Freelance writer from Cornwall
‘Le Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps’ or, to fans and drivers alike, simply ‘Spa.’ The fans love it, the drivers love it. First opened in the early 1920’s it’s still a Grand Prix track (albeit in smaller, less lethal form). It’s hosted great races, famous teams and legendary drivers through its long and illustrious history. It’s made many great names and created many legends.
It’s also claimed many lives…
Today’s fans and drivers will know and love the famous corners like Eau Rouge’, ‘La Source’ and ‘Blanchimont.’ Older fans and drivers will remeber now-forgotten corners. Holowell, Stavelot, Club House and, most dreaded of all, the feared and fearsome Masta Kink. If you go along today’s Spa to Les Combes corner you’ll come to a set of barriers and a fork leading onto the new circcuit. Go beyond the barriers without taking the fork and you’re going along the old Spa that made so many legends and claimed so many lives.
In the early days of Grand Prix before the Second World War there was competition between teams and drivers. There was also an informal competition between three of the great circuits of the time for the unofficial title of the fastest circuit in Europe. Spa, Monza and the French Grand Prix track at Reims vied annually to have the fastest average speed for a single lap and they all did whatever they could to win their little side-bet. Monza had the dreaded ‘Monza banking’ which made Indianapolis look level, drivers went round at up to 200mph and had only a single small crash barrier around the top edge to stop anybody from shooting over the top, flying up to fifty or sixty feet into the air and then landing in a flaming, tangled wreck at ground level. Organisors at Reims altered the circuit layout to increase top speeds and even bought several house around the circuit, knocked them down and changed the circuit to make it faster. Not safer, but faster. Spa used existing public road, as did Reims, and the layout was chosen especially to make the track as fast as possible.
Safety simply wasn’t an issue.
Reims used an 8-mile street circuit, Monza could be used in a variety of configurations, either a high-speed banked oval, the standard race circuit or a combination of the two. Monza in the 1950’s was so fast and so dangerous that even then drivers and teams had started to boycott the track on a semi-regular basis. Spa was around 8 miles long and contained a greater assortment of hazards than Reims and Monza put together although all of them had their particularly deadly sections..Reims had one especially feared corner, the ‘Courbe Gueux’, unofficially known as the ‘Courbe du Calvaire or simply ‘Calvary.’ The reason being that you entered it at over 160mph even during the 1950’s, it had drainage ditches running either side of it, a concrete marshal’s post on the outside of the fastest part and was a death-trap. If you made a mistake then you were crucified, you’d almost certainly die. Hence the name. Monza had its banking to provide an unscheduled and invariably fatal launch pad for any driver making a mistake.
Spa was home to Grand Prix, sportscar races such as the Spa 24 Hours (first held in 1924, the year after the first Le Mans 24 Hours), the Spa 1000kms for sportscars, motorcycle Grand Prix were held there and even sidecar races were willing to risk going through Eau Rouge and the Masta Kink flat-out. It was a 14-kilometre, ultra-high speed blast through the Ardennes, considered by drivers to be one of the circuits that sorted the best from the rest (sometimes fatally). It was at Spa in 1966 that Sir Jackie Stewart suffered the worst shunt of his career. As a result of his serious injuries and the tragi-comic safety and medical care (or stunning lack thereof) arranged by the organisors, he took on with a fury the challenge of introducing increased safety into a sport that was becoming ever-more dangerous. Spa has taken many lives, but Sir Jackie Stewart’s safety campaign has undoubtedly saved many more.
For safety Reims and Monza were bad. Spa was even worse. It was dangerous enough that it took its first victim, British motorcycle racer Bill Holowell, in the early 1920’s after which the corner where he died was named after him.It had trees, buildings, valleys and barbed wire fences running right next to the sides of the road and the layout provided average speeds for a single lap of over 170mph by the time of the last Grand Prix on the old circuit, held in 1970 After the 1970 Grand Prix the drivers boycotted the place. It was just too dangerous, between 1960 and 1969 ten drivers had died there with five of them dying in the previous two years alone. It had taken some of the best drivers of their time. In 1939 Richard Seaman burnt to death at Clubhouse Corner. In 1958 Archie Scott Brown did the same. In 1960 two Grand Prix drivers, Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow, died within laps of each other. In 1972 touring car drivers and sportscar aces Hans-Joachim Stuck and Jochen Mass were warned over their in-car radio to watch for body parts at the Masta Kink. They were expecting parts of a car and were horrified to see parts of an unfortunate track marshal. Mass drove back to the pits with blood all over his car.
The Masta Kink was one of the most feared corners in racing, period. By 1970 Jackie Stewart went through it at 176mph. By 1973’s Spa 1000km sportscar race 6-time Le Mans-winner Jacky Ickx set the all-time lap record for the old circuit, covering the 14.1 kilometers in 3: 12.7s. 14 kilometres in little over 3 minutes with an average speed of 165mph, with the organisors having done almost nothing to imrpove safety except when forced to, showed that Spa was out of its time. The cars had simply outgrown the track.
The layout wasn’t the only problem. Belgium isn’t the best country in the world if you like sunshine and dry roads. You can be cruising along in bright sunshine and suddenly find yourself wreathed in mist and driving through a cloudburst. The sheer length of the track at 14 kilometres meant that drivers could expect a long wait before anybody came to see if they’d survived a crash. There was no on-site medical facility for injured drivers and even if an ambulance could be summoned then it was more than likely they wouldn’t know the way to the nearest general hospital which was miles away in Liege Firefighting consisted of some marshals in ordinary street clothes (no fireproof clothing) with some ordinary fire extinguishers. There were never enough extinguishers to cope with a major fire and they were of the wrong type to properly put out a fuel fire anyway. If you had a major crash then, if the circuit layout or the weather didn’t prove fatal, and you weren’t either burnt to death or crushed inside your car, then the lack of basic safety and medical care quite likely would.
By 1979 increasing concerns spelled the end of the road for the original Spa. It was simply too fast and too dangerous. The organisors often did as little as they could get away with to improve safety but, to be fair, with old street circuits there isn’t usually much that can be done which also forced the demise of the Nurbrurgring Nordschleife and the ‘Charade’ circuit at Clermont-Ferrand as Grand Prix venues. It wasn’t just that the organisors didn’t do enough to improve safety, it was also that there was only so much that could be done to the original circuit in the first place.
After 1970, Grand Prix racing didn’t return to the track until 1979. The new Spa was a superb example of how some old tracks can be made shorter and safer without losing all their original character. The current Spa still has 21 corners like the old circuit. It’s about half the length, but it’s still got some of the legendary corners like Eau Rouge and La Source, it still retains not only parts of the old Spa but also lots of the old Spa’s character as well. The shorter circuit length makes marshalling and accident response faster and easier, so safer for the drivers and it’s been done without turning one of the great names of Grand Prix racing into some anodyne, safety-obsessed snore-a-drome like the new Nurburgring (less than affectionately nicknamed the ‘Ersatzring’ by its detractors).
So, if you’re at the Spa 24 Hours right now or you’re considering visiting Spa in the future then why not drive down to the barriers by Les Combes and see what you find. The new circuit leads off into Spa’s future, hopefully a long one. The old road leads off into the forest and Spa’s past, its legends, dangers, triumphs and tragedies. If nothing else it’s an interesting glimpse of what racing’s legends faced when winning was everything and dying was just an occupational hazard.
Go on, you know you want to…