McLaren runs through the Ardennes at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Hoch Zwei

Belgium is a country that has always been fought over, as two World Wars in just the last century would highlight, writes Iain Robertson. Yet, in more peaceful times, it has become the centre of Europe in governmental terms, not dissimilar to Washington DC providing a central administration to The United States of America. In some ways, the fighting continues, not least on the seven kilometres of tarmac ribbon that courses through the Belgian countryside, although it has settled down a lot in recent years.

// A Drive Through The Ardennes

Driving and Spa have held close links since the dawn of the motorcar. Fans of rallying might be aware of the Spa-Sofia, Spa-Rome, Boucles de Spa, parts of the Tulip Rally and other long-distance, endurance events that took place on Belgian roads. Quite what the link is that exists between Belgium and motorcars is actually hard to define but, as Belgium has a tendency to act as a ‘bridge’ between other countries of Europe, perhaps it is no deeper than that.

The town of Spa and the village of Francorchamps, which is adjacent to the modern circuit have combined to provide the name of the venue. However, the circuit itself has witnessed innumerable alterations over the years. The first Circuit des Ardennes, of 1902, was among the very earliest of ‘closed’ venues, operating at a time, when most racing events started in one town and progressed through a series of endurance tests to another, thus providing a basis for modern rallying.

The first major circuit started as a 53.5 miles triangular loop along local highways. It was subsequently extended to a massive 73.4 miles, which must have provided a genuine trial for all of the competing entries, both mechanically and physically. Jules de Their arrived at a more agreeable compromise, when he created the first proper circuit at Spa-Francorchamps.

While retaining the triangular outline, it used parts of the local geography, much of which is covered by the Ardennes Forest, that remain nominally crucial to today’s venue. The route coursed downhill from Francorchamps into the Eau Rouge valley, before charging uphill to the peaks of the Les Combes hills. It continued to weave its way through the village of Burnenville, taking the road to Malmedy. From there, it ran back downhill to Masta and Stavelot, passing through the small settlement at Blanchimont, before returning to Francorchamps.

In 1904, it became the base for the Spa 24 Hours and myriad additional racing challenges, although the first Grand Prix did not take place at Spa until 1925. Naturally, the venue’s reputation warranted a major name turn-out and the likes of Carraciola, Nuvolari and Ascari ensured that the circuit lived up to its image. However, it was still a long circuit and as speeds built, in coming years, it developed a rather more tragic reputation, which proved to be as much a draw for spectators, as it did for the drivers, who perceived the challenge of driving at Spa to be every bit as dangerous as the very sport in which they loved to compete.

// CUTTING THE ODDS

 The Second World War intervened, which stopped racing, as the entire area became central to The Battle of the Bulge, a major German assault against the Allied Forces, which lasted from mid-December 1944 until late-January 1945. The US effort to contain and defeat the German forces subsequently was immense. General George Patton was instrumental in ending the month-long and bloody offensive, which would confound Hitler’s plans and would lead to the conclusion of the unpleasantness.

Although a lot of rebuilding proved necessary, the Belgian circuit was reinstated by 1947 and racing recommenced. However, the pre-war fears of the occasionally dangerous and immensely challenging roads of the area were realised. Considering the narrowness of some sections and the close proximity of ditches, farms and properties, telegraph poles and the tree-lined avenues along its length, accidents were inevitable. Fatalities increased, as speeds went up and it was race marshals and spectators that were also becoming part of the statistics.

Even Stirling Moss, renowned for his more judicious approach, was seriously injured in a major accident. Following a number of unfortunate deaths, the Belgian GP was relocated to the featureless and unchallenging circuit at Nivelles, which was closer to Brussels and considered easier to reach by both competing teams and spectators. Changes needed to be introduced at Spa, which was now around eight miles in lap length.

A new shorter section was built to link the road at Les Combes to the Blanchimont roadway across the valley. It had the effect of reducing the more challenging and significantly longer road route to a lap distance not far off that of today’s Spa circuit. It was what greeted competitors in the 1983 Belgian GP.

However, the venue has courted controversy extensively over the years. Thanks to its location, the weather plays an important part in its suitability for front-line motorsports. It is not unknown for glorious sunshine to bathe the start-finish line and the paddock area, while torrents of rain leave small boating lakes for the cars to contend with diametrically across the valley. This situation has always posed immense issues for the tyre companies, more on which momentarily. Such wild and variable weather characteristics can also lead to other problems, such as when the circuit surface started to break up in 1985, which caused the event to be rescheduled until later that season.

Cigarette advertising has also created major local issues for the sport’s administrators. While it was always recognised that the tobacco companies possessed huge annual profits that they were prepared to spend lavishly on drivers, cars, teams and venues, the Belgian political desire to link unhealthy smokable materials with the ultra-health consciousness of Formula One was not exactly prevalent. Spa was among the first of the circuits in the World Championship to remove its ‘ciggy’ hoardings….under protest from outsiders.

Yet, nothing could diminish the respect that the drivers held for the venue. The vast majority of them, over the years, have fallen in love with the location, for its sheer beauty, apart from anything else. Ironically, despite unleashing thousands of horsepower between the trees, the air quality (pre- and post-event) is simply stunning. The change of gradients and the unique nature of Spa’s several bends have all garnered Formula One racers’ support and the atmosphere around the circuit has to be experienced to be believed.

// SOME WINNERS, SOME LOSERS

Among the several Champions that have claimed recent records at Spa-Francorchamps are the late-great Ayrton Senna, who claimed no less than five victories in eight years, a target to Michael Schumacher, who managed four wins in just six years. Michael has been particularly supportive of the circuit, declaring it to be as engaging as the original Nurburgring, which is around an hour distant, and possessing the uniquely enthralling Eau Rouge corner, which is one of the most exciting in the world.

