There’s a reason why old racing tracks evoke such emotion in both drivers and spectators. It’s often down to the basic recipe that was used to create so many of them, using a concept diametrically opposite to the politics and over-planning involved in most modern track designs. The main premise was that these tracks were never, in the literal sense of the word, built. They weren’t constructed as dedicated racing venues. They weren’t carved into a virgin landscape, bending nature to the will of a cash-rich series. Tracks like Spa evolved from the earth. The natural topology was embraced, respected and followed.
Road-racing was born in Europe, with France in particular the crucible for early endurance racing. Insanely long courses were laid out using what at the time passed for roads but were often barely-surfaced dirt tracks. Layouts were devised by local automobile clubs with an insatiable thirst to race their new machines, with courses usually plotting routes between towns. Predominantly triangular in shape (vis Le Mans, Tours, Boulogne, Reims and so on), the original Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium follows that same approach.
The course was first laid out in 1921, describing a triangle between the villages of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. Francorchamps occupied the high ground to the north of the other two villages, with a steep valley leading to an intermediate ridge line and then down again to the two other villages in the south. Being the largest local town, Spa was hyphenated into the track’s name for added prestige.
Spa-Francorchamps has always been shorthand for speed. In 1922, two years after the layout was devised using local roads threading their way through the forests, the first proper race was organised by the president of the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium, Henri Langlois van Ophem. Just another two years down the line they decided to emulate what was happening across the border in France and held their own 24-hour race. 90 years later, it’s still going strong. The cars have changed; the track’s challenge and the area’s unpredictable weather patterns definitely have not.
Ophem had also helped define the roads that comprised the lap. And what a lap: 15km of incredibly fast, narrow roads, chosen for their challenging curves and altitude changes. Imagine setting out a track around the roads where you live now – we’ve all done it. I still do! The organising club behind Spa did exactly that at a time when that was the accepted way of creating a racing circuit. Purpose-built facilities were the exception rather than the rule, and usually limited to the enormous banked ovals. After all, why go to the expense of building a road road circuit when you could just use what was already there?
The red line shows the path of the classic track used from 1947; prior to that there was a chicane at Malmedy and a slower section leading into Stavelot (marked blue); the modern GP link is purple.
The track runs through two different styles of environment: the roads through the high ground around Francorchamps (La Carriére, La Source, Eau Rouge, Kemmel) are hemmed in by the Ardennes forests, narrow, sinuous, fast. Trees as barriers.
The southern parts (Burnenville, Malmedy, Masta, Stavelot) open out to flat-out blasts through the countryside. Narrow, long – fast. Sheep for barriers. Drivers have always loved and hated the track in equal measure. At a time when drivers lost their lives as a matter of course, Spa was still considered that much more dangerous.
There was no equal to its challenge, but also no equal to the number of lives it claimed. Local farmers understandably didn’t want to remove the razor-wire fences that kept the livestock in the fields just to help a circuit that was only used a couple of times a year. It was certainly a way of keeping drivers’ focussed, as if they weren’t already.
Barriers were only introduced in the ’70s after strong protests by drivers campaigning for improved safety in Formula 1 – led in particular by Jackie Stewart. Formula 1 drivers had even boycotted the 1969 race at Spa-Francorchamps on safety grounds and F1 would never return to the old Spa.
A complete and utter lack of protection around the track aside, the second problem is that Spa has always been lethal in the wet – something that it’s rather more difficult to legislate against. Difficult now, the sheer scale of the old track and the limited technology of the cars that raced there made things even worse in the ’60s and ’70s, when speeds were reaching dizzying heights and exceeding the limits of tyre and aerodynamic knowledge.
Sportscars ruled the roost around Spa once the F1 cars stopped going there: Jacky Ickx lapped the 14km track in his Ferrari 312PB in a time 3 minutes 12.7 seconds for the 1973 Spa 1000km, a round of the World Sportscar Championship. That meant an average speed of around 165mph – worth remembering when you see the state of the roads further down in this story, which were hardly better at the time.
The thought of 240mph Porsche 917s careering along the long straights is petrifying. As a spectator, you’d want to be watching from a very long way away if you wanted to be safe. A different country perhaps.
