Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Splendour of Spa-Francorchamps

Back in May I gave a rather loving tribute to one of the top race tracks in motor racing - the Monaco Grand Prix. A victory there as I stated then, is one of the most prized achievements any racing driver could claim.

As an officiando of sporting and Forumla One history, there are in my mind a handful of others that are righfully prized in the same bracket as a win around the streets of Monte Carlo.

When it comes to history and motor racing heritage, the only race tracks that can equal Monaco are at Silverstone, Monza and Spa-Francorchamps.

The Monaco, British, Italian and Belgium Grand Prixs for me are akin to a Formula One equivalent of a holy quadruple alliance. It so happens that these race tracks supplied 4 of the 7 Grand Prixs in the inauguaral F1 World Championship of 1950 (along with the Swiss GP at Bremgarten, the French GP at Reims-Gueux and the Indianapolis 500).

To this end, as today sees the running of the 55th Belgium Grand Prix at Spa, I felt it worthwhile to extole the virtues of another of my favourite F1 circuits.

A Little Bit of History
Belgium and the Spa circuit in particular, oozes motor racing history and heritage. The first GP held there was 84 years ago back in 1925 and was won by Antonio Ascari (son of future 2 time World Champion Alberto Ascari) in an Alfa Romeo. The race was held at Spa a further 7 times before the outbreak of WWII and as mentioned above, became in integral part of the original World Championship series when it was launched in 1950. With the exceptions of 1957, 1959 and 1969, it was an ever-present on the F1 calendar until 1970.

A 1970s Exile
Concern about safety at the track however would mean that Spa-Francorchamps would go into a near 15 year exile as the Belgium GP alternated instead between the un-loved circuit at Nivelles (1972 & 1974) and at Zolder (1973 & 1975-1982 & 1984). Unfortunately, the 1982 weekend saw the death of the legendary Gilles Villeneuve at the Zolder circuit and its name, more than for anything else, is remembered for this one tragedy alone.

Formula One returned to a modern Spa-Francorchamps circuit in 1983 and from 1985 it became the sole venue for the Belgium GP once more. Apart from its controversial removal from the F1 calendar in 2003 because of the Tobacco advertising ban and again in 2006 due to circuit maintenance, it has remained an ever-present drivers favourite for the past 25 years.

A Firm Favourite
Spa is loved by both fans and drivers alike. Most F1 drivers will testify that it remains one of the most challenging and enjoyable races to drive with the famous Eau Rouge acting as one of the most famous sections of any F1 circuit world-wide. The same could be said of the fabled bus-stop chicane at the end of the 4.3 mile lap. But it all begins at what must be the most dramatic first corner in motorsport. The La Source hairpin is an extraordinary near 180 degree right-hand corner which always sets the heartbeat-a-flutter at the start of every Grand Prix.

Us fans love it for these above examples and also because it's 4.3 mile length makes it the longest race-track on the F1 calendar at just 44 laps in length. It means that the connotations weather-wise for the drivers can be mind-bogglingly complex to decipher. It is not unknown for drivers to have to confront one part of the course as dry and clear from rain and then another part that is wet and slippery. Indeed, such is the unpredictability of the Belgium weather that there was a time in its history when it had rained at the Belgian Grand Prix for twenty years in a row.

World Champion Winners
The Grand Prix at Spa has been won by the very best in the sport's history. Michael Schumacher has won it an unprecedented 6 times mainly in the 1990s whilst Ayrton Senna won it 5 times mainly in the 1980s. Jim Clark and Kimi Raikkonen won at Spa 4 times each in the 60s and 00s respectively whilst Juan Manuel Fangio won it 3 times in the 50s alongside Alberto Ascari who won it twice in that same decade.

Other notable World Champion winners at Spa include Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Mike Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton.

1998 Belgium Grand Prix
Indeed, of all of the Formula One races that I have watched over the past 20 years, a handful of them stand out.

One of the was the rain soaked GP at Spa in 1998. The horrendous driving conditions resulted in opening lap carnage as 13 of the 22 runners were involved in probably the biggest pile-up I have ever seen live with my own eyes. It was the race where Schumacher dangerously went flying into the back of David Coulthard which resulted in sparks flying in the pits afterwards. The race was incredulously won by Damon Hill for the 3rd time but it was the first ever win for Eddie Jordan's team. Incredibly, it was capped off with Hill's team-mate Ralf Schumacher finishing in second for an unforgettable 1-2.

1991, 1992 2001 Belgium Grand Prix
Speaking of Jordan, 7 years earlier, a certain Michael Schumacher made his debut for the team at Spa. Today is his 20th anniversary race. A year later, now driving for Benetton, he scored his first Grand Prix Victory at the circuit. 9 years later in 2001, his victory at the circuit was his 52nd overall which helped him surpass the previous all-time Formula One GP wins record of 51 held by Alain Prost.

So who knows, can Schumacher win from the back of the circuit today to cap off the most incredible of personal relationships with a particular circuit?

He may of course and surprise surprise the forecast is looking unsettled! But then there are a surprisingly large number of top drivers on the grid today who will be eyeing their first win at this famous circuit. It is incredible to think that Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button have never won at this inconic race-track.

That'll be one statistic they'll all be wanting to erase from the proud history books at Spa in a little over an hours time.

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