From our Archives - Reflections in the Ardennes

As I drove away from Francorchamps round the original circuit, through Burnenville and Masta and out through Stavelot into the Ardennes I reflected sadly on the abandonment of the 1985 Belgian GP. I cannot recall another Grand Prix ever having been abandoned; many have been cancelled, many never even got off the ground, but abandonment after it had all begun so well was something new. I thought of my opening paragraph in my Monaco Grand Prix story, elsewhere in this issue, where I suggested that we must be philosophical about the ways of FISA and FOCA and take the rough with the smooth. We had the smooth at Monte Carlo, the rough was at Francorchamps.

What gets me is how the disaster of the newly laid surface was allowed to happen. The Belgians asked if they could resurface their circuit a long while ago, in fact, at the end of the last season and they were told “Fine, go ahead, but remember it must be finished 50 days before the first day of practice of the Grand Prix, in order to give it time to mature.” Even the designers of the new water repellent surface stated in their handout that 50 days were needed for the rubber asphalt compound to mature. Yet we arrived on the day before practice began, to find that the surface had only been down 14 days. Why, one must ask, didn’t someone from FISA visit Francorchamps at the 60 day limit, to see if the job was finished? Had they done that and found that the work had not been started, they could have said “Forget it, don’t start now it’s too late.” And why did the engineers of the resurfacing firm start the job at all, knowing it wasn’t going to get its own stipulated 50 day curing time. It sounds like an awful lack of communication all along the line. One could understand it if it was just a matter of new grandstands, or revised barriers, but the road surface is the most important part of a circuit. One bungle seems to have led to another and the pity of it all was that everyone was looking forward to racing at Francorchamps. Even Jackie Stewart, who was instrumental in the demise of the old circuit has to admit that the Belgians have made a superb job of the shortened and modified circuit retaining all the characteristics of the old one without the problems.

Even on Saturday night when I returned to my hotel I did not really believe that the race was abandoned, but on Sunday morning when I arrived at the circuit to see the Ferrari transporter driving away, then I really knew it was all over. Reactions from colleagues who had also turned up “just to make sure” were varied. One said he thought he had overslept and it must be Monday, with most of the transporters and paddock vehicles gone; another said it was Monday morning on Sunday and the irony of the whole affair was that the weather was still superb.

The first time I raced at Francorchamps was in 1948 and I fell in love with the circuit immediately, even though I got the “twitches” every time on the plunge down into the Eau Rouge bridge; but once you hit the Raidillon climb they disappeared and the rest of the circuit was real joy. Of all the Grand Prix events I attended during the late 1940s and the 1950s, the Belgian Grand Prix was a great occasion. The French Grand Prix was racing in the Grand Manner, especially when it was held at Reims, and the Italian Grand Prix at Monza always had an excitement of its own, but the Belgian Grand Prix was a Great Occasion. I was always intrigued by the fact that the circuit was called the Circuit Nationale, there was something powerful behind that name. You could not imagine the area being turned into a trading estate, or a housing estate, and the forest scenery is really spectacular. Even racing round it on a solo motorcycle or on a racing sidecar platform, you were conscious of racing through the most beautiful countryside. The area is the Haute Fagne, even though journalists always refer to it as the Ardennes; at least that is better than calling it the Eifel Mountains, as one self-important Sunday paper writer did.

There has always been a strange fascination about the Francorchamps circuit, and Jim Clark always reckoned he hated the place, yet he won four Grand Prix races on the trot. After each one he would say “Yes, but I still don’t like the place”. Chris Amon always reckoned that a fast lap round Spa (as every one called it) was the most satisfying moment in his whole experience of motor racing. In 1983 Rosberg just loved the place, even though he only had Cosworth power in his Williams, and it soon ran out of “puff” up the long climb to Les Combes. He was really looking forward to using Honda’s 700-850 bhp this year. The whole circuit would seem to be tailor-made for Patrick Tambay’s elegant style and he rated it as the best in the world.

No matter who you talked or listened to, the enthusiasm was the same. Engineers who particularly liked racing engines were beaming as they listened to their cars disappearing up the long hill towards the horizon. The driver had his accelerator pedal down against the stop and the engine was working harder than we have heard before. It was a lovely aggressive sound where you know that every cylinder is working really hard. On full song on a long, level straight, it is not the same thing. You have to love engines to appreciate the sounds of Spa.

Before the whole thing fell apart I was thinking about how we could manipulate things for Belgium to have two Grand Prix events each year like Italy and Great Britain do. The Italians managed by inventing the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola so that each year we have the riotous blind at Monza and the splendid dice at Imola. With our Grand Prix at Silverstone, we have neatly snatched the Grand Prix or Europe for Brands Hatch in September. I was thinking that what the Belgians could do would be to have a Walloon GP in the French speaking sector at Francorchamps, and the Flanders Grand Prix in the Flemish speaking part at Zolder; or more subtly the Grand Prix de Belgique at Francorchamps and the Grote Prij van Belgic at Zolder. I know that a lot of people do not like Zolder, and it is not my favourite circuit, but it is harmless enough and the older organisers have made terrific efforts to make their circuit a success, so they deserve the support of the Grand Prix world.

I am sure that two Grand Prix events each year in Belgium would be preferred to traipsing off to a Dallas car park, or waiting around for the mythical New York Grand Prix to happen. As it has turned out it looks as though Belgium will not get a Grand Prix at all this year. Perhaps that is a good reason for having two next year. DSJ