Belgian Grand Prix – prologue


It’s a fair while since I had the privilege of driving a Porsche 911, but the sense of familiarity is immediate. The latest Carrera 4S looks bulkier than elegantly pillared 911s of yore, but seems to shrink around you upon entry.

A few details have changed – controls are now laid out with thought and purpose, rather than being randomly located wherever they happen to fit – but it retains the rock-solid footprint that has long been common to the breed. Few other cars feel quite so securely planted to the road. The only concession to impracticality is the fuel gauge, which is all but obscured from view. And even though the 911 lopes along serenely at 38mph/1000rpm in top, it does still use fuel.

It’s a more capable tourer than it looks, too. The boot opens to reveal a modest cubby, but it has improbable depths that absorb a couple of weekend bags and far more photographic clutter than I’m likely to need or use. Next stop: Spa.

For once I don’t take the most direct route south of Brussels, but instead skirt around the suburbs of Liège and head towards the picturesque village of Nessonvaux, about 15 miles from Spa-Francorchamps. There was once a track here, too, and parts remain visible: This is where Belgian manufacturer Imperia built cars from the early part of the 20th century through to the late 1950s, by which time it was assembling Triumph TR3s under licence. Its test facility ran around the factory roof, in the manner of Fiat’s celebrated Lingotto.

The plant closed in 1958, having fallen into decline after Triumph switched production to another Belgian site, but the principal buildings remain, fading and derelict, with tattered newspaper pages visible beyond the fragmented shards of what used to be windows. You wonder whether any might carry reports of Paul Frère’s second place to Peter Collins, in the 1956 Belgian GP, but they are a little too distant for accurate dating.

You wonder how noisy things might have been in the factory’s heyday – its profile was such that Juan Manuel Fangio is said to have been given a tour in 1953 – but today the village is a haven of tranquillity (save for the perpetual bark of a German shepherd, which seems disturbed that a complete stranger is so interested in the crumbling old walls across the road).

If this were England the site would long since have been transformed into identikit housing for young families, but I prefer its state of casual abandonment.

Inspection complete, Spa lies about 20 minutes away along sun-dappled country roads. In the past, tradition dictated a Thursday lunchtime arrival at the Belgian GP, to coincide with the opening of the chip kiosk on the media car park’s fringe. That has been razed, sadly, so I bypass the entrance and head south to pay homage to something even tastier: Burnenville, the Masta Kink and Stavelot, touchstones of the original Spa that remain largely unchanged. They’re in rather better condition than the Imperia factory, although their previous purpose is perhaps less obvious for they look like many other roads in this part of Belgium. I always feel slightly remorseful that I never saw cars race here, but feel comforted to know that they did.

That portion of chips would have been most welcome, but it has still been a wonderful way to christen a race weekend.

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