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Sorting the men from the boys at circuit Spa-Francorchamps

You’re riding with F1 driver Jensen Button at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. He’s about to enter Eau Rouge, a combination left-right-left curve taken so fast it almost defies description.

Button exits La Source hairpin and upshifts through the gears. In sixth gear his speed tops 190 mph. Immediately ahead, Eau Rouge opens before him. He feels a tremendous urge to lift fully off the gas. He doesn’t. He lifts but slightly—15 percent according to the onboard telemetry--a five percent drop in power. It’s here where the downhill approach bottoms out and becomes the steep uphill climb that Jensen’s chin is forced down into his chest and his body is compressed 6Gs vertically. With the chassis scrunched down and suddenly feeling very heavy, he’s back on full power using every inch of the left-side curb in order to have a straight run up the hill now suddenly before him.

“Once you’re through the left-hander, you’re lining up to turn right,” says Button. He avoids the curb on the right because it has a rumble strip that will upset his car’s balance. He hits the apex and feels his body now being pulled laterally 5Gs.

Exiting, and now pointed upward, he sees nothing but blue sky. Cresting the rise his car feels feathery light and very twitchy. He cannot see the entry into the approach left turn so he aims for the curb snaking to the left. In a blink of the eye he is through, his speed climbing past 175 mph and back to 190 mph.

“There must be more to tell (about Eau Rouge),” says Button, “but I can’t remember. It’s too fast. It’s something else.”

Spa-Francorchamps has always been something else.

In a world of flat artificial go-kart tracks, it’s a true road course, a throwback to the days when Grand Prix cars competed on public roads. Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher relishes racing at Spa. “It’s one of the few tracks to have been extensively modified over the years without losing its challenging character,” says Schumacher. “No matter how many times you drive it, you always get that tingle.” Alain Prost puts it another way: “Spa sorts the men from the boys.”

No one could have dreamed up such a fast and fearsome circuit. It just sort of evolved over the years—like Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Back in GP racing’s infancy when any linkup of public roads was a candidate for a circuit, a group of Belgian enthusiasts within the RACB (Royal Automobile Club of Belgium) organized a motorcycle race in the Ardennes region of southeast Belgium. The circuit was roughly triangular in shape, connecting the public roads between the villages of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. Spa, the hot-springs town, was not part of the track but it was where the organizing club was based, and since Francorchamps was nearest the pits, they named it Spa-Francorchamps. That was 1921. In 1925 the first Belgian Grand Prix was held and the legend began.

As years passed and public roads became wider and smoother, the circuit became faster. In 1939, the RACB built a road that by-passed the l’Ancienne Douanne hairpin (thus creating Eau Rouge) and the circuit became faster still. In 1950 the hairpin at Stavelot was replaced with a semi-banked right-hander making Spa the fastest road circuit in the world. The first time Graham Hill drove the circuit in an F1 he admitted later to being “absolutely scared stiff. The car kept going faster and faster, and the road seemed to get narrower and narrower, until I just backed off the throttle in a blue funk, went back to the pits and decided that I wasn’t cut out to be a Grand Prix driver after all.”

One bloody weekend in 1960 two drivers were killed and a third—Stirling Moss—hospitalized with two broken legs and three crushed vertebrae. There was some grumbling about driver safety afterwards but nothing compared to the outcry following a similar weekend at Imola 34 years later that took the lives of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. In 1960, talk of driver safety was considered bad form and unsportsmanlike, an attitude best expressed by none other than Stirling Moss who said: “Of course, racing is dangerous. I like it that way. Without danger there wouldn’t be any point to it, really.”

In the 1950s and ‘60s it wasn’t Eau Rouge but Burnenville curve and the Masta Kink that separated the men from the boys. Henry Manny, European editor for Road & Track in the 1960s, would stand behind a barn outside Burnenville curve and listened as F1s started into this long, heart-stopper of a curve. A number of drivers clearly backed off, but a brave few did not, including Moss, Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham. Who impressed most? John Surtees. Manny wrote: “It was thrilling to hear him come down the hill without lifting, scuttle through the curve all laid over and with two wheels on the concrete marker strip on the outside, disappear around the (Malmedy) left-hander and then reappear going down the Masta straight—going on like that for as long as you could hear without the least change in the engine note having taken place until he was to Stavelot, I guess. Marvelous.” Manny also wrote: “Frankly, (Spa) is the most frightening spectacle I have ever seen and every year it takes my breath away.”

