"Ban the Belgian GP"

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DSJ comments on the cancellation of this year’s Spa race

This year is the 75th anniversary of the The Royal Automobile Club of Belgium, and they were forced to celebrate it without the traditional Belgian Grand Prix. This was no direct fault of the RACB but the culmination of a lot of hysterics and well-meaning actions by people and bodies who were never heard of in 1896 when the RACB was formed, nor even heard of in 1922 when the RACB organised the first Belgian Grand Prix.

The annual Grand Prix of Belgium is held on the very fast open road circuit that lies in a triangle between the villages of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot and is officially known as the Circuit National de Francorchamps, ministered to by the Royal Automobile Club of Spa, the largest nearby town, some 9 miles away. At one time Spa was the only town with any hotels or restaurants to cater for the visitor and was the centre of all the racing activity, which was why the circuit is often loosely referred to as the Spa circuit. Today expansion has made Francorchamps and Stavelot equally popular places to stay in and the race centre of interest has been spread around Much more. Like any circuit that has been in use for a long time, Francorchamps has had a chequered history, with good memories and bad ones, but no worse than say Silverstone, relative to the length of time it has been in use.

For British motor racing enthusiasts it got a bad name in 1939 when Dick Seaman, our sole Grand Prix driver, was killed in a fiery crash in a Mercedes-Benz. Throughout the nineteen-fifties it was the scene of some good races, notably 1958, when Brooks won with a Vanwall, followed home by Hawthorn in a Ferrari, Lewis-Evans in another Vanwall and Allison in one of the earlier sorties into Grand Prix racing by Lotus. This race was memorable because both Vanwalls broke vital parts as they ended the last lap and Hawthorn’s Ferrari literally exploded its engine as he crossed the finishing line. Had the race been one lap longer Allison would have probably been the winner in the little Lotus-Climax.

Up to this point in the history of Francorchamps everyone was happily accepting the circuit for what it was, a challenging high speed affair demanding the maximum from car and driver, and people had accidents and people were killed, as at any racing circuit. In 1960 the hysteria began. There had been no race in 1959 because of financial problems and when the Belgian Grand Prix was resumed in 1960 the mechanical face of Grand Prix racing had undergone a vital change. Lotus and Cooper were the main Grand Prix contestants, with pretty crude and doubtfully-made cars powered by 2 1/2-litre 4-cylinder Coventry-Climax engines, driven by a changing breed of driver in many cases. In practice for the 1960 race Stirling Moss had a bad crash due to his Lotus breaking a vital part, and almost at the same time Michael Taylor also crashed in a Lotus due to another vital part breaking. While poor Taylor was almost ignored, Moss was headline news, such is the mentality of the Daily Paper editors and their readers.

The Moss crash was splashed all over the English daily papers, even by people who were not even in Belgium at the time. In the race Chris Bristow killed himself trying to corner his Cooper as fast as a Ferrari, a fatal accident that was a foregone conclusion, and Alan Stacey died in another Lotus crash, thought to be caused by the driver striking a bird. Fleet Street hysteria was in great form and headlines such as “Killer Circuit”, “Too fast and too dangerous” appeared from writers who saw the whole thing from a bar in Spa, and who could barely drive a car, let alone drive fast round the circuit of Francorchamps and know what it was all about. None of them thought to point out that Moss and Taylor crashed because of design weaknesses and Bristow was killed because the Cooper road-holding was inadequate for what he was trying to do. “Ban the Belgian Grand Prix” they screamed.

With Grand Prix engines reduced to 1 1/2 litres in 1961 and consequent lower speeds the hysteria died down, as it so often does after the newspaper has been used to light the fire, or for the other purpose. In 1961 Ferrari had one of those rare grand slams, his cars finishing first, second, third and fourth, driven by Phil Hill, von Trips, Ginther and Gendebien. For the next four years in a row Clark won the Belgian Grand Prix in Lotus-Climax cars, even though he confessed to not liking the circuit very much. It had been the scene of his baptism into European motor racing when he drove a D-type Jaguar in the rain in a sports car race a year or two earlier, an experience calculated to intimidate any newcomer. Unlike some drivers today, Clark swallowed his prejudice and dislikes, accepted the Belgian Grand Prix and Francorchamps as part of his job of being a Grand Prix driver and proceeded to win the race in 1962, 63, 64 and 65, without complaint or objection.

