CIRCUIT GUIDE: Spa-Francorchamps
LOCATION: The Ardennes, Belgium
KNOWN FOR: F1, GT, Endurance, Junior Formulae, club racing
TYPE: Permanent Circuit
Spa-Francorchamp has changed many times over the years but the one constant is that it remains a favourite among drivers. While Eau Rouge and Blanchimont aren’t quite as fearsome as once they were, corners such as the now mighty Pouhon ensure Spa still has teeth.
The track winds through 7km of undulating forest and provides a stern test rewarding the brave – and the intelligent. Spa’s reputation is built on speed and for Formula One drivers taking the fearsome Eau Rouge-Raidillon combination flat out, it features the longest full-throttle section of any track on the current F1 calendar with a 20-second blast from the La Source hairpin to the Les Combes braking zone at the end of the Kemmel Straight.
Despite this, and the other full-throttle stretch ending at the new Bus Stop chicane, Spa is more of a technical challenge than its high-speed reputation suggests. It’s the twisting middle sector where fast laps are crafted. There’s no uniformity in the turns, with each one asking different questions of downforce and traction.
Because of the twists and turns of this middle sector, Spa doesn’t see the skinny aero packages of an out-and-out speed circuit such as Monza. Instead it’s a compromised medium-low downforce, similar to that seen at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal. Spa isn’t tough on suspension or brakes, but it makes up for that by chewing tyres.
Then there’s the weather: whatever the time of year, rain is a frequent visitor to this part of Belgium, which can make for interesting racing – particularly when the length of lap and the elevation changes give rise to the wet-dry track phenomenon, with rain falling on some parts of the circuit but not on others.
Spa isn’t particularly respectful of pole: in the last ten years, the fastest man on Saturday has gone on to win just four times. La Source, Les Combes and the Bus Stop all provide good passing opportunities, plus the weather and likely appearance of the safety car tend to mix things up.
Definitely not one for spectators attracted to the glamour of motor sport, Spa is a haven for fans who prefer Mercedes to Manolos. It’s often muddy and usually wet, but it’s also very possibly the best racing circuit in the world, and so the audience tends to be loyal and prepared to put up with whatever the Ardennes throws at them. And Spa does reward that: unlike most circuits, the best views aren’t restricted to the lucky few with elite grandstand access. For anyone prepared to hike a few miles, Spa has some terrific vantage points.
As is the case at many circuits out in the sticks, Spa-Francorchamps doesn’t have much in the way of accommodation options, which means there are vibrant and raucous campsites dotted around the circuit, with Francorchamps village being the hub of a week-long open-air party. Slightly further afield, those with money to burn have the choice of several towns, chief of which is Spa itself. Genteel for most of the year, Spa lets its hair down a bit when a big race arrives. The Casino does good business but is dwarfed by the bonanza enjoyed by the bars and restaurants, which provide respite for anyone who’s been living on chips and mayonnaise for the best part of a week.
While everything races at Spa it is perhaps best know as an endurance circuit, hosting both the Spa 24 Hours GT race and the Spa 1000km (Spa 6 Hours) for sports cars. In 2012, Audi won both races, with the latter now being a round of the new World Endurance Championship.
In open-wheel racing, it's the junior drivers who tend to catch the eye. In recent years, Nelson Piquet Jr, Romain Grosjean, Karun Chandhok, Sergio Pérez and Pastor Maldonado (twice) have all used victory at Spa as a stepping stone into F1. Jean-Eric Vergne did the same in Formula Renault 3.5, and, back in the day, F3000 winners included Jean Alesi, Olivier Panis and some bloke called Fernando Alonso. The 2006/7 remodelling of Spa that moved and reprofiled the Bus Stop chicane was done with an eye to making the circuit more suitable for racing on two wheels, but no major bike racing is currently held there.
DID YOU KNOW:
The Eau Rouge stream, which flows beneath the Eau Rouge chicane, marks an ancient border between nations and empires. At the height of the Roman Empire, it marked the boundary between the provinces of Cologne and Tongeren. It was also the border between the Netherlands and Prussia (1815-1839) and, more recently still, between Belgium and Prussia (1839-1919). When racing first started at Spa in the 1920s the original circuit included a hairpin bend where the Eau-Rouge Raidillon complex now stands. It was called Virage de l'Ancienne Douane – so named after the customs post that had stood there.