The University
of Formula 1

The legendary Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, with its 99,000 places, is another university of football, from which Leo Messi graduated along with the tiqui-taka of Pep Guardiola. In this case once more, it’s the sheer size the place as well as the legend around it that make it special. The dimensions of the pitch and the goals, as well as the type of grass, are the same everywhere. But sometimes, the appellation of university means exactly what every true sports fan wants it to mean. A place truly worthy of the name. A place with an inherent challenge that establishes a pecking order among the competitors by itself. Cycling is a sport that frequently creates legends, for example. Races such as the Paris-Roubaix, with its climbs and descents on treacherous Belgian cobblestones, which frequently combine with human fatigue and severely cold weather to provide an immense challenge, is one of those epic universities. Whoever wins at Roubaix normally goes on to do something special in their careers.

It’s exactly the same at Spa-Francorchamps. And the reason is quite simple. As well as being the longest circuit on the F1 world championship at 7.004 kilometres, it’s also the most varied one not to mention being the most difficult of them all in certain places. It’s also the most unpredictable circuit, thanks to weather that can sometimes present bright sunshine in one part of the track and heavy rain just a few kilometres further on. That’s because of (or the fault of, depending on which way you want to look at it) Spa’s geographical location. The Ardennes Forest that surrounds the track creates a unique microclimate. The trees hold on to humidity in a way seen nowhere else. This provides a technical challenge that is exclusive to Spa, with conditions changing frequently from lap to lap. Furthermore, it still has the characteristics of an old school road circuit. You know what a modern track looks like: with minimal elevation, massive run-off areas, and braking zones that allow you to re-join the track with little time lost even if you make a mistake? Well, Spa is the exact opposite. On the outside of the corners you normally just find the trees. And while the circuit has made huge strides forward in terms of safety, the risk is always there in many places.

This is entirely down to its origins as a road course. In the 1920s, Spa was 14.9 kilometres long and essentially formed of an irregular and very fast triangle that linked the towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. The track was reduced to 14.1 kilometres at the end of the Second World War and now measures just over seven kilometres, following work that was carried out at the end of the 1970s in order to bring Formula 1 back to the venue. This return finally happened in 1983, following several Belgian Grands Prix held at Zolder (which will always be associated with the terrible death of Gilles Villeneuve in 1982) and Nivelles. But since then, it’s been impossible to argue with the status of Spa as the ultimate university of Formula 1. The history of the race throws up several episodes, facts and records that underline this accolade.  And here are just a few examples...

The fastest average race lap speed up to now was set by Sebastian Vettel with Red Bull in 2009, with a benchmark of 235.070 kph. Maybe 235 kph doesn’t seem to be that fast by modern standards. But try it on a seven-kilometre long rollercoaster, with a sharp hairpin (La Source) just after the pit straight, then a vicious compression that climbs towards Raidillon, then the famous left-right of Eau Rouge (taken flat, if you have the correct set-up and a right foot of steel) followed by the varied and challenging series of corners through the forests. And let us know how you get on.

As for the rest, the names written on the winners’ trophy say a lot by themselves. Ayrton Senna took his second career victory at Spa in 1985 with Lotus (the first was in Portugal a few months earlier). He went on to win at Spa four more times with McLaren, from 1988 to 1991.  The Belgian crown then passed on to Michael Schumacher, who had already won there with Benetton in 1992. Michael made his astonishing debut at Spa with Jordan just one year earlier, surprising everyone from the very first practice session. He won at Spa with Benetton again in 1995, before a series of four Belgian wins with Ferrari, in 1996, 1997 2001 and 2002. So it was a total of six wins for the German ace, which could easily have been seven, had it not been for his infamous mistake while overtaking in 1998, during a dramatic race with two starts where Michael was looking at one point if he might lap the entire field. The first start saw no fewer than 13 cars damaged in a multiple pile-up during the famous run down to Eau Rouge.

Of course it was raining hard at Spa-Francorchamps that year. The sort of driving rain that you find only in the Ardennes. And this takes us all the way back to what we were talking about at the start: an unbelievable track, massive speeds, weather conditions that are serially unpredictable, and a true university of F1. Enjoy the race.

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