Mineral water was discovered in the Ardennes hills by the Romans and the town of Spa was established. Russian Emperor Peter the Great was among those who dropped by to sip the iron-rich water for medicinal purposes. But drinking healthy water was a pretty boring occupation and so the locals opened a casino with the idea of helping the rich and famous to leave the contents of their wallets behind them in Belgium. When that gimmick began to wane, a local man by the name of Jules de Thier dreamed up the idea of holding car races to keep the visitors amused.
Racing in the Ardennes was not new. As early as 1902 there had been a Circuit des Ardennes. This was the very first closed circuit to be used. At the time all the major races were from city to city. This was the idea of Pierre de Crawhez and the first route covered 53.5-miles, running in a triangular circuit along the highways from the town of Bastogne to Longlier, 16 miles to the east, then south to Habay-la-Neuve before joining the main road back to Bastogne. In 1904 this was extended to 73.4-miles but then faded into history.
De Thier mapped out a much shorter track. It was triangular and ran along the country roads from just below the village of Francorchamps, down the valley of a stream called the Eau Rouge and then uphill to the crest of the hills at Les Combes and into a long curling downhill section through the village of Burnenville to the junction to Malmedy. From there it went down the valley floor to the hamlet of Masta and on towards the nearby town of Stavelot. Before getting there, however, the route turned back up the valley towards Francorchamps, passing through the hamlet of Blanchimont. It was remarkably fast and challenging and very quickly became a major venue for European racing with the Spa 24 Hours beginning that year and the Belgian Grand Prix in 1925. The winners in those early years highlighted that this was a track for the highest caliber drivers like Antonio Ascari, Tazio Nuvolari and Rudi Caracciola. During the war racing stopped but the circuit became part of the battlefield during the Battle of the Bulge, the German counterattack against the invading Allies in the winter of 1944-45.
Racing returned to Spa in 1947 with Frenchman Jean-Pierre Wimille winning for Alfa Romeo and into the 1950s and 1960s the track once again highlighted the best known names: Alberto Ascari and Juan-Manuel Fangio. In the 1960s Jim Clark was dominant with four consecutive victories in the Belgian GP.
Safety, however, eventually became an issue. Spa was just too fast. In 1960 Stirling Moss was seriously injured and two young British drivers - Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey - were killed during the Belgian GP weekend. In the 1960s the Spa 1000km became the track's third big event of the year with local hero Jacky Ickx winning five times.
A nasty accident at Spa started Jackie Stewart's crusade for better safety and Spa was a victim, the Grand Prix moving to the characterless Nivelles circuit near Brussels. During the 1973 Spa 24 Hours three drivers were killed. Jochen Mass tells a horrifying story of sharing a car with Hans Stuck and during one of the pitstops at the night, Stuck shouted to him over the noise that he should "look out for body parts at the Masta Kink". Mass arrived there expecting to see bits of car all over the road but was appalled to discover it was bits of a marshal.
Plans were laid to rebuild the track and, in an effort to retain the spirit of the old circuit, most of the original area around Francorchamps was retained. A section of carefully-designed track was built linking Les Combes with the return leg of the old circuit near Blanchimont. The resulting circuit was greeted with much enthusiasm when the F1 circus returned in 1983 and the track has been an important part of the World Championship ever since, despite difficulties with the local authorities over tobacco advertising and the track surface, which in June 1985 broke up so badly that the Belgian GP had to be postponed until September. There were still accidents at Spa, notably the sportscar crash at Eau Rouge in 1985 which claimed the life of rising German star Stefan Bellof.
"It is without doubt the best circuit in the world," Schumacher says. "The kind of atmosphere you get at Spa is something akin to the old Nurburgring. It is the only place which still has this quality and atmosphere. Eau Rouge is really the most tremendous corner. It is like flying downhill and seeing a big mountain in front of you. You get the feeling that you are driving into the road and then you go up and it is a sensation which is probably the best you can experience and the most satisfaction you can have as a racing driver."
In recent years the race has been threatened by Belgium's insistence on introducing a ban on tobacco advertising ahead of the Pan-European legislation and in 2002 the F1 teams decided they had had enough. Spa was dropped from the World Championship in 2003.