A month or so ago I wrote about my dislike of back-to-back Formula 1 grands prix (which you can read here). For me, having races on consecutive weekends rather dilutes the excitement level; I prefer to reflect on an event for a while – allowing the batteries in my overworked ‘Feverometer’ to recharge – before the anticipation starts to build again. A fortnight between doses is fine, thanks very much.
The summer break, however, during which a month of Sundays will have elapsed between GPs, tips the scales the other way – it’s an agonising wait! Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully supportive of the downtime and the precious holiday opportunity it affords F1’s travel-weary staff, but it doesn’t half make you realise how much you miss something when it’s taken away (for a bit too long)…
The F1 circus reconvenes in Belgium this weekend for the 11th race of the year – and how perfectly splendid that it should be happening at the wonderful, long, fast, historic, wooded rollercoaster that is Spa-Francorchamps.
Spa is a shining beacon in a country that doesn’t really rank among the greatest of racing nations – not like Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the USA. Just 20 Belgians have taken part in a world championship grand prix since 1950 and only two, Jacky Ickx and Thierry Boutsen, have tasted the victory champagne (Ickx eight times, Boutsen three).
The track remains a flagship venue in a European heartland of F1 that is coming under increasing threat, with many of the sport’s legendary circuits having already disappeared – or at risk of being axed – from the calendar to make way for fever-free, government-backed projects that don’t cut the purist mustard.
A world away from all that, though, is the majestic Ardennes road course. It simply reeks of old-school, proper racetrack, that only the very best are able to tame. Stand anywhere around the 4.35-mile layout and there’s a haunting, eerie feel to the place.
‘It’s impossible to retrospectively compute the speed once attained around the back. Especially if you visit this weekend armed with the knowledge that Pedro Rodriguez averaged 149.9mph…’
And, of course, all proper race fans on a pilgrimage to Spa should take a trip out around the old loop – last used by grand prix cars in 1970 – that doubled the existing circuit length. Burnenville, Malmedy, Masta Kink, Stavelot: makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up just typing the names. Add them to then-and-now favourites La Source, Eau Rouge, Raidillon, Kemmel, Les Combes and Blanchimont and it’s almost all too much.
It’s impossible to retrospectively compute the speed once attained around the back. Especially if you visit this weekend armed with the knowledge that Pedro Rodriguez averaged 149.9mph to win that final GP on the old circuit in his 3-litre V12 BRM. And that a few weeks before that, his fastest lap aboard the 5-litre, flat-12 Gulf Porsche 917 in the 1000km world sportscar championship race was banged in at an average of 160mph. One hundred and sixty, for crying out loud!
Spa, then, is legitimately one of the original temples of speed, where 47 times since 1950 motorsport’s premier class has tackled its ferocious configuration. That frequency is only outnumbered by Monza (64), Monaco (62) and Silverstone (49) – iconic and important venues all.
The 1.6-litre turbo-hybrid ‘power units’ won’t reverberate off the trees this weekend, and the speed isn’t what it once was, but there’s still an inescapable atmosphere generated by racing cars lapping Spa (as you can see in our Spa Classic coverage here, ed). If you’re a first-timer there this weekend, your extra-sensory perception is sure to catch you out.
Long live Spa-Francorchamps – a refreshing blot on a sanitised landscape.
Photography by Nathanael Majors, Ph-Stop and Mark McArdle