Driving a Brabham-Climax, Gurney drove one of his greatest F1 races at Spa in 1964, leading the likes of Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill, until the final lap when incredibly he ran out of gas. He made up for it 1967, coming from behind to win, giving his Eagle-Weslake its first and only championship victory. This was his description of Burnenville: “It’s as intimidating as any corner on any circuit in the world that I’m aware of. You’re going downhill for close to half-a-mile, picking up speed at an enormous rate, arriving at a long 180-degree turn that is very fast. Not only is there no banking but the crown of the road means it slopes down on either side of the pavement, with no (safety) barriers whatsoever. You pass through a village with buildings on both sides and you’re cooking along at about 160 mph or so and if you were to find you were going too fast there was no getting it back. Lose it and you’re going to go off in a big way, go a long way and hit something for sure.”

The Masta Kink was an esse-bend through a Belgian hamlet midway across the Masta Straight. Jackie Stewart, who finished second to Gurney at Spa, said this about it: “You’re doing about 190 mph. To get through this stretch in the fastest possible time you must firmly conquer your instincts to even squeeze gently on the brake pedal. You enter the Kink from the extreme right side of the road and cut across the left-hand corner. This sets the car on a straight line toward the opposite side, where the road bends back to the right. You must take this right-hander so fine that your wheels almost brush the Armco barrier there. It is in doing this and then straightening out the car that the final twinge of terror occurs. You are heading straight for a big red brick house and going so fast that you think this time you’ll never miss it. But the car suddenly comes around just as it reaches the extreme left edge of the road and the house goes zinging by, I swear, not more than a yard away. You come out of the Masta Kink feeling as if you have climbed Everest.”

It was at the Masta Kink during a blinding rainstorm that Stewart went off in a big way, which led to a series of safety enactments that eventually would spell the end for the original Spa circuit. It happened in 1966. The field set off under blue sky but unbeknownst to drivers rain was falling on the lower half of the circuit. John Surtees led through Eau Rouge, around Les Combes at the top of the hill, and down into the valley. Exiting Burnenville he saw a wall of rain advancing toward him. He had but a second to brake and then his Ferrari was skimming on water, the road ahead of him a gray blur. Behind him, the others had less warning still. Denny Hulme, Mike Spence, Jo Bonnier and Jo Siffert all spun and crashed. The rest of the field, including Stewart, slithered through and accelerated gingerly down the Masta Straight. At the Kink, Stewart’s BRM encountered a river of water and aquaplaned straight off the track, hit a telephone pole, knocked down a shed, and came to rest in a ditch beside the road. Behind him, Graham Hill hit the same river and spun in exactly the same way, but as Stewart put it, “there was nothing left for him to hit.

“I ended up lying in the wreck and the people who came to help couldn’t get me out because the steering wheel was bent over wedging me in,” said Stewart. Even worse, the fuel tank had ruptured and was filling the cockpit with gasoline. Stewart’s cotton coveralls became soaked with fuel. Knowing a single spark would end his life horribly, he waited 30 minutes while others went searching for a wrench to loosen the wheel nut and release him. A wrench was finally found in the trunk of a spectator’s car.

“Bob Bondurant and Graham Hill were the guys who got me out,” says Stewart. “To show you how poor the medical facilities were then, I was placed on the floor of a Cadillac ambulance—along with the cigarette butts. The ambulance was then given a police escort to Liege Hospital, but the escort lost the ambulance, which didn’t know the way to the hospital. Ridiculous!”

From that moment on, Stewart waged a one-man war to radically improve driver safety. At a minimum these were needed, said Stewart: onboard fire extinguishers activated by high temperature or impact; foam-filled fuel bladders to prevent fuel surge and leakage from impact; dump valves that closed fuel lines should a car flip over; a well-braced rollbar that actually cleared the driver’s helmet; safety harnesses and flameproof coveralls; and at every racing venue a fully-equipped mobile first-aid station and operating theater. By 1969, these were all mandatory, but for Stewart they didn’t go far enough. “I want Spa stopped,” he said. “Even if guardrails were put up all the way around the circuit, the track would still be dangerous because of the high speeds we achieve on it. It only takes a puff of wind to put one’s car off course, and at that speed it’s like a missile hurtling straight into the crowd.”

The GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers’ Association) voted to boycott the circuit in 1969 and again in 1971, despite considerable expense by the promoters to make the circuit safe. In 1972, the Belgian Grand Prix moved north, first to Nivelles, then to Zolder, to circuits that were short, safe, boring.

Racing continued at Spa-Francorchamps in the 1970s, notably the 1000-Kilometer for sports cars and the 24-Hour endurance for touring cars. By then most of the circuit’s 8.76-miles was enclosed with Armco barriers, but as Stewart pointed out it still wasn’t safe. In 1973, three drivers were killed in the 24-Hour touring car event. The end was near. In 1975, the last sports car race was run.

That might have been the end for Spa-Francorchamps had it not been for the tireless effort to save it by Jacky Ickx and l’Intercommunale du Circuit (the circuit’s governing body). Ickx had been the one Grand Prix driver not to side with Stewart and quit the GPDA in protest when it boycotted the 1971 race. It seemed ironic therefore that he would be the one to save Spa by changing it to make it safer. Being a Belgian and a respected public figure, he was probably the only person who could bring it off.

Ickx proposed shortening the circuit, thereby eliminating two of its most dangerous curves—Burnenville and the Masta Kink; modernizing and relocating the pits; constructing lockup garages; in short, making the necessary changes to return F1 racing to southeast Belgium. He lobbied both local and state government for funding. It must have been a first-class job of lobbying, because in 1977 grounding-breaking began. In 1979, the circuit reopened, shorter, safer, and definitely not boring. Cost: $15 million.

It was a new generation of F1 drivers that arrived at Spa-Francorchamps in 1983 for the return of the Belgian Grand Prix. Most of them had never raced on the old circuit, but knew of its fearsome reputation.

“It was magic,” says Eddie Cheever about F1’s return. “Whatever sport you’re in, you always hear the old stories when you’re coming up, and some of the best were about Spa. When they opened it, we went there to race, and it was very, very difficult. It’s the greatest road circuit in the world that I’ve ever driven on.”

At 4.32-miles, the new circuit was half the length of the old circuit. Lap speeds were down—from 151 mph in 1970, to 124 mph.

Eau Rouge had been straightened somewhat as part of the changes, making it faster, a sixth-gear turn difficult to get absolutely right. In the second timed session, it rained, and the turbo drivers struggled with traction while the non-turbo drivers were quickest, led by Keke Rosberg’s Williams-Cosworth. Then Cheever in a turbo Renault found the perfect line through Eau Rouge and turned in the quickest time, fully five seconds faster than Rosberg. On race day it was Cheever’s teammate Alain Prost who won. Cheever finished third, making podium. In 1986 he got his victory at Spa behind the wheel of a sports car in the 1000-Kilometer.

In the 1950s and 60s the King of Belgium presented the de Tornaco Challenge Cup to the driver who won twice-in-a-row at Spa. Three drivers won it: Alberto Ascari (1952-3), Juan Fangio (1954-55), and Jimmy Clark. In fact, Clark won four-in-row (1962-5), two in a driving rain storm. Ironically, he hated the place. “I’ve lost too many good friends there,” he said. Alas, the de Tornaco Challenge Cup is no longer awarded, but several drivers have proven worthy. Since the changes, two drivers in particular have dominated: Ayrton Senna, with five wins including four-in-a row (1985, 1988-91), and Michael Schumacher, with six wins (1992, 1995-97, 2001-02). Damon Hill shined there as well, with three wins (1993-94, 1998), and more recently, Kimi Raikkonen with two-in-a-row (2004-5).

Nothing stays the same. Among the old, storied Grand Prix venues, the Nurburgring has been replaced by a short, bland cookie-cutter circuit. Reims is no more. Monza has been bottled up with a multitude of chicanes, and Monaco is perhaps too narrow and too confined for today’s high-tech machines. Only Spa-Francorchamps is what it has always been, a true driver’s circuit, a place where the very best demonstrate why they are the very best.

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