The Circuit National of Francorchamps
“TO RETURN to Francorchamps is always exciting. You find a unique ambiance that only a circuit running through natural surroundings can supply.” Those are not my words. They were written by a Belgian journalist before the recent sports car race on the Belgian circuit in the Ardennes. Certain members of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association and the Formula One Constructors’ Association think that the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps is dead and buried, and if it makes them happy then I am all for letting them continue to think that. However, a very great number of people know that the Belgian National Circuit is alive and well and last month something like one hundred and fifty drivers were enjoying themselves racing on its exciting 8 3/4 miles of fast straights, flat-out curves, downhill slopes, steep climbs, hairpin bend and all those natural qualities that an artificial Autodrome can never re-create. The Grand Prix circus turned their back on the challenge of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit and went to the “artificial facility” of Nivelles-Baulers, that now seems to have crumbled into dust at their feet, so they are left with the little Zolder circuit, that can only be considered “better than no Formula One race at all”. Meanwhile the Royal Automobile Club of Spa, under the direction of Leon Sven, carried on without the Formula One circus. Certain renegades who prefer racing to politics continued to take part in the sports car and saloon car races and this year Derek Bell and Henri Pescaralo won the race with a 3-litre 12-cylinder Alfa Romeo Prototype, and Jacky Ickx and Arturo Merzario were second in a sister car. The weekend was the occasion of the 1,000 kilometres of Spa (reported elsewhere in this issue) and on the Saturday there was the Coupes de Spa over 36 laps of the circuit, or 504 kilometres, for Group 1 saloon cars. With 59 cars starting, many of them shared by two drivers, a lot of people were having a lot of fun on the magnificent Spa-Francorchamps circuit, to say nothing of the hundreds of enthusiasts who were involved with the various competitors. In spite of very unsettled weather, from warm sunshine to sleet and rain, a lot of spectators turned up for the whole weekend, many of them entrenching themselves into camp-sites around the circuit. Due to the inclement weather and the possibility of it being nearly dusk before the 1,000-kilometre race would be over, the Sunday event was reduced to 750 kilometres, and typical of “Murphy’s Law” the day ended in bright sunny weather!
While the status of the racing at the Spa weekend might be considered to be at International Clubman’s level, lacking the excitement of Peterson, Lauda, Pace, Andretti et al, it was nonetheless very enjoyable by reason of the superb ambiance of the circuit and the enthusiasm of the competitors. For some time now there have been plans to build a new section of road across the centre of the existing circuit, to shorten the lap to about 5 miles and suggestions that the money was now available to start this project were strong at the recent race weekend. To those people who spend all their time in the start/finish and paddock area of the Francorchamps circuit, the proposed shortened circuit will hardly alter things for the cars will still plunge down the hill from La Source hairpin past the pits, into the left/right bend over L’Eau Rouge and up the steep climb of La Raidillion to disappear up into the fir forest at the top of the hill. This one section of the Francorchamps circuit contains more for the driver and the spectator than some entire Autodromes.
