Is it time for F1 to drop Spa-Francorchamps from the calendar?

F1

Does Spa's recent safety record, contract status and overall racing spectacle mean F1 is about to walk away?

Belgian GP 2021

The Belgian GP has been on the calendar for every season bar four of the F1 World Championship. Is that run over?

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

The dust from the Hungarian Grand Prix was settling, F1 had just crowned its newest surprise winner in a season that had been dominated by championship rivals from different generations and there was great anticipation for what was to come next.

But following Jenson Button’s victory for BAR Honda at the Hungaroring, Formula 1 didn’t head for the Ardennes. Instead, teams trekked off to Turkey and Istanbul Park for the country’s inaugural race around a circuit that quickly became very popular with drivers.

2006 was the last season in which F1 didn’t pay a visit to the famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit for a round of the World Championship but after this year’s ‘race’, the contract for the Belgian Grand Prix is set to expire following the ’22 race and there has been no news yet of a new agreement being reached between race promoters and Liberty Media.

Following the debacle of the 2021 edition, those negotiations are set to be tough with the thousands of fans who attended this past weekend hoping for some form of compensation that as of yet has not been forthcoming.

F1 teams and key figures will meet in order to form plans on how to avoid such circumstances from happening again and the series failing to provide a spectacle for fans.

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There has been plenty said since the decision to stage a two-lap event in order to award points and officially stage a championship round, but there is one elephant in the corner still being ignored: is it time for F1 to say goodbye to Spa?

This is far from the first time Spa-Francorchamps has been questioned as being a viable Formula 1 circuit. Jackie Stewart and Motor Sport’s Denis Jenkinson infamously traded barbs back and forth. ‘Jenks’ maintained the Belgian venue was more than suitable while the Scot was steadfast in his pursuit of safer conditions for the drivers, an endeavour he was eventually successful in.

They are not the only ones to have differing views on the venue though. Jim Clark grew to hate Spa following the deaths of Archie Scott-Brown and Chris Bristow in 1958 and 1960 respectively at the track despite his numerous victories.

As Paul Fearnley put it: “He fought hard and well, witness his four consecutive Belgian GP triumphs here, yet it stalked him always, spooked him even: the trees, the speed; the anomalies, the omens.”

There has of course been plenty done since Clark’s successes at Spa to improve safety, including a reworking of the layout to fit modern grand prix standards. In recent years though, there have been plenty of omens that motor sport might be out-growing the famed forests.

Max Verstappen, 2021 Belgian GP

Verstappen said he was happy to race but was the only driver with a ‘clear’ view

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

It has been an extremely tough year for those in charge of the famous Belgian circuit. Back in June, floods caused by a burst river bank meant that sections of the track leading to Eau Rouge had to be resurfaced while infrastructure such as service roads and tunnels had to be rebuilt in time for the F1 fraternity’s arrival in August. More recently, CEO of the circuit Nathalie Maillet tragically died at the age of 61.

She had overseen the redevelopment and modernisation of the circuit to become a grand prix venue fitting of the 2021 calendar, but the speed at which F1 has moved with development may have out-paced those efforts.

The last major redevelopment of the circuit occurred back in 2006. The old bus stop chicane was moved closer to Blanchimont while La Source was moved further down the circuit to lengthen the start/finish straight. All told, the work totalled around €19 million.

New development plans have been announced in the hopes of staging motorcycle racing in the future. Plans for the reintroduction of gravel traps around the circuit have so far met praise from drivers.

The much-criticised Radillon run-off area is also set to be expanded, a move prompted by the fatal accident of Anthoine Hubert during the 2019 Formula 2 feature race two years ago today. The grand total of these planned renovations announced last October, are set to reach €80 million.

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Driver safety has been a contentious point whenever F1 has visited Spa in recent years. In the lead up to this year’s event, Williams reserve driver Jack Aitken was one of several drivers injured in the Spa 24 Hours race at the start of August.

A four-car pile-up at the crest of the hill resulted in a broken collarbone, fractured vertebrae and a small lung contusion for the Briton.

On Friday, W Series staged its qualifying session. Abbie Eaton, Sarah Moore, Belen Garcia, Fabienne Wohlwend, Ayla Agren and Beitske Visser were involved in another serious crash at Radillon, resulting in a red flag.

Visser and Agren were taken to hospital following the incident and eventually discharged without any significant injuries. Their accident was not the last of the day though.

There was worry on Saturday too after Lando Norris lost control of his McLaren and hit the inside tyre barriers in appalling conditions. Multiple drivers had warned F1 race director Michael Masi that the weather warranted a red flag, but it didn’t arrive before the Radillon barriers spat Norris across the track in another frightening crash at the same corner.

Outside of the questions over the safety or lack thereof for drivers in multiple disciplines, the actual racing at Spa has not lived up to the legendary status the circuit holds over the rest of the calendar.

Opening lap tussles might last beyond Les Combes but the passing is limited otherwise. DRS drags up the hill onto the Kemmel Straight makes up the majority of passing opportunities, while late-braking attempts have become rarer into the Bus Stop chicane.

Does Spa qualify as a race to make the calendar despite there being a lack of action a la Monaco? Many will argue so based on the historical relevance and memories the circuit has provided, but if there is no safety improvements offered ahead of the 2022 race, the Belgian Grand Prix may well be confined to the history books.