consider refusing to go out.

“I was at the Porsche Museum a couple of years ago and Klaus Bischof, who runs it, used to be my mechanic. He showed me a 917 in detail and I couldn’t understand what on earth I’d been doing driving it. Klaus also recalled some of the problems that occurred, which were unknown to me at the time: they’d wonder whether or not to change the brake discs, because they were already cracked, and the same with other parts that weren’t really broken but were still not quite right. But that was part of [motor sport director] Ferdinand Piech’s philosophy: if it crossed the line and fell apart, it was a good racing car.”

And how did he feel whenever he set out to race at Spa?

“Let’s put it this way,” he says. “When you left your hotel room, you made sure everything was tidy and didn’t leave your bathroom towel on the floor, because you might not be coming back and didn’t want to be remembered badly…”

Attitudes might since have changed, but much of the old Spa remains exactly as it was, bordered by skimpy guardrails, trees, houses, telegraph poles and barbed wire fencing. At the Masta Kink, opposite the house that once served as Jenks’s watchtower, there’s a chip shop.

Is there a better place on earth to sit and contemplate the past?

Essential travel guide

Where to stay
Auberge du Père Boigelot, Basse-Bodeux – reasonable prices, 20 minutes away by car, fabulous restaurant. Hostellerie Le Roannay, Francorchamps – popular with top brass during F1 weekends… and the bill is likely to reflect as much. Many local houses run a B&B service during major race weekends and campsites are plentiful.

Route tips
Eurostar to Brussels is a comfortable option if starting from the Home Counties, then allow about an hour by hire car. Note that schizophrenic Belgian politics means road signs frequently switch between French and Dutch: you should be heading initially for Liège… or Luik. They are one and the same. The best road route is to bear east from Calais on the E40, towards Brussels, then take the Brussels ring road (R0) before rejoining the E40 towards Liège/Luik and then taking the E42 for Verviers (exiting at junction 10 for Francorchamps). Note that Belgium has a strictly enforced 120kph motorway speed limit – and the police around Brussels tend to be hyperactive whenever race traffic is due to pass. There’s little point flying from southern England, because the circuit is no more than three hours from the train terminal or ferry port in Calais. If setting off from farther north, Liège has the closest major airport but Brussels is better served, while Luxembourg is a viable alternative.

Interesting diversions
The original Spa road circuit – bear left at the mini-roundabout between Francorchamps and La Source, go straight ahead at the next roundabout (you’ll see Raidillon through the trees to your right) and keep going until the road bears left at the top of a hill, at which point you’ll be on the old track; remains of the Nivelles-Baulers racing circuit near Brussels; the disused Imperia car factory (with roof-top test track) at Nessonvaux; the Nürburgring (about an hour away by road, via the E42 and then the B410 through Prüm, Gerolstein and Kelberg.