However, tyre wars have always been prevalent and, when race teams seek somebody to blame for a ‘loss of success’, it is the tyre firms that get it in the neck. Spa’s micro-climate certainly does not help the situation. Long-time television viewers of the F1 Championship may recall one rain-sodden race start in 1998, which has entered the record books as one of the most expensive or costly of them all.

No less than thirteen cars were knocked-out as they headed for Eau Rouge. The resultant melee of wheels rolling downhill, wheel-less tubs skidding helplessly after them and a scene of destruction that had not been witnessed in the area since 1945 hit international news headlines. It appeared that a start-line error by David Coulthard, led to his car being collected by a hard-charging Eddie Irvine and the chain sequence commenced. Amazingly, Mika Hakkinen, Michael Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella escaped, along with the pairs of Jordan and Williams cars.

Fortunately, spare cars were assembled hurriedly and all but a couple of them made the restart just thirty minutes later. Yet, the issues related to tyre selection are substantial. The modern circuit demands medium-grade down-force but high levels of mechanical grip. Although the track surface is surprisingly smooth, a factor for which most of the drivers are highly grateful, as constant rattling from surface imperfections can lead to tremendous fatigue, wear is not a major issue. However, high levels of lateral G-forces mean that sidewall construction is critical.

Interestingly, while today’s F1 cars are fairly intolerant of standing water, Spa drains quite well…apart from those areas, where water runs across the circuit, as it can do at Eau Rouge and in the dip at Pouhon (on the ‘new’ section). Even at this stage of preparation for the weekend’s race, the long-range forecast suggests that rain is probable.

According to Pirelli Tyre, as the drivers are at or close to full-throttle for almost 75% of the average lap, managing the tyre temperatures can become crucial, most especially if an aggressive camber set-up is introduced to maximise lateral grip. With some severe changes of camber on-track, ride height is also carefully monitored, because no team wants to damage the boards beneath the cars, tyre compression making up around 50% of a typical F1 car’s suspension movement. This is never more noticeable than at the infamous Eau Rouge, where each front tyre is subjected to maximum peak vertical loads of around 1,000kgs.

// A LAP OF SPA

From the cockpit of a single-seat racing car, the start-line at Spa can seem quite daunting, not least, despite the wall of Armco barrier that is sited just after the wondrous hairpin right-hand bend of La Source, because of the line of trees that disappears directly ahead. As this used to be, until fairly recently, part of the main roads complex upon which the Belgian GP used to take place, there are innumerable clues remaining of the circuit’s history.

Following a burst of full-throttle, the grid never obtains an opportunity to settle down prior to La Source, which means that start-line and first corner mishaps can be in abundance. Fortunately a fairly wide, tarmac run-off area exists to the left and it is without doubt that the circuit Judges Of Fact will be monitoring its use quite closely, after the race gets underway.

Having negotiated La Source, the downhill run to Eau Rouge commences, with the pit-lane exit appearing off to the right hand side of the circuit. The red and tint-glazed pit lane garages extend down this section of track. As ever, the paddock area is very tight and available space is at a premium. There is a slight kink to the right, en-route to Eau Rouge, which demands little more than a thought-transferred motion from the front tyres.

However, Eau Rouge presents its first major geographical feature to the drivers, in that their downhill approach speeds can be extraordinarily high, yet, as Schumacher describes it, there is a flick left-right-left and what appears to be a mountain directly ahead. Dicing in this area can be fraught with problems. However, with gritted teeth and showing no fear, the car will drift towards the right of the circuit on the exit of Eau Rouge in readiness for the clamber up Radaillon.

It is a remarkably steep hill, demanding every ounce of torque from the straining engine, with a slight kink right at its crest, as it becomes the Kemmel Straight, which climbs insistently to the Les Combes complex at its conclusion. Hard on the brakes, watching for rivals prepared to ride the kerbs, the near 90-right, 90-left and 90-right again constitute three of the toughest corners on any circuit. Very few drivers ever get them right consistently and, by this point, it having been dry at the start-line, there is every possibility of encountering rain and mist (or vice-versa).

The downhill stretch to the long hairpin right at Bruxelles demands care, followed by a 90-left and even more descending towards Pouhon and another long left-hander, which opens to a fast left and an excellent run-off area to the right-hand side of the track, should it prove to be slippery, or should the car be nudged off-line. After a few hundred metres, the right-hand entry to the long chicane at Campus is aided by the camber of the circuit and a fast left-hand exit towards the tight right-hander at Stavelot, where the original roadway stretch from the village of Blanchimont joins the ‘new’ circuit.

The ‘Blanchimont’ section is by far one of the fastest of any track on the F1 calendar and it commences with the gentle right of Courbe Paul Frère, named after the sometime racer and world-renowned motoring journalist, which then kinks left for Blanchimont, followed within a couple of hundred metres by another, slightly tighter kick to the left, at the unnamed Bend 18. The route continues at unabated rate until reaching the area formerly known as ‘The Bus-Stop’.

Seriously modified a few years ago, it is now just a right-left chicane, with the entrance to the pit-lane spearing off to the right-hand side. The cars continue over the start-finish line for another lap of the 7.004km circuit.

Remember that Spa-Francorchamps is now a bit of an oddity in the F1 Championship. It possesses a tremendous history and is exceptionally well-supported by both conservative Belgians and their somewhat more raucous German brethren, from just across the border. It is a spectacular venue, offering innumerable challenges to everyone attending the race weekend and the drivers, in the main, love it.