Spa-Francorchamps. The very words have a sense of excitement, of anticipation, don’t they? Grand Prix cars howling and wailing through the Ardennes, swooping up and down across the valley. Oh yeah, Eau Rouge may be easy flat in a modern car, but Spa is Spa, and it’s good.
And another thing. It is five hours by road from the south of England, the Channel Tunnel making this trip the simplest it’s ever been. Lots of Brits will be there, waving their flags and banners every time ‘our Lewis’ or ‘our Jenson’ go screaming by on another lap of what is still a magnificent racing circuit, even if it’s not the spooky challenge it was in days gone by.
This year the teams go to Belgium after a month’s holiday, an enforced shutdown when – for two weeks – no work may be done on the cars. The drivers will be chomping at the bit, the mechanics will be refreshed and the engineers will have been dreaming up yet more tweaks in the quest to beat those pesky Red Bulls. Just as McLaren, and possibly Ferrari, began to catch up along came a month’s break in the season. It is now or never if anyone is to have the faintest hope of catching Herr Vettel before they go to Brazil in November.
So what makes Spa-Francorchamps one of the great circuits, one of the races you always anticipate with pleasure? Many things, really, but above all it’s the chance to see Formula 1 cars let loose at full chat around a naturally flowing piece of asphalt that dips, dives, climbs and snakes through a valley in the dark green forests of the Ardennes.
Arriving is good. As you wind your way through the woods you can tune in to the circuit radio station, start to get excited. Then you hear the cars, like wild beasts rampaging around beyond the trees that encircle the car parks. These days, sadly, you can’t tell which car is which from the engine noise like you could when Ferraris made their own music and Matras, or Cosworths, sang another kind of song. But despite the homogeny of modern times, this is still a wonderful place to watch an F1 driver at work.
I go in, not to the paddock or pits, but to the top of the hill at Eau Rouge, known as Raidillon, where the cars appear as if about to fly into the sky. Then it’s up into sixth, seventh and flat out down the long straight to Les Combes where Mika Häkkinen so famously outfoxed Michael Schumacher in 2000 when faced with a backmarker at nearly 200mph. From here you may walk as far as you please, pausing to goggle at the sheer grip and grunt of these machines, the commitment of the drivers, and the ridiculous speed with which they change direction. Or walk the other way to Blanchimont where the raw speed beggars belief.
I first saw Jenson Button in a Grand Prix car here in 2000, in a competitive Williams, in tricky weather conditions. He qualified a superb third and finished fifth. It was clear to me and countless others that – given the right opportunities – here was a very talented driver who had earned his rapid rise through Formula 3 to the top level. Took him nine years to get his title… no wonder he looks so much more at ease these days.
So, once you’ve had your fill of the skills on display at a proper circuit, you return – ears ringing – to your hostelry, study the times over a good Belgian beer, eat too many chips with mayonnaise and wonder how we ever ended up in places like Abu Dhabi or Sepang. All Grand Prix racing is good, and fascinating, but European races remain the best.
And Monza is next. Joy. Pure joy. Racing cars, pasta, Parmesan and Chianti. But that’s another story for another day.
Who will win at Spa on Sunday? I have no idea. A month is a long time in modern F1 racing. But, forced to predict, I reckon it’ll be a McLaren.