Spa-Francorchamps: a territory forbidden to anybody who isn’t a champion

Spa-francorchamps: a territory forbidden to anybody who isn't a champion 01

Spa of course takes its name from the healing waters that have been renowned for centuries. Salus per aquam – healthy by water – is what the ancient Romans used to say, having taken the concept of their famous baths even to the remotest outposts of the empire. That feeling of wellbeing and relaxation can be felt all around the Ardennes hills that surround the circuit, not far from Liege and the border with Germany and Luxembourg. But on the track at Spa, there’s little room for respite.

Spa-Francorchamps is a veritable circuit of champions. The list of previous winners says it all: four successes from Jim Clark, five wins from Ayrton Senna, and six wins courtesy of Michael Schumacher. But the 7.004 kilometres of the circuit also spell it out emphatically: the longest lap of the season as well as being the most difficult and varied. Analysing and interpreting it into some sort of technical sense, knowing exactly what to do and when behind the wheel – that’s the biggest challenge of all. With some rapid straights and a wide range of different corners, some of them with big lateral loads, the layout is unique and lends itself to a multiplicity of different race strategies: numerous attack and defence tactics, helped by the fact that – unlike many circuits – it’s possible to overtake more or less anywhere. The continual changes in elevation leads to some unparalleled views; with even the drivers aware of the dark greens of the forest contrasting with the blue of the sky. It’s not blue always, of course: in reality leaden skies and dark grey clouds are a constant risk, having formed a dramatic feature of several races at Spa in the past. 

Spa-francorchamps: a territory forbidden to anybody who isn't a champion 02

Around here, the champions feel at home. Ayrton Senna won only the second race of his career at Spa, in the turbocharged Lotus-Renault. It was 1985, and he subsequently went onto win four more Belgian races with the legendary McLaren-Honda. As for Michael Schumacher, he made his Formula 1 debut at Spa in 1991 at the wheel of an unfancied Jordan. His drive had been paid for with cash from Mercedes, which was running him in sportscars at the time and wanting the young German to get some grand prix experience as well. Michael left everybody astonished: he qualified towards the front of the grid in seventh, with his much-missed team mate Andrea de Cesaris left wondering exactly how the 22-year-old was able to take the mighty Eau Rouge compression flat-out. The data doesn’t lie, and yet the telemetry was all laid out in front of him…

For those not familiar with the legend of Eau Rouge, it means a left-right flick at the old pit exit, leading onto the famed climb up towards Raidillon. It’s a place where those who attack it with the pedal to the metal experience a huge g force loading, which can be the weight of everything – car, wheels, tyres and driver – multiplied by five, six or seven times. The feeling is hard to put into words.

This year, Spa-Francorchamps could – and maybe should – produce some significant results in terms of lowered lap times. The effects of this year’s new technical regulations are by now clear to see: increased downforce – which has evolved further over the course of the season – and tyres that are 25% wider have led to such faster cornering speeds that overall lap times are reduced considerably, sometimes by three seconds per lap or more. Over the Ardennes, with its fast corners, climbs and descents, the stopwatch could produce some truly notable results. Pirelli’s tyres will play their part: this year, the purple ultrasoft makes its debut at Spa, delivering yet more speed through the corners thanks to its extra grip. At Spa, a circuit that’s off-limits to those who aren’t champions, it’s natural enough to expect something special from the tyres too…

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