Every time I go to Spa-Francorchamps I perform a small ritual. I’m no great believer in such ceremonies and I don’t do it anywhere else, but at Spa I make an exception. I seek out the old circuit and drive down through Burnenville – a never ending curve taken at close to top speed – around the roundabout where Malmedy used to be and onto the Masta straight. Half way along, and just beyond the evil old Masta kink, there is a chip shop, the Masta Friterie no less. The chips are terrible – I expect the dusty exhibits in the Stavelot museum have had their oil changed more recently – but I still buy them, slather them in equally awful mayonnaise, sit outside and lose myself in silent contemplation.
Then they come to me. First it’s usually Pedro and Jo, Rodriguez and Siffert, banging wheels in their John Wyer Porsche 917s, giving and taking no quarter, the hollow howl of their air cooled, 5-litre flat 12 motors ripping the air apart at 200mph. Ickx is next in his Ferrari 312PB, that little jewel of a sports car that only didn’t win every round of the 1972 World Sports Car Championship because Enzo didn’t enter one of them. In qualifying for the 1000km race here in 1973, he lapped the circuit in 3min 12.7sec. Put another way, 45 years ago, driving a car with a normally aspirated engine displacing just 3-litres and despite having to slow to perhaps 40mph for the La Source hairpin, Ickx averaged over 163mph around this place.
But if I stay too long, my mind drifts back to less happy thoughts, to an event that is once more in my head because it happened precisely 55 years ago today. That event was the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix and if you ever wanted a window through which to peer at the hazards of racing at this time, you’ll find none better.
‘What I do know is the essential maths, which is that of the eight British drivers who set out for Belgium to compete in that race, only half returned as planned.’
As Innes Ireland wrote: ‘If you go off the road at speed in Spa, the chances are that you will not get away with it, since all around are trees, houses, ravines and suchlike.’ Yes, that is ravines.
During qualifying the day before, two people had gone off the road, both in Lotuses, both through mechanical failure and neither got away with it. The first was Stirling Moss, who found himself at the wheel of a Lotus 18 rapidly gyrating through Burnenville at 140mph on account of the fact a rear wheel had detached itself due to hub failure. Thrown from the car he broke his nose, both legs and crushed three vertebrae. When Team Lotus checked its other cars, one of Alan Stacey’s hubs was badly cracked and Ireland’s on the point of total failure. Then Michael Taylor flew off the road at Stavelot after the steering of his private Lotus 18 simply sheared, suffering career-ending injuries.
Worse, far worse was to follow. In the race, brave Alan Stacey, so far as I know the only man to race at the top level with a tin leg, crashed at high speed. Some witnesses claimed he lost control after being hit in the face by a bird, others – Innes Ireland including – clinging to the hope this meant he was killed instantly before the car ever left the track, but whatever the cause he was gone.
And so too was Chris Bristow, who lost control of his Cooper at Burnenville in what had been until that awful moment a thrilling battle with the Ferrari of ‘wild’ Willy Mairesse. While Stacey was a steady and conservative driver, Bristow was anything but, and are those who to this day will tell that had he lived he would have been world champion. I have no idea if they are correct.
What I do know is the essential maths, which is that of the eight British drivers who set out for Belgium to compete in that race, only half returned as planned. Stacey and Bristow were gone, and while Moss being Moss would recover to race again, Michael Taylor would not. And Ireland believed that had Stirling not crashed and his hubs checked as a result, he’d have been casualty number five. Formula 1 may be awfully dull at present and, as we have seen, still capable of tragedy, but nothing on remotely this scale for over 20-years, and for that we must all be truly grateful.