From the immaculate lawns and blazing sunshine of the south of France to the rolling, forested hills and ominous clouds of the Ardennes in Belgium: once again, the weekend’s FIA GT1 venue couldn’t be more of a contrast from the previous round. So far this year it’s been desert to airfield-as-building-site and then country park to country club; the inaugural FIA GT1 World Championship has now hit Spa in Belgium for the fifth round of the series. The Nissan GT-Rs of the British Sumo Power team are riding a wave – quite literally here at Spa – after five consecutive podium finishes and looking to continue to their run of success.
Spa is one of those tracks. The ones that send shivers down the spines of petrol-heads. Not just famous, but as the sign at the entrance says: ‘The Myth. The Legend’. It’s more than just a sequence of corners linked together by straights, and you can sense that as soon as you arrive at the circuit entrance It has an aura. In fact, saying ‘corners’ is fair, but straights? The only really straight straight is Kemmel, which leads up to the high point of the circuit after Eau Rouge; every other straight is far from that. Combined with the constant gradient changes it’s what makes Spa such a challenge.
Things have changed since I was here with Rod in 2005 for the Spa Six Hours endurance race for classic sportscars. Since then the top pit-lane has been razed, raised and raged against for the F1 visit, and the Bus Stop chicane twice remodelled. But Eau Rouge? Eau Rouge is still there, still inspiring awe – the red water running through a tunnel underneath the apex of the corner at the bottom of the hill gives the corner its name.
For once the GT1 cars are not the headline act: that goes to the 24 Hours race which will run run round the clock from 4pm from Saturday afternoon. The GT1 cars have been bumped from this year’s running, which instead comprises GT2, -3 and -4 class cars. But let’s face it, the GT1s still deliver the best sensory experience. The close confines of the forest multiplies the ferocity and speed of the cars, and the bellow of the Corvette is particularly at home in this wild environment.
The 24 Hours race meant that not only was the entire schedule pushed forward a day, but that the GT1 teams were spread out down the F1 pit-lane, interspersed with their GT2, 3 and 4 ‘little brothers’. There might be a little bit more space between teams, but the pit-lane was just as packed and dangerous as ever.
The Spa 24 Hours is one of the big three classic European endurance races along with Le Mans in France and Germany’s Nurburgring: following a run as a touring car race in the ’80s and ’90s it changed to GTs in 2001 and was run with GT1s and GT2s until this year. The multi-class field brings plenty of variety in terms both manufacturers and speeds, so it’s going to make the race exciting! John Brooks has pulled the golden ticket/short straw (delete depending on weather), so he’ll be posting up more details on the preparations for the 24 Hours soon.
The reason for Spa’s having its own wildly unpredictable weather system is its location: it runs up hills and down valleys deep in the Ardennes, each of which apparently has a separate climate. Scorching sun on the pit-lane? You can pretty much guarantee it’s raining at Les Combes…
The biggest question at Spa – next to ‘can you take Eau Rouge flat’ (which is the equivalent of questioning a driver’s masculinity) is ‘what the hell is the weather going to do?’. But here in the Ardennes, even the weather doesn’t know what the weather is doing. Clouds hang out on the peripheral hills around the track, just waiting for the unwary snapper to take off the rain covers. The lesson? Don’t. The weather gods will punish you.
Of course, trying to see positives in all this, rain means interesting shots – less fiddling with dials and more actually looking at cars. Even the chimpers are temporarily forced to look up rather than down for a bit. Look! A car! Apparently trying to burrow its way into the base of the Eau Rouge.
Everyone watches the sky and wonders. But no one actually knows…
So. Eau Rouge. The classic corner. The reason that Spa is the myth and the legend. It’s just crazy. It must be like driving into a wall. In fact, I know it is like driving into a wall, having driven my beloved new Alfa Gtv down and up through Eau Rouge just hours after I’d picked it up from Germany, back in ’99. In those days all this section was still public road right up until Les Combes where the new circuit peeled off to the right: one continued on the insane old track layout. Now you’re taken off on a side road and the whole track is closed to public traffic.
Terrifying in the dry, I can’t imagine what it’s like in the wet. You must just close your eyes and hope. The spray during Free Practice was enormous, but even more ominous was that the rain made the tyre stripes on Eau Rouge stand out from where people hadn’t made it… Those ones are going to hurt.
Whatever the conditions, the cars have to go out. The crew pull down their balaclavas that little bit tighter, take a deep breath and step out of the nice, warm, dry garage. The drivers dive into the cars and try to keep their exposure to the rain to a minimum.
Although there are no intermediate tyres allowed in GT1, tyre choice for the day was hardly a difficult decision. If I was a GT1 engineer, I’d add stabiliser wheels to the car. And a rudder. And a periscope.
Then it’s time to get out there.
600hp. A mean crocodile underneath you.
Sometimes you take your friends with you for confidence. I’m not sure it’s politeness that makes one car go out first: you need every guide possible to help see where the grip is. If it’s your team-mate, all the better.
The Ford GTs have stepped up to the fiery plate, to join the Lamborghinis and Maseratis with flaming over-runs.
In fact, even the side exhaust cars were throwing out flamers on braking: a change of fuel mixture perhaps, or maybe just more heavy braking from higher top speeds.
Runs completed the cars slithered back into the pits. Despite the Free Practice session being an hour and twenty minutes, no one completed more than 20 or so laps and most opted for a dozen between drivers.
Races at Spa always get a good crowd, particularly for French and Dutch fans for the 24 Hours as it’s ideally located between the two countries. On the outside of the track the food stalls and entertainments were already getting set for the weekend influx, but even on the Thursday and despite the weather there was a healthy number of spectators.
Staying in the top triangle between the Bus Stop to the La Source hairpin and down to Eau Rouge, there are good views to be had for spectators, even through the fences.
With GT1’s practice over it was the turn of the 24 Hours competitors to take to the track: their garage space extended along the top F1 pit-lane with the GT1s, round the corner and down into the old endurance pits and then into the two extensions: the lower garages look, it has to be said, pretty horrible to have to run a car for 24 hours out of. They would have two sessions into the dark, setting the grid for the weekend’s marathon. Next up for GT1 would be qualifying – and then the races!