Today’s Spa-Francorchamps circuit is seen as probably the most demanding on the Formula 1 calendar, but it used to be even tougher. Designed in 1920, the original course was laid out on public roads between the towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot, and was 14.9 kilometres long.
The first race to be held on the new track was cancelled when only one driver entered, but by 1925 it hosted the first ever Belgian Grand Prix. The layout was incredibly fast but also became very dangerous as speeds increased, and in 1979 the circuit was redeveloped.
The shorter track used today, around seven kilometres in length, still retains several famous sections. Most well-known of all is Eau Rouge and Raidillon, where drivers flick left, right and left again as they climb the hill after the La Source hairpin. Near the end of the lap, the fast left turn at Blanchimont is another that featured in the original layout. While bringing the average speed down, the redevelopments also introduced some great new corners such as Pouhon: the long left-hander in the middle of the lap that some drivers now see as the most challenging section to get right on the entire track, with Eau Rouge now usually taken flat-out by modern grand prix machinery.
Spa is not only synonymous with the Belgian Grand Prix, but also the 24-hour race – exclusively supplied by Pirelli as well – which took place at the beginning of August. That too, is immersed in history; as the Spa 24 Hours is just as old as Le Mans, having started only one year later in 1924, when the Belgians decided that anything the French could do, they could do better. Back then, Spa was the fastest circuit in Europe, with legendary champion Jackie Stewart calling the old Masta Kink (now part of a public road) “by far the most difficult corner in the world”. His opinion was probably shaped by a huge accident that he had in 1966, when he woke up upside down, covered in fuel, in a ditch next to a farmhouse. He survived, but this was one of the catalysts that led to Sir Jackie becoming a strident campaigner for better safety in motorsport, which he is still known for now.
Talk to people about the most emblematic corner of Spa these days – perhaps of the entire year – and they will nearly all say Eau Rouge, where the drivers experience both positive and negative g-forces in just a handful of seconds. But one of the most iconic corners in the motorsport universe didn’t actually feature on the original circuit. Before becoming synonymous with Spa-Francorchamps, Eau Rouge was a humble 15-kilometre river in the Belgian province of Liege. Earning its name thanks to red oxide deposits found in the river, it was also prominent outside of motorsport history too, acting as a state border between Prussia and the Netherlands in the 1800s.
Most of the corners are in fact named after local landmarks. Take the bus stop chicane: even many of the drivers think that it’s so-called because the cars negotiate it after heavy braking, at the speed of a bus. In fact, the bus stop chicane actually used to be a real bus stop, although it's undergone several changes. Although the most recent Spa layout has been in use since 1983, parts of the circuit were still public roads right up until 2000. As former grand prix driver John Watson said, after the 24-hour race: “it’s incredible to drive back to your hotel after the race, and drive on the roads that you used to compete on in a Formula 1 car many years ago.”
Incredibly, no Belgian driver has ever won the Belgian Grand Prix. The country’s most successful Formula 1 driver, Jacky Ickx, won eight Formula 1 races but never in his home country, although he did finish second at Spa for Ferrari in 1968. More recently, Stoffel Vandoorne raced for McLaren in 2017 and 2018, but for now the Belgian flag is absent from the Formula 1 grid.
That doesn’t mean that the local fans do not have anybody to cheer for, however. Although he races under the Dutch flag, Max Verstappen was born in Belgium to a Belgian mother. And he’s actually one of three drivers on the grid with Belgian parentage: Britain’s Lando Norris and Canadian Lance Stroll also have mothers who come from the country. What odds on one of them taking a home win of sorts this year?
If any of them do win, they will have some way to go to match the record set by Michael Schumacher, who won six times at Spa between 1992 and 2002. Of the current drivers, Lewis Hamilton leads the way in Belgium with four victories.
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