Reborn in time for a hectic 24 hours
This year two young Belgian brothers by the names Jean Michel and Phillipe Martin took outright victory in the 16th consecutive running of Belgium’s annual 24 heures de Francorchamps. The paring kept their heads through a fraught event that included 1 ½ hours running behind pace cars. The organising Royal Automobile Club de Belgique were forced to repair and replace crash barriers after five substantial accidents at the first downhill corner (Eau Rouge), which was plagued by the usual pits rivulet running across the track at the corner’s entry.
Once again it was a British-built Capri from C&C Racing in Yorkshire that won, part of a three Capri assault by the Gordon Spice team looking for a repeat of last year’s splendid first win for a Briton. Then Spice won outright, paired with Teddy Pilette in their 3-litre/220 b.h.p. Capri S.
That was about the only thing in common with last year from the competitor’s viewpoint though, for this was the debut of the new 4.35-mile version of the old 8.75-mile Ardennes circuit classic. At least, it was the debut so far as four-wheel racers were concerned. The Belgian GP for motor cycles had made headlines in June when senior competitors like Sheene and Roberts had declared the new section of the track unsafe for competition and walked out on the event!
That rather ominous portent, plus the fact that the British teams running Capris had publicly declared they felt the 1979 regulations for the event – regulations which are as individual to the event, year by year, as those of the rather better known 24 hour annual at Sarthe – favoured BMW, they said. Scrutineering would be hell, they said. The RACB would have to sign documents guaranteeing that, once scrutineered, the Belgians would not change their technical minds at the end of 24 hours and throw a well-placed car out upon a technically, they said. In all “they”, the more voluble of British entrants, said an awful lot . . . but none of it was to be relevant.
Scrutineering was the usual relaxed affair in the municipal park of Spa town, a ten minute drive along fast, often bumpy roads, from Francorchamps. Some competitors arrived by road, as is the tradition, in their competition cars, but not as many as in previous years. Even the “Group 1½” saloon car is a pretty specialised competition vehicle these days, the main problems for bumpy roads being the low ride heights and extra-deep spoilers (permitted for this event). Although Spa-Francorchamps always was a pure road circuit, the public tarmac which comprised its sweeping length was only linked in name to the road-building technique favoured for normal Belgian roads.
Scrutineering was distinguished by the RACB’s use of what the English rudely dubbed bathroom scales to weigh each end of the car separately, one scale per side. Not surprisingly every car turned out to be at least 100 kg. over the organiser’s specified minimums when this primitive weighing system was employed!
On the night of our arrival we took a midnight look at the circuit, or tried to. We could not thread our 2-litre Capri into the new section that swings downhill from Les Combes on the old circuit, to Blanchimont, the area in which cars used to come winging back from their adventures around Burneville, Stavelot, Malmedy and the fabled Masta.
Those evocative names are to be consigned to history, but what a history! Spa-Francorchamps was created in 1923 and always provided a thrilling high-speed counterpoint to the Nurburgring, which is situated just on the other side of the thickly forested Ardennes.
The first Belgian GP was run on the long circuit in 1925 with Antonio Ascari winning at an average 74.56 m.p.h. in the Alfa Romeo P2. The last time the Belgian GP was held at Spa was 1970, featuring a thrilling duel between one of the circuit’s masters, Pedro Rodriguez (BRM) and Chris Amon (March), Amon left the circuit record at 3 min. 37.4 sec. (151.99 m.p.h.) but Rodriguez won in the V12-engined British GP car at an average 149.85 m.p.h.
As our Ford squealed around Burneville and Malmedy (which had a chicane even for saloon car races by 1974) I recalled that the GP speeds may have been impressive, but they were not the ultimate on the old circuit. The JW Porsche team rivals Siffert and Rodriguez actually used to slipstream and touch bodywork as they hurtled their blue and orange 917s around Spa-Francorchamps’ unique combination of long curves and longer straights. According to Car Facts and Feats, a Guinness-sponsored publication, Rodriguez and Oliver put in the fastest ever race average at Spa. In 1971 they recorded 154.765 m.p.h. for 4 hr. 1 min. 9.7 sec. In the 1970 and 1971 season Siffert and Rodriguez both proved in a class of their own at Spa, both smashing the lap record repeatedly, though to Siffert went the final 1971 outright figure of 3 min. 14.6 sec. (161.98 m.p.h.).
That was not the end of the Spa speed story though. In 1973 Henri Pescarolo (Matra-Simca MS670) managed 3 min. 13.4 sec. (162.99 m.p.h.). Incidentally I must say that all the m.p.h. speed figures given are according to my own Casio AL-8 calculator; the official conversion in Motor Sport of the time was 163.09 m.p.h.
Looking at the kind of saloon cars raced at the annual Spa 24 hours I see that Spice’s fastest lap this year was 2 min. 48.8 sec. (92.44 m.p.h.), whereas last year the Ford-mounted automotive businessman from Windsor was lapping in the region of 120 m.p.h. average . . . in patches of fog! When I drove with Hanson in 1972 our BMW averaged 104.9 m.p.h. for the 24 hours, just winning its class. This year’s winning average was badly distorted by the early accident and heavy rain down to 79.8 m.p.h., but the point is made.
