Nestled amongst pine clad hills, Spa is one of the oldest and most legendary of the Formula 1 circuits. They started racing here 100 years ago as a novel alternative to the then popular city to city races. The current circuit is often mentioned by Formula 1 drivers as their favourite and the plunge downhill to Eau Rouge before the climb up to Les Combes is regarded as one of the most perfect racing corners in the world. I have never driven the current circuit but doing so is certainly on my bucket list.

I was last at Spa for the Belgian GP in 1998. The weather was unusually fine but the race was dull. Schumacher and Ferrari were in their pomp and pretty soon the race began to resemble the sort of dull processions that did so much to turn off fans in the Schumacher era. Even sitting at the bottom of Eau Rouge could not make things more interesting and that race was the last F1 race I went to for 12 years.

The Spa circuit we see today is only a fraction of the Spa circuit that was in use from 1902 until 1978. That circuit was much much longer at 15km in length and had a reputation for appalling weather and danger as notorious as that of its near neighbour across the German border, the Nurburgring.

The typically wet weather, the lack of run off and the brooding trees claimed many lives, even before the War. Dick Seaman was killed here in his works Mercedes on 1939. Throughout the fifties and sixties lap times shortened as cars got quicker. Inevitably the danger increased. For example the 1960 GP claimed two British drivers, Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey. Stirling Moss was also injured.

The weather for the 1966 race was awful and Jackie Stewart had a serious accident he was lucky to survive. Having crashed on a remote part of the track he had to rely on fellow competitor Graham Hill to pull him from his car. Jackie has often said that it was this accident that started his campaign for better safety in Formula 1.

Those running Spa made little effort to make the circuit safer and F1 ceased to race on the old circuit in 1970. Sports car racing continued, lap times got quicker still and the death toll mounted. Three drivers died in the 1973 Spa 1000km race. The lap record (that still stands) was set in that era by Pedro Rodriguez in a Porsche 917 at an incredible average speed of over 150 mph.

Finally, in 1978 the old circuit was closed and reconfigured. It was reopened in the shorter form we see today and GP racing returned in 1983. The public roads that bore the old circuit reverted to full time public highways and can be driven today.

You join the old circuit at Les Combes and meander slowly down hill through the village of Burneville. It’s pretty straight and an F1 car would be going very fast as you enter the long right hander at the bottom of the hill. Houses and junctions keep your speed down and it is hard to believe you are on such a notorious circuit.

The long straight between Malmedy and Stavelot is interrupted by the infamous Masta Kink. It’s been tightened in modern times but its old configuration can be seen in the lay – by that sits where the wicked left / right must have terrified drivers in the past. Motorsport’s famous correspondent Dennis Jenkinson used to sit above the Kink and watch and listen to the passing racers to see who could take the Kink flat out and who would lift off. To him it was the ultimate test of a driver.

Just before Stavelot a cambered right hander takes the old circuit back towards Blanchimont and the new circuit. The crumbling Tarmac and flaking Armco at the beginning of this stretch are from the original circuit. Finally, with little traffic and few houses, it is possible to open up the throttle a bit. The road is very straight and its easy to see why the old circuit was so fast. Pretty soon you arrive at some huge gates that mark the point the old circuit joins the new, but for at least a few seconds its possible to imagine how Fangio, Moss, Stewart and Rodriguez must have felt all those years ago.

Below: Masta Kink isn’t what it used to be; Blanchimont gates; Rodriguez’s Porsche 917

20130310-084807.jpg

20130310-084826.jpg

20130310-084840.jpg

Advertisements