The Dangerous and Unforgiving Spa Race Track

Antonio Ascari, the first Belgian Grand Prix winner at Spa
Antonio Ascari, the first Belgian Grand Prix winner at Spa

Some of the most famous tracks in the world evoke emotion with just a single name. Indy, Daytona, Monaco, Spa, they all hold a special place in automotive history. No matter how many sponsors come in and try and change to name to the Gatorade Nike 350 or whatever, these tracks will always be known by their proper name. Spa is one of those race tracks with a history stretching back nearly 100 years. Located on the eastern side of Belgium, just an hour and a  half from the historic Nurburgring, Spa has long evoked both excitement and fear. At 14km long, the original layout was one of the fastest tracks in the world. It was also one of the deadliest claiming the lives of 48 racers and 4 track workers. The most recent death being Anthoine Hubert in an F2 race at Spa this year.

The Old Dangerous Race Track

The newer race track layout over the old layout at Spa
The 2004-2006 layout on top of the Old Circuit

The Spa race track is located in Ardennes, the site of some truly brutal battles in World War I and World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge. Like Le Mans and the Nurburgring, the course was run on public roads. The original course was over 8 miles in length and featured numerous high-speed turns. The first car race was held in 1922 and the first 24 hour race started in 1924, just one year after Le Mans. Frenchman Springuel and Becquet won the inaugural 24 hour race. The race still lives on today and BMW has racked up an impressive 24 wins. The first Grand Prix race would be held the following year in 1925 where Antonio Ascari would take the maiden win.

They would continue to run the long circuit until 1978 after a drivers protest following an increase in fatalities. The late 60’s and early 70’s were some of the deadliest times at Spa. Two drivers died in the Hollowell Bend at the Spa 24 Hours in 1967. Another two died on the Masta Straight in the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix. In 1969, another driver died in the Masta Kink, a corner Jackie Stewart called the most difficult in the world. Two seperate deaths occurred in 1971, one in the 24 hour race and another in a motorcycle race. 1973 would prove to be the deadliest year since 1932. Three drivers were killed in the 24 hour race including two drivers dying in the same accident 7 hours into the race and another driver dying later on.

Safety Changes

a black and white photo of a car racing at Spa with no barriers.
Absolutely no safety barriers at Spa as it would stay until the 1970s

Boycotts over the lack of safety at the Spa race track began nearly a decade before changes were made. The legendary Jackie Stewart led the charge in 1969 with the British, French, and Italian teams all pulling out of the Belgian Grand Prix. They tried several shorter variations including Nivelles and two variations of Zolder. It wouldn’t be until 1985 that the track layout we’re most familiar with will appear. The Spa-Francorchamps, or Spa for short, layout was an immediate hit with drivers and fans. The track was shortened down to 4.3 miles, still the longest active circuit on the current F1 calendar. Despite these changes, there were still three deaths in 1985 and ten more since. This is still a reduction from the 35 deaths that occurred beforehand. Drivers no longer had to worry about getting decapitated after careening off the track, which actually happened.

There were a few other safety changes made to the Spa layout. The bus stop chicane was added at the end of the race to slow drivers down. After Senna’s death at Imola, they added a chicane at the bottom of Eau Rouge but quickly removed it the next year. Speaking of Eau Rouge, the start finish line was moved from the bottom of the hill to just before the La Source chicane. The pit lane was also extended to the Bus Stop Chicane. These changes maintained the excitement of the course while making it much safer for drivers.

The Current Race Track

the current Spa race track layout with sectors labeled

The current Spa layout is the longest track on the F1 calendar. Despite the safety changes, it’s one of the most challenging tracks in the world. Drivers take off towards the La Source hairpin and fight for a good exit. The driver head toward a downhill bit before entering “Eau Rouge” one of the most famous corners in the world. “Eau Rouge” got its name from the famous red water nearby. The uphill left-right-left has a 17% gradient and rises in elevation by 134 feet. It requires incredible skill to take the turn flat-out but it’s required to get the maximum speed along Kemmel Straight. If drivers have the courage, they will be flat-out for over 2 kilometers.

The Eau Rouge corner at Spa
Eau Rouge – Spa – photo by Cutkiller2018

After the Kemmel Straight is Les Combes which offers a good overtaking area and the start of sector 2. Bruxelles starts the downhill run towards the newly minted Jacky Ickx corner. The downhille march continues into the double left-hander of Pouhon. This high-speed corner is another good overtaking spot for brave drivers before heading into Campus and Stavelot. Stavelot marks the end of sector 2 and the reentry onto the old circuit. This high-speed section Corbe Paul Frere and the famous Blanchimont curve. The Blanchimont curve is another challenging part of the Spa race track that only the best drivers can take flat-out. If they do they are rewarded with another chance to overtake before entering the final Bus Stop chicane.

Challenging Blanchimont corner.
Challenging Blanchimont corner.

Famous Winners

There are currently 13 events that happen annually at Spa. There have been some very famous winners at one of the most challenging tracks in the world. Atonio Ascari won the first Grand Prix race followed by his son Alberto who won twice in 1952 and 1953. Louis Chiron won both the Grand Prix race and the 24 Hour race in 1930 and 1933 respectively. Juan Manuel Fangio won here twice in 1954 and 1955. Jack Brabham won here, Phill Hill also. Jim Clark won four in a row from 1962-1965. Dan Gurney and Bruce McLaren as well. Emerson Fittipaldi won twice, so did Niki Lauda. Even Mario Andretti has a win at Spa.

Senna in the John Player Special Lotus at Spa 1986
Senna at the 1986 Belgian GP – photo by Juan Pablo Donoso

Alain Prost won the first race on the current layout in 1983 and notched another victory in 1987. Senna won here five times and was only surpassed by Schumacher who made it six in 2002. Of the drivers who have won on the current layout since 1983, only David Coulthard, Felipe Massa, and Charles Leclerc aren’t champions. A Ferrari has won here 18 times but McLaren isn’t far behind with 14 wins. The old course race lap record is 3:13.4 held by Henri Pescarolo. Bottas owns the current race lap record with a 1:46.286. Spa is one of the most challenging and historic race tracks in the world and should definitely be on your bucket list.

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