Changing tracks: Spa-Francorchamps

2010 Belgian Grand PrixPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Mark Webber, Red Bull, Spa-Francorchamps, 2009

For the 13th round of this gruelling 19-race calendar the F1 teams head to one of the sport’s great historic venues.

Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium is one of four tracks on the current Formula 1 calendar which also featured in the first world championship in 1950.

The track may be half the length it once was but it still retains much of the character of the original circuit.

Spa-Francorchamps: 1950

Length: 14.12km (8.773 miles)

Spa as we know it today only really has three corners in common with the circuit that was raced on at the dawn of the world championship: the fast Blanchimont sweep, the La Source hairpin and the famed Eau Rouge.

Even the location of the start line and pits has moved – the F1 cars now start the race before La Source instead of on the drop downhill after it.

Beyond the climb through Eau Rouge and Radillion the cars used to take a tour of the roads around the towns of Spa and Francorchamps. It covered twice the distance today’s track does.

It took in such famous corners as Burnenville and the Masta Kink – the latter a terrifyingly fast left-right kink in the middle of the southernmost straight (zoom in on the map above to see it).

In 1958 Jean Behra spun at 150mph through the kink, coming to a halt without hitting anything too substantial. Unnerved by the experience, he retired six laps into the race, complaining of a fault his mechanics couldn’t trace.

But he was one of the lucky ones: tackling 150mph corners bordered by trees, lamp posts, ditches and houses meant fatalities were not uncommon.

In 1960 Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey were both killed during the race. Jim Clark, who conquered the race four times, had to swerve to avoid Bristow’s decapitated body, and forever hated the circuit thereafter.

When it was last used in 1970 Chris Amon set the fastest lap of the race at an average speed of 244.7kph (152mph). If the old circuit were used today, who knows what terrifying speed modern F1 cars could lap it in.

Spa-Francorchamps: 2010

Length: 7.004km (4.352 miles)

Spa-Francorchamps returned to the Formula 1 calendar in 1983. It was significantly cut down in length and much safer, though it retained the use of public roads in some sections.

It was considered an instant classic and was vastly preferred to Zolder, which had held many of the Belgian races in the meantime, and was never used again for F1 after 1984. This despite an embarrassing cock-up in 1985, when the Grand Prix had to be postponed from June to September, after the newly-laid track surface disintegrated.

Instead of turning left towards Burnenville the cars now headed right onto a purpose-built section winding through the Ardennes forest. This introduced the fast downhill double-left of Pouhon, the quick right-left Fagnes chicane and the new Stavelot corner, before returning the cars onto their previous route.

A further addition was the “bus stop” chicane to slow the cars before the pits. This has been altered several times since, with new versions appearing in 2002, 2004 and finally in 2007. The latter treatment came as the circuit’s infrastructure received a significant upgrade, widening the start/finish line.

But this current version of the chicane is dreadful – an awkwardly slow double-hairpin that would look bad at Bahrain or Yas Island, never mind inflicted upon a circuit as majestic as Spa.

To borrow a phrase, it is a monstrous carbuncle, utterly at odds with what is otherwise rightly considered the best track in Formula 1.

Spa-Francorchamps, 2010 Belgian Grand Prix
Spa-Francorchamps, 2010 Belgian Grand Prix

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