There are three more big sporting weekends due to take place on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit this summer and these are the Belgian Grand Prix for Motorcycles on July 5th/6th, the 24-Hour Saloon Car Race on July 26th/ 27th and a 24-Hour Motorcycle Race on August 16th/17th, so there is something for everyone, except the single-seater racers, but that is their loss not the loss of the enthusiasts for the Circuit National de Francorchamps of which there are a great number. I have been going to the Spa circuit since 1948 and I have known about it since 1934, and every year I meet people making their first visit, either as competitors, spectators or helpers, and their reaction is always the same: “Fabulous, fantastic, the real thing, what racing should be all about”, you can choose any adjective from dozens, they all apply. I’ve yet to meet anyone whose first impression is “Hmm, don’t think much of this place”. Spa-Francorchamps may be dead and buried for the single-seater circuses of Formula One, Two or Three, but it’s very much alive for sports cars, GT cars and saloon cars and long may it remain so. •
Thinking about the Belgian Grand Prix and the days when it took place at Francorchamps you cannot help but recall the day in 1967 when Dan Gurney won the Grand Prix with his own Eagle powered by the Weslake V12-cylinder engine, with four valves per cylinder. That V12 Weslake engine, the product of Harry Weslake’s Research firm in Rye in Sussex, was one of the more interesting engines in the early days of the present 3-litre Formula. The victory at Spa and a subsequent near-victory at the Nurburgring showed that the V12-Weslake engine was giving competitive power for Grand Prix circuits and it was a pity that the whole Gurney-Eagle project folded-up and returned to California to concentrate on American racing. These thoughts about the Weslake V12-engine are prompted by enthusiasm shown today in the motorcycle world for a single-cylinder, four-valve, 500 c.c. racing engine by Weslake for use in grass-track racing and long-track Speedway type racing. Twin cylinder, 750 c.c. 4-valve Weslake engines, based on the Triumph engine, have been giving a good account of themselves in motorcycle road-racing in sidecar outfits, and the latest 500 c.c. single-cylinder Weslake engine is good to see in a world dominated by Czechoslovakian Jawa engines. Whether the Weslake can get a foothold in pure Speedway racing remains to be seen, but it has always seemed ludicrous to me that a strong British sport like Speedway racing should have to rely on Czech engines ever since the JAP firm stopped manufacture. In the same way it is incomprehensible how a national British pastime like motorcycle trials riding should have been allowed to become the domain of Spanish factories, and now Japanese factories. Having exported the activity to all parts of the world, with our riders teaching other countries how it should be done, we had no machines or engines to back it up with, and apparently simple 2-stroke engines in unit with 5- or 6-speed gearboxes had to be left to the Spaniards and the Japanese to develop. The “foot in the door” by Weslake with their 500 c.c. 4-valve single cylinder should give everyone great encouragement, apart from the importers of Jawa engines.
Once the daily paper, radio and television, hysteria had died down after the unfortunate accident in the Spanish Grand Prix, those people close to the scene analysed the situation, aware of the fact that the accident was caused by a structural failure on Stommelen’s car. The result of the accident was due to freak circumstances, in that it happened on the brow of a hill; had it taken place a hundred yards sooner the outcome would have been entirely different and more than likely much less serious. Although the car destroyed itself the cockpit area containing the driver withstood the crash as anticipated, the mandatory design features of deformable structures around the cockpit, crash bars, safety fuel tanks, fail-safe fuel pipe connections, automatic fire extinguisher systems and so on, all played their part in saving the life of the driver. All this does not absolve the original cause of the accident, which was the failure of the mounting of the rear aerofoil and a lot of people are giving serious thought to banning aerodynamic devices altogether unless they are the bodywork itself with no air gaps between the functioning aerofoil section and the complete car. This would outlaw completely the rear aerofoil mounted on a tubular or fabricated framework and the adjustable fins on each side of the nose cowling, as well as the forward mounted aerofoil in front of the car as on Ferrari, Hesketh and others. This suggestion is receiving opposition from designers, as can well be imagined, and one of their number pointed out how illogical it was to think along these lines. “Because aerofoils keep falling off you ban them, but wheels keep falling off and tyres keep failing, but you don’t ban them.” His suggestion is that you should control things by improvements, not by the retrograde step of doing away with the problem.
At Monaco the International Sporting Commission (the CSI) had a meeting and published the following statement:
“At the invitation of the CSI President, the Constructors, the Drivers, the Sponsors, the Organisers and the CSI themselves have considered it necessary to define the situation.
“All the parties concerned have agreed upon the need to achieve together the conditions of a closer co-operation.
“In view of the importance of this moment, it has been decided to create a new working group bringing together the Constructors, the Drivers, the Sponsors and the Organisers under the care of the CSI.
“It will have to follow the evolution of the safety and the abidance by the regulations defined by the sporting code of the CSI.
“The study of the evolution of Formula One cars will be continued in order to still improve the solutions of safety problems.
“In this spirit too, the inspection of the circuits will be insured in full agreement with the interested parties: Organisers, Drivers and Constructors, under the direction of the CSI.
“The climate of mutual co-operation and understanding shall enable to help each one to support this new dialogue for the benefit of the International Automobile Sport.”
I have been living under the impression that all this was being done at present and has been done for the last ten years or more. The problem to my mind is that it has not been done very well. There are times when I think that some of the people in control of motor racing should move out into World politics, but as this would leave the door open for entrepreneurs to move in, perhaps it is better that we leave things as they are, even if they are muddled.—D.S.J.