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Stay tuned for podcast 372 Clark and Steve talk Spa and Motorsports Mondial.
The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is the venue of the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix and the Spa 24 Hours endurance race. It is also home to the 25 Hours of Spa, run by the Uniroyal Fun Cup. It is considered to be one of the most challenging race tracks in the world, mainly due to its fast, hilly and twisty nature. Spa is a favourite circuit of many racing drivers and fans.
Designed by Jules de Their and Henri Langlois Van Ophem, the original triangle-shaped course used public roads between the Belgian towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. The Belgian Grand Prix was held at Spa-Francorchamps for the first time in 1924. The old Spa circuit was essentially a speed course with drivers managing much higher average speeds than on other race tracks- a factor that made Spa very popular from the start of its inception and opening.
The previous 14km track layout
Back then, the Belgians took pride in having a very fast circuit, and to improve average speeds, the former slow uphill U-turn at the bottom of the Eau Rouge creek valley, called the Ancienne Douane, was cut short with a faster sweep straight up the hill, called the Raidillon. Until 2000, it was possible to travel over the race track when it was still a public road. At Eau Rouge, southbound traffic was allowed to use the famous uphill corner, while the opposite downhill traffic had to use the old road and U-turn behind the grand stands, rejoining the race track at the bottom of Eau Rouge.
The old race track continued after Les Combes towards Burnenville, passing this village in a fast right hand sweep. Near Malmedy, the Masta straight begins, which is only interrupted by the fast Masta Kink between farm houses before arriving at the town of Stavelot.
The Masta Kink was one of the most fearsome sections on any race track in the world, requiring skill and bravery in equal measure to get it right. After a long run from Malmedy, the cars would reach top speed before having to negotiate Masta, a high speed left-right chicane, and a good exit speed was vital as it is followed by another long straight run to Stavelot.
That Masta was lost to F1 racing after the 1970 race was partly its own fault. Jackie Stewart’s crusade to improve safety in racing was set in motion by his crash there in 1966, when his BRM ended upsidedown in the cellar of the farmhouse on the outside of the corner, with fuel gushing out of the tank onto Stewart, who had broken ribs to add to his misery.
The original 15km Spa layout
Another particularly gruesome story comes from the 1972, 24 hour touring car race during which three drivers were killed. During one of his pitstops at night, Hans-Joachim Stuck shouted to his co-driver Jochen Mass over the noise that he should "look out for body parts at the Masta Kink". Mass arrived there expecting to see bits of car all over the road but was appalled to discover it was in fact bits of a marshal.
After Masta, and at the end of the subsequent Holowell Straight, there used to be a sharp hairpin at the entrance to the town itself, which was later bypassed by a quicker, banked right hand corner. Another fast section of road in the forest leads to Blanchimont. Here, the new short Grand Prix track of 1979 joins the old layout.
Eighteen Formula One World Championship Grands Prix were run on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit’s original configuration, which was boycotted by F1 in 1968, before the revised circuit banished it to the history books in the late 70s. The lap record of the old triangle-shaped track is held by the French driver Henri Pescarolo, at an average speed of 262 km/h (163 mph).
The most famous part of the circuit is the Eau Rouge / Raidillon combination. Having negotiated the La Source hairpin, drivers race down a straight to the point where the track crosses the Eau Rouge stream for the first time, before being launched steeply uphill into a sweeping left-right-left collection of corners with a blind summit. Properly speaking, the Eau Rouge corner is only the left-hander at the bottom. The following right-hander that leads steeply uphill, which was introduced in 1939 to shortcut the original hairpin "Ancienne Douane", is called "Raidillon". The corner requires a large amount of skill from the driver to negotiate well and the long straight ahead often produces good overtaking opportunities for the best drivers at the Les Combes corner.
As former F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso explains: "You come into the corner downhill, have a sudden change [of direction] at the bottom and then go very steep uphill. From the cockpit, you cannot see the exit and as you come over the crest, you don’t know where you will land. It is a crucial corner for the timed lap, and also in the race, because you have a long uphill straight afterwards where you can lose a lot of time if you make a mistake. But it is also an important corner for the driver’s feeling. It makes a special impression every lap, because you also have a compression in your body as you go through the bottom of the corner. It is very strange – but good fun as well."
The challenge for drivers has always been to take Eau Rouge-Raidillon flat out. Regular touring cars can take the corner at 160–180 km/h, Formula One at over 300 km/h.This is due to the huge amount of downforce on the cars. World Champion Jacques Villeneuve once spoke of the effects of the downforces (in 1996, when they were much less than they are today) saying that to get through the corner they have to go faster as the faster the car is going the more downward force there is, thus explaining the phenomenon of Eau Rouge flat out. The years between 1989 and 1993 were arguably the last period where only the most able drivers were able to take the corner flat out, with those of lesser ability having to lift. Taking the corner flat out in a Formula One car is now the norm, thanks to modifications made to the circuit, and the high downforce of modern Formula One cars.
Still, a loss of control in this section often leads to very heavy shunt as usually the rear-end of the car is lost and the impact is most of the times lateral. Eau Rouge has claimed several victims over the years, including Stefan Bellof in a Porsche sportscar, Guy Renard during the 24h of Spa-Francorchamps in 1990 in a Toyota Corolla GT and also caused Alex Zanardi’s in 1993 and Jacques Villeneuve’s spectacular off in qualifying in 1999, which he described as "My best-ever crash", followed by his team-mate Ricardo Zonta’s similar accident, leading cartoonist Jim Bamber to show BAR boss Craig Pollock telling Zonta: "Jacques is the quickest through Eau Rouge, so go out there and do exactly what Jacques does…"
Following the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994, the following F1 races saw the introduction of chicanes made of piles of tyres. The entry to Eau Rouge was obstructed in such a way in 1994, although it was returned to its previous glory the following year. The corner was slightly modified for 2002, but still retains its character.
Testimony to the fame and beloved character of the Eau Rouge corner can be found in fan reaction to the Istanbul Park circuit in Istanbul, Turkey. When fans first got to see the course configuration at the start of the weekend of the 2005 Turkish Grand Prix, many noted that an uphill kink on the back straight was very similar to Eau Rouge; many jokingly dubbed the kink "Faux Rouge" (a pun on the name of the original Spa corner using the French word "faux", meaning "false").
The Blanchimont turn is one of the most fearsome turns in Formula One. This high-speed left-hand turn, present in both the old 14 km circuit and the new, shorter, 7 km track, is the final sweeping corner of the track before the Bus Stop chicane, which leads to the pit straight.
This turn and the approach to it have caused serious accidents over time, the most recent being in 2001, when Luciano Burti lost the front wing of his Prost due to a clash with Eddie Irvine’s Jaguar, losing front downforce and steering, leaving the track at 185 mph (298 km/h) and piling into the tire wall, the impact knocking him out and burying the car into a mound of tires. Problems have also occurred in lower classes of racing with Tom Kristensen having a very violent crash in a Formula 3000 car in 1997 after running wide on the entry to the Blanchimont turn and subsequently hitting the wall effectively throwing the monocoque back out in the middle of the track, where it was hit by numerous cars before coming to a complete halt.
The run-off area is narrower than in other turns taken at this speed, plus the fact that behind the protective barriers there is a 7-8 meter drop. This is the first turn taken by the cars after the new track rejoins the route of the old 14 km track. Blanchimont was also the scene where in 1992 after Erik Comas had crashed heavily during Friday’s session, Ayrton Senna stopped, disembarked his car and sprinted to help the injured driver, with other cars driving past at racing speeds.