Chasing History at Spa

Ed FaheyPart of what sets the truly ‘classic’ racetracks apart from their less inspiring modern brethren is the intangible sense of history and tradition they present to visitors. All the high-priced architects and advanced circuit design in the world cannot manufacture history and heritage, and these qualities are a huge part of the draw of places like Le Mans, Monza, Watkins Glen or, in this case, Spa-Francorchamps. With our flight home not leaving until quite late in the evening, we had a full day to pass in the vicinity of the track and the tarmac-shredding power of a diesel Peugeot 308 rental car at our disposal, so a tour of the fearsome original Spa-Francorchamps layout, combined with a visit to the recently opened circuit museum in the town of Stavelot, was a must.

Ed FaheyThe old Spa track included some of what is still the modern circuit, but at Les Combes, a short distance after the dizzying dance up Eau Rouge, the current circuit begins to turn back on itself and heads for a series of dramatic downhill corners. The original circuit continued straight on here, and began a gradual, terrifyingly fast and generally very straight, downhill run through the villages of Burneville and Masta, heading in the direction of Stavelot. It stopped short of actually entering this town, instead veering around almost 180 degrees and spearing through the little village of Blanchimont in another pedal-to-metal blast, before linking up with the modern track at the corner named for the Belgian racer and journalist Paul Frère.

Ed FaheyA tour of the old track by road car today begins at the spectator area overlooking the current Les Combes chicane. The road leading up to the service gate here is in fact the old track, and like much of the sequences to come, curves quite gently, making for an unalarming driving experience at civilised speeds. There are a few crumbling sections of Armco at various points along the old alignment, but the manner in which it is presented today - lined with walls, trees, houses and shops - is not that much different to how it was when the F1 drivers of the 1950s and ’60s tackled it in anger. It’s only when you try to imagine taking an uncompromising racing line through these long, sweeping bends, brushing the edge of the grass on the way out, that the immense fortitude needed to tackle the old Spa becomes vividly apparent. Perhaps the best illustration of just how dangerous it was is the fact the it was not shut down, as you might expect, by some politically correct bunch of safety nannies. Rather, it was the drivers themselves that came together and refused to race there any more. This united front led to Formula 1 withdrawing from Spa in 1970, and the redeveloped shortened version, largely unchanged to this day, opened in 1978.

Ed FaheyThe most notorious section of the run down from Les Combes was the lethal Masta kink, which curved very slightly left, then right, but was just open enough to suggest the possibility of being taken flat. Today, the road here has been realigned somewhat and the bends are sharper than they would have been, but the original orientation is still just about visible. Approaching Stavelot, a small, forgotten-looking piece of road that has since been rendered obsolete by a junction just beyond, branches off the main route and traces a semicircular path to join with another main road heading back in the opposite direction. This is Stavelot corner, the part of the old circuit that feels most alive today. The surface is breaking up in parts and the vegetation on each side is thick and overgrown, but the challenging sweep of the curve and its subtle banked nature twigs something in the mind of anyone with even a passing familiarity with motorsport.

Ed FaheyThe attractive town of Stavelot is just a short drive from here, and its centrepiece is the fabulous Abbaye de Stavelot, a 17th century monastery that now houses three museums, one dedicated to the history and culture of the local region, one focusing on the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the third, tucked away underground in the vaults of the building, dedicated to the Spa-Francorchamps track and its legacy. Aside from still-raced examples of Porsche’s 908 and 917, there are no real ‘superstar’ cars to be found here, and some of the single-seater racers on display do look a bit weather-beaten, but the touring-car section is particularly well presented, which is unsurprising when you remember the Spa 24 Hours’ stint as the blue-riband touring car event in Europe, which lasted from the mid-1960s until the end of the 1990s. Offerings from Ford, BMW, Honda and Toyota recall the golden age of Group A and Super Touring competition on the Continent, now sadly consigned to history in favour of the somewhat anaemic Super 2000 format. And as always with these museums, it’s the smaller details that really fascinate, such as the newsreel footage of racing on the track going back to the earliest years of the 20th century, the little pieces of memorabilia like driver’s armbands from past races and, of course, the wonderfully evocative artwork used to promote events at the track down through the years.

Ed FaheyIt’s simultaneously unusual and pleasing to see these kind of exhibits sharing a building with a more ‘conventional’ museum. But it’s only natural given how Spa-Francorchamps, in both its present and past guises, forms such an inextricable part of the fabric of local life in the area. During my visit to Le Mans, I noted how the local community embraced its track and its race, and it seems things are no different in this otherwise-unassuming corner of Belgium. Long may they continue in this fashion.

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