Old Circuits

Dear Reader

Racing circuits come and go, some I am sad at the passing, others I am joyful, but they all leave behind memories, both good and bad. Either way they leave behind them a fascinating aura and if it is a circuit that I knew in its heyday, it is rather sad to revisit the scene today if it is one of dereliction. On the other hand some old circuits had to be abandoned to make way for new roads or building projects and every trace of racing has gone, but if one knew it when it was active it can be interesting to trace what is left.

Other circuits have been modified or rebuilt and are still active but in a different form, but the classic example being the Circuit Nationale de Francorchamps which I visited recently. The circuit in use today uses some of the old circuit and is magnificent and a drive round it makes me whistle through my teeth and murmur “oooh!” or “aaargh!” However, I still drive round the old circuit that went right down to the outskirts of Stavelot, though the Malmedy corner has long since disappeared under a new road complex. When I first went to the Belgian circuit in 1948 it used to run right down to a tight hairpin on the edge of Stavelot but a little while later a new full-throttle banked curve was built across the fields, eliminating the hairpin. Both roads are still there, so depending how old your memory is a visit to Francorchamps holds much in store. Even though I stop at the top of the Burnenville slopes and look across the valley to the Masta straight and marvel at the memories of the 1950s and 1960s, I then do a lap of the new circuit and remind myself that there is nothing wrong with the 1990s.

Some circuits that have been altered or shortened effect me totally differently. The Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France was virtually cut in half a few years ago, the western end being abandoned, and when I visit the French Grand Prix there is no desire whatsoever to explore the disused end. In Germany a “New” Nürburgring was built, completely divorced from the mighty Nürburgring of old and if I am in the Eifel Mountains I cannot resist paying the toll and taking a drive round the real Nürburgring, leaving the place without so much as a glance at the “Neue Nürburgring”.

In Belgium a circuit was built at Nivelles, south of Bruxelles, and I heard a Firestone Tyre Company executive describe it as “a fantastic modern facility”. I was wondering what it was, because it certainly wasn’t my idea of a Formula One circuit, let alone a Grand Prix circuit. I can drive past Nivelles with no desire to turn in the gate, just as I can drive past the Zolder circuit in the north of Belgium. There have been so many circuits in Belgium, some restricted to motorcycle racing and places like Mettet, Chimay, Gedinne or Floreffe make me indulge in the luxury of an extensive detour just to relive old times, for they were good circuits when we raced on them, and are still good; these being on public roads.

In France there are also old circuits in profusion, most of them still worth a visit for the memories they retain and I am sure there are few readers who pass through Reims without making a detour round the Reims-Geux circuit, where racing used to take place “In the Grand Manner”. A reader was recently down in the South West of France, visiting Albi, where the old road circuit has long been superseded by a small autodrome, and he sent me a photograph of the abandoned race control tower that still stands on the site of the pits area which has long since disappeared beneath a tennis club. The caretaker of the club was most helpful and showed him where the circuit used to run and reminisced about Fangio and Farina, but not about DSJ when he struck his head on the straw bales while leaning out of a racing sidecar in 1952!

The control tower still carries the ironic inscription CIRCUIT Du VITESSE PERMANENT — AUTOMOBILE e MOTORCYCLISTE. Sad.

At home our “Circuit Permanent de Silverstone” is undergoing an enormous face-lift and on August 1st last I was up in Buckinghamshire watching Tom Walkinshaw at the controls of a “digger” making a really serious great hole in the Silverstone track’s pristine surface, just about where the Formula One cars are beginning to brake for the Bridge Turn at the end of the Grand Prix circuit lap. As the great spike was hammered into the tarmac I realised that the BRDC and Silverstone Circuits were serious about their proposed plans to make Silverstone much more interesting for drivers and spectators alike, without losing the high-speed cornering atmosphere of the circuit. All the modifications may reduce the lap speed from 160 mph to 145 mph, but I feel certain it will not be “slow” as some people are suggesting. My feeling is that the New Silverstone relative to the old one will be akin to the New Francorchamps circuit to the old one.

Another disused circuit which keeps cropping up, especially with members of the British armed forces in Germany, is the egg-shaped flat oval round the small town of Wegberg, not far from the Dutch/German border. This was known as the Grenzlandring (Frontier-country-circuit) and was virtually a flat-out blind round a sort of ring road round the town, with a lap speed approaching 130 mph for Formula Two cars in the early 1950s.

When you look at a map of Europe there are racing circuits or hillclimb venues dotted about everywhere that recall those far off days when a town council could close some local roads to allow the local clubs to organise a race meeting. Most of them began to die out in the 1950s, especially after the 1955 Le Mans catastrophe, and again after the 1957 Mille Miglia hullabaloo. The growing pace of motor racing throughout the world and the increase in population and public mobility gradually hounded motor racing off the public roads on to more and more permanent auto dromes, as the photograph from Albi instanced. More and more people wanted to race so that permanent circuits were a financially viable proposition and autodromes became the accepted places to race.

In Switzerland there were public road circuits all over the tiny country, at Porrentruy, Schaffhausen, Zurich, Berne, Geneva, Lausanne, Erlen, Olten, Locarno and Lugano, all of which ended in 1955 after the Le Mans accident when the Swiss government put a total ban on racing. Anyone on holiday in Switzerland, or merely passing through, is almost certain to pass over hallowed ground where racing cars once ran. If you are crossing the Alps by the mountain passes, rather than travelling through the tunnels, you can almost guarantee to be driving on the roads where Grand Prix cars once took part in mountain hillclimbs. Susa-Mont Cenis; Aosta-Gran San Bernardo; Monte Ceneri; Klausen; Stelvio; and many more were used regularly during the months of June, July and August when they were clear of snow. People used to ask me what these European mountain hillclimbs were like and the easiest way to sum them up was to describe them as 10 years of competing at Shelsley Walsh and Prescott all put together in one go and non-stop!

When the ADAC used to hold their classic 1000 kilometre race for sports cars on the real Nürburgring I used to warn newcomers from England that one lap of the Nürburgring was about equal to a whole season of English club racing, and the race was 44 laps of the ‘Ring!’ It did tend to give them a sense of proportion.

As my reader who visited Albi recently remarked, “There must be enough history of bygone racing circuits and hillclimbs to compile a Travellers Guide Book to Europe”. DSJ