This long, 14km circuit was used up until 1979, at which point the modern downhill link was built between Les Combes and Blanchimont and all racing switched to the new configuration – including the return of F1 in 1983. The Bus Stop chicane was then added in 1981 at what had been Clubhouse corner, and the start-line moved to the top straight.
With the commissioning of the new track, the names of the villages that defined the lower reaches of the old Spa were reused – Malmedy became the right-hander after Les Combes; Stavelot is the right before Blanchimont. But we wanted to see the originals, and the evidence that keeps the spirit of the old track alive.
For our Speedhunting drive around the track we were lucky enough to have this Audi S7 to carry all our kit. Up until 2000, the run through Eau Rouge was, as it had been for almost 80 years, an open public road. It’s a mind-blowing concept. The Nürburgring is a public road, but it’s a toll road and effectively a race track termed as a public road. Spa-Francorchamps really was truly open. You really could drive via Eau Rouge on your way to the shops every day.
I bought a car in Germany back in 1999, and headed straight down the autobahn and across the border to Spa. The first thing I found exiting Francorchamps was the road from La Source leading you down, through and up over Eau Rouge (traffic coming in the other direction was filtered off to take the old hairpin extension) and on round the whole of the old track. Eau Rouge was like driving into a vertical cliff. Needless to say I drove it several times. It was a great day.
Now the track is completely closed off, racing or no racing, and traffic is instead rerouted down a small road running parallel the Kemmel Straight improved to provide local access, which rejoins the old track as it sweeps around the original Les Combes corner. So, we would begin our drive of the track there, where the old and new tracks diverge.
But the long circuit started off then as now with the steep downhill run from the La Source hairpin. For the first decade the track took a sharp left as the road crossed an innocuous small stream, Eau Rouge – named for the apparent red colour of the water as it ran over the rocks. From there it ran perpendicular along a hundred yard stretch to an uphill hairpin at an old German customs post and then came back on itself, rejoining the main road at Raidillon just up from where it had diverted off.
This dog-leg was used through the ’20s and ’30s until the eve of the Second World War, when it was removed to create the legendary Eau Rouge/Raidillon combination.
Cars accelerated up the long and upward-sloping Kemmel Straight to the next corner at Les Combes.
This is where the modern circuit diverts off to the right through a right-left-right sequence, as we can see looking back down the track, through Malmedy and on down to the Bruxelles hairpin.
We picked up the original public road from here. The road continued on through a rising left before the meat of Les Combes: a slightly cambered, opening left at the highest point of the track, dropping on exit and with a steep bank falling away on its outside.
This is a feature of the entire course: barriers were non-existent for the majority of the pre-war and immediately post-war period. When things went wrong, stopping was more likely to happen by hitting a tree or by impacting with the ground after driving off the side of a hill than by the ability of your drum-brakes.
The Haute De La Cote esses interrupted the run downhill, a shallow left-right that needed precision driving to negotiate with speed building from the run downhill.
A straight led to the opening part of the long right-hand parabolic curve of Burnenville.
In cars where brakes were virtually useless even into the ’50s, drivers would set up a four-wheel drift to push through this right-hander, which cambered to the apex on entry then to the exterior on exit.
Burnenville seemed to go on for ever. It just kept turning in: you can imagine that 917 driver having to desperately modulate the throttle to keep the car drifting through the corner.
Finally they’d reach the final part where it straightened briefly before the original Malmedy curves.
For the first decade of Spa’s use, Malmedy featured a chicane that branched off the left of the track. This was another section removed from 1930, creating instead a left-right kink, before being reintroduced in 1934 in less severe form and then completely bypassed post-war.
The Masta Straight was next. This was the beginning of a piece of flat-out road that made the Hunaudières/Mulsanne straight at Le Mans look boring by comparison.
Masta stretched out into the distance, the trees giving tunnel vision as the cars would blast down the road, small kinks and bumps throwing the car around and meaning the driver would be struggling to keep the car pointing in the right direction as it powered along at maximum velocity.
Formula 1 racers and sportscars of the ’70s would be reaching 200mph along here, involved in titanic slipstreaming battles down the dangerously narrow straight. Interlocking wheels here just doesn’t bear thinking about.
