MPH: Should Spa lose Eau Rouge to save its place in F1?

Mark Hughes

At the heart of Spa-Francorchamps sits Eau Rouge - one of motor sport's most infamous corner sequences. But, amid growing safety concerns, even Mark Hughes is wrestling with whether it, or even Spa itself, should be cut from F1 entirely

Eau Rouge Spa-Francorchamps 2023 Belgian Grand Prix

Rising concerns over the safety of Eau Rouge could cut Spa from the F1 calendar entirely

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I’m conflicted on the subject of Spa. It’s a magnificent natural road course, but the dangers which are very much in the spotlight given two deaths in four years are too obvious to ignore. The exit of Eau Rouge through Raidillon and over the blind flat-out crest forms a topography which – combined with the micro-climate here which means it’s rare for it not to be raining sometime during a race weekend – could have been explicitly set up to extract occasional human carnage.

It’s very obvious and unrelated to driver skill. Just dumb indiscriminate horrible bad luck if you’re the one. You fly through there blind, flat-out, anywhere between 150 and 200mph hoping there’s not something stationary in your path. Or you could be the other driver just over the rise, the one who’s just been bounced off the banking, sitting stationary, broadside-on in the middle of the track, helpless, hoping the pack will somehow find a way around and that’s it’s not suddenly going to go dark.

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Being quick through that section determines how well you will be placed to overtake or defend from an overtake into Les Combes at the end of the long straight, so no-one is giving an inch or lifting their foot. It might even be raining and so visibility even after you crest the rise can be close to zero. You can’t lift in the pack just because you can’t see; that would be even more dangerous. So you sit there, almost a passenger, trying to keep the brain closed and the throttle open and wait for it to pass, after which you’ll be reprieved for another minute-and-a-half.

The track’s general contours were formed by tectonic uplift around 10,000 years ago, likely the very same uplift which also created the Nürburgring’s equally dramatic contours an hour’s ride down the road. The groundwork for two of the world’s greatest race tracks was laid as the huge weight of the ice during the deglaciation period was removed from the earth’s crust here and its varying elasticity meant the rock beneath pushed up at different rates. That’s how Spa’s epic scale of elevation was formed. It’s how when you are up at Malmedy you can see the TV helicopter flying through the valley several hundred metres beneath you, cleaving through the canopy of fir trees. Eau Rouge is like it is because of those geological forces, the big climb up the hill, the dramatic rush down through the valley and the marginal ‘is it/isn’t it’ flat of Pouhon.

Eau Rouge Spa-Francorchamps Belgian grand prix 2023

Tectonic uplift evident just outside La Source, the way the rock has pushed through post-ice-age visible. It has implications 10,000 years later

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Pouhon is still a test of nerve, ability and commitment. Eau Rouge in the dry no longer is. But in the wet it’s still very much a differentiator. Since the run-off was extended some years ago it’s no longer as specifically dangerous as it was. But the danger lies beyond, just over that crest. It’s the hazard of a crashing car bouncing off the barriers back onto the track at a point preceded by a high-speed blind approach. Ideally when a car goes off into the barriers it needs to stay off the circuit after impact, but creating the space that would be needed to do this at this part of the track would be a humungous undertaking for a circuit whose primary event is already economically marginal.

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It’s easy to consume the sport as if it’s cinema or a soap opera, just characters you become familiar with in some non-reality. But these are people, in machines created and prepared by other people, in teams run by yet more people, all connected. They have lives and have decided to live them less ordinary, sacrifice and risk often off the scale just to be part of it. The outside world can watch if it wants to, but doesn’t get to say how it should be just so it can be entertained. That rage against mediocrity is not heroic, no greater good depends upon it. But it’s noble and pure all the same and the warriors in the centre of it all are owed some protection from their willingness to stay blind-flat, just because that’s what you do.

So we come to the spiky question of: do we sacrifice Eau Rouge to let the circuit survive as an F1 venue? A replication of the 1994 chicane which took the cars tight left-right before and through there, with a very slow exit, would mean they were no longer doing scary fast speeds as they crested the rise. Losing a limb to let the patient survive? Given that Eau Rouge in the dry is now just a kink as far as the cars are concerned, would that really be so terrible? I’m not convinced either, but I’m not not convinced.