AUGUST 21, 1995

What you may not know about Spa-Francorchamps

SPA is one of the great road courses of the world and has been since it was first dreamed up by Belgian Jules de Thier in 1924.

SPA is one of the great road courses of the world and has been since it was first dreamed up by Belgian Jules de Thier in 1924.

Prior to the first event at Spa there had been racing in the Ardennes Forests as early as 1902, on public roads at Bastogne and at Arlon. These continued until 1907. De Thier's circuit at Spa also used public roads, his route laid out in a rough triangle between the villages of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot.

Until the circuit was born, the reputation of the town of Spa had been based entirely on its natural springs. It was a resort town with a casino and the race was seen as a way to promote Spa's glamorous image internationally.

The original track layout was brilliant. Starting on a downhill section of road outside Francorchamps village in the valley of a small river called the Eau Rouge. The track crossed the river and then rose uphill through a daunting section of road which is known as Eau Rouge before the road flattened out, although it continued to climb all the way up the hill to a small gathering of houses called Les Combes. The road then swung to the left and ran downhill in a long curling arc through the village of Burninville to a turning off to Malmedy. The road continued down the valley of the River Stave, a straight dash apart from a kink where the road dived between the houses of the little village of Masta before it arrived at a purpose-built, slightly banked right hander outside Stavelot, which fed the cars back towards Francorchamps up the Eau Rouge Valley. It was remarkably fast and challenging and quickly acquired legendary status. Grand Prix racing arrived in 1925, with Antonio Ascari winning the first event in an Alfa Romeo. The race continued to be a major international event until June, 1939, a few months before war broke out. That was a sad event because of the death British rising star Dick Seaman.

In the war years Spa hit the headlines in December, 1944, when Adolf Hitler sent his armies into the Ardennes in an effort to turn back the invading Allied Forces. The offensive - which became known as the Battle of the Bulge - failed, the Germans being stopped by American forces on the old racing circuit. A few miles from the track is a chilling memorial to the victims of a German massacre of American prisoners of war at Malmedy.

After the war the Belgian GP was re-established in 1947, and remained part of the World Championship until 1970, despite its fearsome reputation. The low point was probably 1960, when Stirling Moss was badly injured in practice and in the race Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey died in separate crashes. In 1966, Spa sent Jackie Stewart home with a broken shoulder and damaged ribs. It was this accident which convinced Stewart to begin his F1 safety campaign, which four years later resulted in Spa's disappearance from the World Championship. There followed a period of uncertainty during which the Belgian GP visited Zolder and Nivelles.

Other racing continued at Spa but so too did the crashes. In the 1973 24 Hour race three drivers died. In the late 1970s work began to build a shortened version of the famous track and this was first used in 1979 with great success, but the Grand Prix did not return until after Gilles Villeneuve's death at Zolder in 1982.

The return of F1 was set for 1985, and the Spa track had to be overhauled before the race. Unfortunately newly-paid tarmac was torn up in qualifying by the cars, forcing the Grand Prix to be postponed until later in the year - a unique happening in the modern F1 era. That same year, a couple of weeks before the rerunning of the Grand Prix, rising star Stefan Bellof died at Eau Rouge in a Porsche sportscar.

In recent years Spa has been trying to become a permanent racing circuit. The construction of a motorway bypassing the track has been held up because of problems with a vast bridge over the Eau Rouge valley. Eventually it will all be finished and Spa will pass into private hands.