On and on. Masta just kept going for a mile and a half, edging slightly left or right every couple of hundred yards. The driver just had to keep hanging on, knowing what was coming up could be life or death.
The Masta Kink is still talked about in hushed tones. Farm houses lined the track on either side of this fearsomely fast left-right that was approached at full speed and taken at barely abated velocity. Again, cars would drift through here at around 180mph.
Fail to make it, and at best another banked drop awaited you. Jackie Stewart crashed here in 1966, waking up inside his upside-down BRM in a farmhouse, covered in fuel and with several broken ribs. It’s no wonder that he became involved in improving safety – it’s more surprising that some drivers didn’t share his concerns.
In 1972, Hans-Joachim Stuck warned his co-driver that he should watch out for body-parts at the Masta Kink. Jochen Mass slowed, expecting bodywork debris from a car. It wasn’t that kind of body.
Into the right-hand apex of the Kink and the camber comes back to the car, pulling it down and catapulting it out the other side.
By this stage you were still only just over halfway the way along Masta Kink-interrupted straight section which made up the base of the Spa-Francorchamps triangle.
The other side of the Masta Kink was the mile-plus Holowell Straight leading to the Stavelot corner of the triangle. Again, straight isn’t straight in any way.
But it is long.
Until the late ’30s the track continued on through a right-left of the Holowell Corner into the village of Stavelot itself.
A hairpin then brought the track back round towards Francorchamps, but this section was another piece removed in the post-war rebuild.
Despite the pre-war casualties the track claimed, when the track was re-opened for business in 1947 it was now made even faster. All the previous chicanes and fiddly sections were removed, leaving the La Source hairpin as the only slow corner around a 14km layout. Holowell was changed to a custom-built, banked right: perhaps the only part of the road course to have been constructed specifically for racing.
It’s another place where it’s easy to imagine cars powering through.
Holowell has quite a gradient, and has a very different, deliberate feel to it compared to the natural feeling of the rest of the roads.
Here the 1920s track rejoined on the left, whilst the post-war banking threw the car out and into the next section.
The La Carriére sequence formed the left return of the triangle, taking the circuit all the way back to La Source: a series of fast straights interrupted by crests and fast curves all taken at well over 100mph.
Not much has changed. The house is just a different colour, and they no longer get to enjoy the sound of racing cars right outside their front door.
The next straight crests a rise…
…before arcing left and descending to the next serious corner.
This is a cambered, almost 90-degree left.
On the outside? Trees and a drop, with just a thin ribbon of Armco to stop you meeting nature head-on.
This follows into a shallow right: there’s the chance to get up a few gears along another short straight before the next corner.
The arcing right leads out to a much longer straight.
Then it’s pedal to the floor for the run to Blanchimont.
At this point the road merges with the Grand Prix circuit – or more accurately the Grand Prix track merges with the original road. As if the locked gate and orange warning lights weren’t enough, the howl of racing cars were enough to make it clear that the track was live…
Blanchimont, like the Masta Kink, was a corner that has always demanded respect: this is the exit from Blanchimont, with the track heading towards the old Clubhouse corner – now replaced by various versions of the Bus Stop chicane. The Masta Kink may be lost to racing, but Blanchimont maintains Spa’s reputation: a corner that puts a car on the absolute limit, with any mistake violently punished.
The area where the modern Formula 1 pits now are was just a grassy bank until the ’80s; the track then hooked back round the La Source hairpin and you were back onto another lap of the most amazing road-racing circuit in the world.
Even though Spa retains the love of drivers and fans the world over, just like its near-neighbour the Nürburgring it’s not out of the proverbial woods. Crippling F1 hosting fees along with local opposition groups have created a situation where the track might have to start alternating their Formula 1 round with Hockenheim or the Nürburgring – a terrible situation for these tracks, ones that have such rich racing heritage. On a positive note, Spa-Francorchamps is still one of the rare places where the old and new exist side by side, and where you can soak up the atmosphere. Driving the old track, you can’t help but have even more respect for racing drivers of all eras: racing legends were made around these small roads in a forest in Belgium.