Reflections on a Grand Prix
It doesn’t seem like 13 years since I stood in the pits of the Circuit Nationale de Spa-Francorchamps listening to Ken Tyrrell lecturing me about the dangers of the circuit and how he and Jackie Stewart were going to get rid of it from the Formula One scene. I was not very impressed and could not appreciate the dangers they spoke of, for I had only raced motorcycles and motorcycles and sidecars round the circuit for five years and had loved every minute of it. In fact, of all the circuits I had raced on in Europe, and they amounted to more than 25, the Spa-Francorchamps circuit was my favourite. Apart from being an easy way of earning a living, racing to me was the satisfaction of having the adrenalin flowing and achieving something that seemed worthwhile. No sort of ball game ever made my adrenalin flow but a racing engine on full song always did (and still does) make the back of my neck tingle as the adrenalin flows to the brain to make it register total enjoyment.
I listened to the Tyrrell/Stewart lecture as politely as I could and then went to talk to Frank Williams, who in those days was a struggling enthusiast with a car at the back of the grid. I said that the Belgian Grand Prix was a great occasion, a Grand Prix for the “big boys” and why didn’t Frank go and play racers in Formula Two where he could rule the roost and be King with his little team. “No way, said Frank. “My heart’s in Formula One, and I want to become the Ken Tyrrell of Grand Prix racing”. I smiled indulgently and thought “dear old Frank . . .” and went and looked at a Ferrari. One of my troubles is that I don’t listen to what people say, not only because I am deaf through years of enjoying noisy exhaust notes, but because most people bore me with their wafflings.
As I stood at the Motodrom Nivelles-Baulers, south of Bruxelles, watching the Belgian Formula One race called the Grote Prij van Belgie (I could not bring myself to call it Le Grand Prix de Belgique) a rather boring American from the tyre industry said “this is fantastic, this is the greatest motor racing facility I have ever seen, you guys are really lucky.” I looked around me but failed to see what he could see and thought “I wonder if he has ever been to the Francorchamps circuit”. Ken Tyrrell said to me “it’s not that you don’t listen, you just don’t understand.” So I went away and looked at a Ferrari and thought “I understand this, this is a racing car and I love racing cars”. As I stood among the trees at the Zolder circuit, watching the cars swooping about I thought “this is fun for a sort of clubman’s event, but what ever happened to motor racing’s greatest facility at Nivelles-Baulers, perhaps the racers prefer a race-track to a facility . . .”
As a Belgian Formula One race or the Grote Prijs van Belgie, the events at Zolder were amusing, but I still could not use the title Le Grand Prix de Belgique. As I watched the Williams team leading everyone else I thought “Frank was absolutely right, I should have listened to him, and to think that he nearly didn’t call his first successful car a Williams” and as the Tyrrell team was in a doldrum at the time, at the bottom of the heap, I assumed that Frank Williams was not still wanting to be “the Ken Tyrrell of Grand Prix racing”, rather the reverse. And Tyrrell was right as well, for we were still at Zolder, and Francorchmps was dead and buried for Grand Prix racing. “Perhaps I should try to understand these people”, I thought to myself but decided it was too difficult and went and looked at a Ferrari.
In 1978 while driving though Belgium I called in at Francorchamps as I had heard that the race organisers were planning to reconstruct the circuit to appeal to the Formula One brigade with a view to attracting the Belgian Grand Prix back to its rightful home. Bulldozers had already marked out the proposed link road which was to halve the length of the circuit and keep it all on the Francorchamps side of the hills of Burnenville and the flat part at Stavelot. As I looked at the proposed track across the side of the valley, following the natural contours, I thought “Cor! Jackie Stewart’s young gentleman won’t like that, it’s much too exciting.” Four years later I went back and drove down the new road, which formed the base of a triangle between the Francorchamps-Malmedy road and the Francorchamps to Stavelot road, giving a lap length of 6.9 kilometres against the old circuit’s 14.1 kilometres. The two main legs of the triangle were virtually unchanged and the new third leg was the sort of natural road that makes you whistle through your teeth, screw up your courage and give it a bootful for the sheer fun of it. When you get to the bottom you say “Wow!”, and there is more to come, as you charge up to La Source hairpin, down past the pits over the bridge at than Eau Rouge and up the climbing curving Radiallon. I enjoyed it, but I still could not see the Formula One entertainers accepting such a challenge.
While at the fantastic motor racing facility at Nivelles-Baulers I was weeping into my Stella Artois with the genial rally giant Eric Carlsson and he said “I’m told this circuit is very safe and very good for Formula One. When all the circuits are as safe as this won’t the drivers find it rather boring, and when they do, what will they do then? I didn’t know the answer to that one, but suggested that we had to “keep the faith” and anyway all hope was not lost for we had the new Osterreichring. We kept the faith and 1983 has seen the return of Le Grand Prix de Belgique. Formula One as exemplified by the Formula One Constructors Association, (FOCA) a democratic (sic) body of special builders, reached its lowest depths with a race in a car park at Las Vegas, which some members of that almost defunct body considered to be entertainment. As the special-builders began to lose credence, putting the final nail in their coffin when they went on strike and did not appear at the San Marino Grand Prix last year, the manufacturers grew stronger. Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo and BMW have never seen Grand Prix racing as “entertainment”, to them it is a technical exercise and a mechanical challenge under a loose title of “sport”. They were not amused by FOCA’s idea of car park racing.
The revised Spa-Francorchamps circuit was completed and races were held for motor cycles, saloon cars, long-distance cars and Formula 2 cars, all of which went off well, apart from a few teething troubles, but Formula One was another matter. Until you have been to a full-blooded Formula One event with its attendant equipment, its trade and industry support, its world press support, its sponsorship support and its crowd support, it is difficult to appreciate the size of it, and the existing pits and paddock area at Francorchamps were totally inadequate. Once the idea of the Belgian Grand Prix returning to Francorchamps was assured the local council put up the money to transform a steep slope on the inside of La Source hairpin into a new two-level paddock area with new pits and pit road on the approach to the hairpin, to replace the old ones on the downhill section after the hairpin. In spite of foul weather the job was done and the roads were closed for a test-session a few weeks before the Grand Prix was due. The circuit and all its challenges was received with enthusiasm by everyone, its deficiencies in details being unfinished were accepted. It was truly amazing that all the drivers loved the circuit, it was a driver’s challenge and a satisfying one to accept and beat. Not a whine nor a whinge, and when they returned for the Belgian Grand Prix away they all went again, you couldn’t keep them off it. Even in the pouring rain of Saturday’s practice they were out there revelling in it.
Many of the drivers of today were still at school when the last Grand Prix de Belgique was held in 1970 and none of them have suffered under the Jackie Stewart influence of the .sordid seventies.” We are well into the “eighties” with a whole new regime of Grand Prix drivers brought up on a lot of rather dull Autodromes like Jarama and Paul Ricard, or emasculated ones like Monza, or “improved” circuits like Zandvoort or Silverstone with their “chicanes” or walled-in street racing like Long Beach or Detroit. Suddenly, in the midst of the most beautiful wooded and hilly countryside a natural circuit on public roads is presented to them and as a man they yelled “Yippee” and charged off down the hill to the Eau Rouge bridge.
Formula One is dying to be replaced by Grand Prix racing, the faith has been kept. Grand Prix racing is alive and well in 1983. DSJ.