1966 saw the beginning of the 3-litre Formula and was also the year of glorious Hollywood film making, when Frankenheimer and his cohorts did their best to foul up Grand Prix racing. Rain came on the opening lap and eight cars disappeared before half a lap was completed, Clark having his engine fail and the other seven having accidents. Bonnier, Spence, Siffert and Hulme spun off without injury, around the Burnenville area, and a bit farther on, at Masta, Bondurant crashed unhurt, Graham Hill spun off and didn’t hit anything, but Stewart crashed badly and was injured. A whole lot of other drivers did not have accidents and had driven over the same bits of flooded roadway, but this was over-looked in the hysteria that followed and which still has not subsided.

Spence won that wet race in a Ferrari, followed by Rindt in a Cooper-Maserati and Bandini in another Ferrari. A lot of those who crashed claimed they did not know the rain was approaching them from the far end of the circuit and that they didn’t see the floods of water until it was too late. The circuit was blamed, not their driving ability or the technical progress of the tyres that caused them to aqua-plane, or the rather tail-heavy handling of the Cooper-Maseratis that took Bonnier and Siffert into the ditch, and would have taken Rindt as well, but for his lightning reflexes. Bonnier was the President of the GPDA and Stewart was a rising star, and between them they started an anti-Spa campaign that has got so out of hand that the CSI were forced to step in this year and veto the whole affair. The Grand Prix was held in 1967 and 1968, cancelled in 1969 and held again in 1970, but always with argument and strife and demands to delay the start if it looked as though rain might develop, to cancelling the whole thing until the following day if it actually rained. Meanwhile, each year the 1000 Kilometre Sports Car race was held come rain, shine, hell or high-water, the chaps just said “Cor blimey!” and switched on their windscreen wipers and headlamps, and went faster than the bleating Grand Prix stars anyway.

Leading up to the CSI ban, Bonnier wrote to the RACB last September and said that the GPDA had decided that the Belgian Grand Prix should be held at Zolder instead of Spa, for security reasons, though he did not give a list of GPDA members who made this decision. After looking at Zolder the GPDA went very quiet and everything fizzled out when the CSI said “No more open-wheeled racing at Spa until we have reviewed the situation at the end of the season.” It goes without saying that Ickx resigned from the GPDA and one or two others were tempted to do the same, and lost interest in going to their meetings, notably Surtees, Siffert and Rodriguez, while Amon said recently and rather wistfully “It’s a pity we are not going to Spa, it’s a dicey circuit at the best of times, but immensely satisfying to do a fast lap, which is really what Grand Prix racing is all about.”

-As regards the sudden loss of interest in the idea of holding the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, this is best summed up by a Motor Sport reader who lives in that part of Europe. He writes: “I cannot imagine a really good Grand Prix at Zolder. It is rather like a dusty Mallory Park, good enough for club racing but not one of the top tracks. Using Hockenheim instead of the Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix was bad enough but to not run the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa is ridiculous. Spa-Francorchamps is without doubt a real track without the slightest hint of Mickey-Mouse and must be retained for Grand Prix races”. If I had said that I know a lot of people who would have screamed derision and said I was biassed and wrong.

On June 6th 1971, when the Belgian Grand Prix should have been run the stars of the Grand Prix world were forced to take a weekend’s holiday, not by their own decision or that of their Union leaders, but by the motoring governing body itself, who had obviously become tired and irritated by the continual bickering that has gone on about Francorchamps ever since J. Stewart and J. Bonnier fell on their heads in 1966, and Surtees kept his feet and won the race.—D.S.J.

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