The old Spa track was an ultimate challenge in terms of speed. There are people who say speed is just boring and customers cannot tell if a car is doing 120 or 160 m.p.h. Standing on the outside of Burneville last year and watching Derek Bell wrestling with a BMW 530i, or any of the top Capri men, was exciting enough for me to wish I had seen the top sports and GP cars whistling through. It was the fascination of seeing men doing something you could not, rather like watching Ronnie Peterson through the old Woodcote.
However, all this is written for the record for I am glad to welcome the new track. If it means that GP cars will race again in the Ardennes (1980 or 1981, according to differing sources) the months of hard work and millions of Belgian governmental Francs will have been worthwhile. Remembering the toll in lives that the annual 24 hour race extracted, both of marshals and drivers, is another reason for welcoming the track.
This year the accident rate was exceptional, but even when Jean Pierre Beltoise’s BMW burst into flames, after sliding into the Eau Rouge barrier, there were no injuries. The fire fighting deserved the simple expression magnifique. The comparatively short length of the new track has allowed a dramatic improvement in such vital trackside facilities.
Following our night reconnaissance for the past, daylight brought the opportunity of trying the new circuit for ourselves. Courtesy of the American Motors Highball team we explored the new section with a 5-litre AMC Spirit V8, a machine that made all the right rumbling noises, accelerating with real spirit thanks to an alleged 300 b.h.p., while handling so stiffly that I was fairly convinced its hubs were attached directly to the chassis with steel girders.
The climb up from the pits via Eau Rouge and to Les Combes is pretty much as it was, though Eau Rouge has the large areas of modern kerbing that have also been applied to other areas of new and old circuit. Hans Stuck, who was there sharing a BMW with pole-position winner Patrick Neve, was most enthusiastic about the new track and foresaw only three major areas of work before F1 could take place: Eau Rouge (“needs some run-off”; what a prophetic remark that was!), La Source hairpin, and new pits. “The present pit lane is too narrow by far,” Stick commented. The experienced German went on to say that the circuit had obviously been designed for drivers, by drivers like Ickx, rather than on the drawing board according to pet theories.
As you swing off the old track, just before the lefthand Les Combes, the beginning of the new track is not promising. It squiggles through a complex of right, left, right called Bonn. There’s a short straight and then a corner even the cheerful Reine Wisell described to me as “a bit off a b . . . “, the long righthander with off-camber called Bruxelles. This was the type of corner where it looked wise to enter in second and leave, as it opened up, in third. It amounts to a slower version of Paddock Hill Bend at Brands Hatch.
Then there was a good half mile sprint downhill, where the Capris and BMWs of 3-litres would just snatch top before the demanding double apexes of Dublin and Londres. This long sweep right, almost a straight between those two apexes, looks as though somebody decided to give us a real pang off nostalgia for the old track. Beltoise, occasionally Tom Walkinshaw (Capri) and very few others, were attacking this still in fourth, or (more commonly) by changing to fourth halfway round.
The result was extremely impressive to watch. At 100 m.p.h. or so the saloons would start to rock on their suspensions, Rene Metge and Jean Pierre Jaussaud lifting the two inside wheels of their fleet Triumph Dolomite Sprint through here.
Speeds in the 130 m.p.h. bracket must be reached on the next gentle straight slope, a third gear right leading into a conventional S-bend modern complex (shades of Paul Ricard) called Paris and Rome. Another plunge downhill and one leaves the circuit in flat out, 90-100 m.p.h. salon car style, around the longish right entitled Liege.
Then you are back on the old circuit and ready for the confusing series of lefts that lead you down to Club-House and La Source hairpin. The change in surface from old to new track, and vice versa, is marked. The new section is as smooth as you could expect, but gave no slipperiness problems in relation to those experienced just after it was first sealed for that motor cycle GP. Some sections of the old circuit are a bit too rough for a modern formula car, but that is not an insurmountable problem.
This year’s Spa 24 hours was overshadowed by the implications of the new circuit, but was nonetheless an exciting event. Once again 100,000 Europeans were said to be spectating and they saw a BMW 530i mainly Belgian-inspired effort versus the 3-litre Capris of British origin (mostly, such Fords are usurping the traditional BMW strength in Europe).
At first the BMWs looked to have things well under control, after the inevitable short early lead of Pilettte’s 5.7-litre Camaro. Then the two Juma-prepared 530s that had dominated the proceedings until the early hours of Sunday morning hit trouble and the Martin brothers were though to a lead they held until the finish at three on Sunday afternoon.
Best-placed British crew were the experienced Chris Craft sharing with the promising young Jeff Allam in fourth place with another Spice/C&C Capri. Spice himself was delayed to fifth overall by an accident that involved his co-driver. Still, that Capri won the Coupe de Roi team prize. Let us hope the British are as successful at the next Ardennes Belgian G.P. – J.W.
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