Where are we going this week?

AUGUST 19, 1996

Where are we going this week?

CELEBRATED since medieval times for the curative properties of its natural spring waters - the town actually gave its name to all the "spa towns" around the world - the little picturesque town of Spa in the Ardennes hills of western Belgium developed into a resort. It had a casino and several grand hotels and was frequented by the rich and aristocratic. In the early 1920s Jules de Thier hit upon the idea of promoting the town using motorsport. It was not the first racing in the area, the Ardennes having hosted races on public road at Arlon and Bastogne as early as 1902.

De Thier's circuit at Spa was also laid out on existing roads in a triangle between the villages of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. It was used in 1921 for a motorcycle Grand Prix and in 1924 hosted a touring car race which was won by local aristocrat Baron de Tornaco, driving an Imperia-Abadal, a car built in Belgium to a Spanish design.

Grand Prix racing arrived in 1925 with the factory Alfa Romeos P2 of Antonio Ascari, Giuseppe Campari and Gastone Brilli-Peri taking on the Delage works team of Robert Benoist, Rene Thomas, Alberto Divo and Paul Torchy. Unfortunately all four Delages and Brilli-Peri's Alfa retired before half distance with mechanical trouble, silencing the pro-French crowd. Alfa designer Vittorio Jano got his own back on the crowd by setting up a table and chair in the pits and eating lunch as he watched Ascari and Campari complete the final three hours of the race - the only runners. Thereafter, the annual Spa 24 Hours became the track's big event until Grand Prix racing returned in 1931 with a two-driver 820-mile race contested by the Alfa factory team and the Bugatti works operation. The latter won with drivers "Williams" and Count Caberto Conelli.

In the 1930s the importance of Spa grew with victories from Tazio Nuvolari and Rudi Caracciola. German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions dominated the later events, the 1939 race being a sad one with the death of Britain's 26-year-old rising star Mercedes-Benz driver Dick Seaman.

During the war years the Spa area was in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, when Hitler sent his armies into the Ardennes to turn back the Allied advance. The US forces turned back the Panzer Divisions on the old racing circuit, but near Malmedy SS soldiers machine-gunned nearly 100 US prisoners. The memorial to that massacre is a couple of miles from the track.

After the war the Belgian GP was quickly re-established and remained part of the World Championship until 1970, gaining a fearsome reputation. The low point was 1960 when British drivers Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey both died in separate crashes.

In 1966 Spa sent Jackie Stewart home with a broken shoulder and damaged ribs, but this accident convinced Stewart to begin his F1 safety crusade. Four years later Spa disappeared from the F1 calendar.

Other racing continued but so did the accidents. In the 1973 Spa 24 Hour race three drivers died.

Inevitably, Spa had to change. In the late 1970s work began to build a shortened version of the track. This was used with great success in 1979, but it was not until Gilles Villeneuve was killed at Zolder in 1982 that Grand Prix racing decided to return to Spa. The first race was scheduled for 1985, but newly-paid tarmac was torn up in qualifying by the cars and - uniquely - a Grand Prix had to be canceled.

The race moved to the autumn but it was an unhappy affair as well, coming just a few days after Tyrrell F1 driver StefanÊBellof had been killed at Spa while racing a Porsche sportscar.

Since then, Spa has become an integral part of the World Championship. The construction of a motorway, bypassing the track, is now finished and Spa will soon become a permanent racing facility.

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