Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor: Cassius42
When asked which circuit is their favourite, it is generally Spa that receives the accolade from the drivers who all relish its challenge; feeling that a win here is a prime requirement for their CV. Intriguingly, the Belgian Grand Prix is not a race that is won on multiple occasions by a variety of drivers. Since the revamped circuit was introduced in 1983, the most successful drivers have been Schumacher with six victories followed by Senna with five and Raikkonen with four to his name.
These achievements have come on the shortened 4.5 mile circuit, but it was the longer – I would say original but it was subject to several, small changes over the years – layout that really established Spa’s reputation. Only the greats such as Fangio (3) and Clark (4) showing their mastery of the circuit, but any driver who won here could take pride in that achievement.
The shortened circuit was built in 1979 after the track had been dropped from the F1 championship after the safety concerns came to a head. It was Jackie Stewart’s accident in the 1966 wet race that prompted the start of his safety campaign, when he crashed at the Masta kink with his BRM ending upside-down in the cellar of the farmhouse on the outside of the corner. He was trapped in the car with broken ribs and soaked in petrol and it was left to two drivers, Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant, to free him using borrowed tools from a spectator. It took a couple of years but it sounded the death-knell for the race and after 1970 it was dropped from the calendar.
Racing had been taking place on the roads in the Ardennes Forest since 1922, based on the roads linking the three Belgian towns of Malmedy, Stavelot and Francorchamps. It covered 9.3 miles (14.9km) of narrow public roads, in a basic triangle shape. The start line was originally on the downhill run from La Source and the famous Eau Rouge – Radillon combination was added later as a replacement for a loop that twisted to the left to cross the stream further up its valley.
At the end of the Kemmel straight the original track turned left, instead of right as now, and started the fast sweep to Burnenville, passing this village in a fast right hand sweep, and Malmedy. Here was the start of the famous Masta straight, which was only interrupted by the fast left-right Masta Kink, between farm houses, before arriving at the town of Stavelot. Just before the town was a sharp right hand turn at a junction – followed by a long uphill straight section with a few kinks called La Carriere. The track continued through a fast unnamed right-hand turn and then came Blanchimont before some hard braking for the La Source hairpin and the finish line.
The circuit soon became notorious due to its extremely fast nature which provided a challenge and also made it extremely dangerous. Attempts were made to slow the circuit with a chicane at Malmedy but conversely at the end of the subsequent Holowell Straight, the sharp hairpin at the entrance to the town of Stavelot itself was then bypassed by a quicker, banked right hand corner.
The first Grand Prix was in 1925 and was won by Antonio Ascari (Alfa Romeo), whose son Alberto would win the race in 1952 and 1953. Pre-war the race was won by the legends of the sport; Ascari, Nuvolari (1933, Maserati 8CM) and Caracciola (1935, Mercedes-Benz W25). Later Fangio would win three times in three different cars and in the sixties the race was dominated by Jim Clark, winning four times in consecutive years, although he hated the track after his friends (team mate Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow) were killed in the 1960 race.
That weekend was regarded as one of the darkest in Formula One until the events at Imola 1994. Moss had an accident at the Burnenville curve during practice and did not race for most of the year. Mike Taylor also crashed in practice when a weld on his steering column failed which left him paralysed and ended his career.
In the race Chris Bristow, in a private Cooper, was dicing with Willy Mairesse when he got off line at Malmedy, crashed into a four foot high embankment and was hurled into some barbed wire killing him instantly. Five laps later, Alan Stacey was hit by a bird in the face and also killed.
John Surtees won the wet 1966 race after half the field was eliminated in the first few laps due to the conditions; it would prove to be his last race for Ferrari after his fall out with team manager Eugenio Dragoni. The following year was notable for the only GP victory for the beautiful, lightweight Eagle in the hands of Dan Gurney. The light weight of the magnesium and titanium chassis allied to its slippery shape made the car fast, with an average race speed of 146mph and reaching a top speed of 196mph. This was one of the few races where the low budget Weslake engine lasted the full distance.
In 1968 the first experiments with aerodynamics in F1 had begun to appear for the first time. Chris Amon qualified his rear-wing equipped Ferrari on pole position by 4 seconds over Stewart in a Matra. To put the developments into perspective, Amon’s teammate Jacky Ickx did not have wings on his car and could only qualify 3rd.
1970 was to prove the peak of the old high-speed circuit and would be the last GP run there even though attempts were made to make it safer by installing Armco crash barriers. In his chase of eventual winner Pedro Rodriquez’s BRM P153, Chris Amon set a lap record of 152mph – which whilst formidable pales against the winner’s race average of 150mph.
Three weeks previously, Rodriguez had gone even faster (160mph) in the formidable Porsche 917 during the 1000km race but the offciaal outright lap record belongs to Henri Pescarolo, driving a Matra at the 1973 Spa 1000 km World Sportscar Championship race at an average speed of 163 mph (262 kph) although Jackie Ickx had been faster in practice.
On its return to the revised track the winner’s average had dropped to 120mph. So after a gap of 13 years and the introduction of the first turbo era, the new circuit retained much of its character but in a safer configuration. It was drastically shorter (4.5 miles), but was still a mix of long straights and fast corners in a picturesque setting and replacing the unloved Nivelles or Zolder tracks.
The high speed nature of such a long circuit could result in particular problems during the event as early races would last over 3 hours with wet conditions and reliability affecting the outcome. In 1956 the start was wet and Juan Fangio dominated practice, taking pole by over 5 seconds from Stirling Moss. Fangio made a poor start dropping to 5th but he soon made up ground to lead after 5 laps, showing his mastery of the track in wet conditions.
As the track dried he continued to extend his lead only to retire with transmission failure, leaving the win to Peter Collins’ Ferrari. This was only after Moss had stopped with broken wheel on the Radillion climb from Eau Rouge, Behra (Maserati) fell back with a misfire and then Castellotti (Ferrari) retired; also with transmission problems. Moss then performed a feat unheard of nowadays, by sprinting back to the pits and taking over his team mate’s (Cesare Perdisa) car, which he took to third place.
The circuit was a challenge both relished and feared by the drivers. It was as much a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge. The mental strain came from all the fast corners needing to be taken perfectly; they were all important to lap time. Any slight mistake at one corner meant that it affected one’s speed through the next corner, and the next one and down the straights.
Getting a line wrong or even a slight lift through any corner on the track, but particularly through corners like Burnenville or Stavelot, would result in a loss not tenths of seconds but whole seconds instantly from their lap time. Only La Source was a slow speed hairpin where a more powerful car or one with better traction could benefit.
This was in addition to the fact that at the speeds normally attained here any slight error could, and did, have serious consequences as the track was lined with trees, telegraph poles, houses, stone walls, or embankments and until 1970 no barriers. A prime example is the Masta kink where a house looms large in the sights as the drivers negotiate the tricky left-right corner.
The notoriously fickle weather of the Ardennes region of Belgium can also play it part in races. We have heard pit to car talk during recent races of the problem of the track being wet at one part of the circuit but dry elsewhere. If this is a problem with modern communication and weather satellite data, imagine the danger potential in years gone by when the circuit was twice as long.
Drivers would have no idea of circuit conditions and would often drive flat out into a rain shower, that could be heavy, that hadn’t been there on the previous lap. This often meant accidents, such as the 1966 race where a heavy rain-storm caused 7 drivers to aquaplane off at Burnenville.
The modern circuit is now a purpose built facility and was closed to the public in 2000. However, the old circuit is still part of the public road in the area and is well worth a visit, if only by Google street view, or try it out for yourself on Grand Prix Legends.