On the Belgian Grand Prix

If Bernie ever achieves his ambition of selling all the FIA's world championship Grands Prix to publicity-seeking Asian despots and oil-rich sheikhs in the desert, the European circuit which I will miss the most is Spa-Francorchamps. I readily confess that there are personal factors involved here. It was from Spa in 1970 that my first (not very good) F1 race report was published, and Jim Clark, my second favourite driver after Fangio, won here four times. Clark hated the place, of course, being keenly aware of the non-existent safety provisions and having lost one of his best mates on the Masta straight when a bird flew out of the forest during the 1960 Belgian GP, straight into the face of Alan Stacey.

I suppose I, too, should hate Spa, because two of my own heroes perished here. Richard Seaman (Mercedes W154/163) lost control and hit a tree while leading the Belgian GP in June 1939, sustaining fatal burns, and Archie Scott Brown (driving his favourite "knobbly" Lister-Jaguar, road-registered VPP 9) was killed in May 1958 after a rain squall struck when he was disputing the lead of the sportscar Grand Prix with Masten Gregory's Ecurie Ecosse Lister.

As reported by Scott Brown's biographer Robert Edwards (Archie and the Listers, ISBN 1 85260 469 7), there was a somewhat gruesome link between the two Spa victims, for they had crashed at exactly the same point on the circuit and one of the Lister's knock-on hub caps actually gouged a mark into the trackside stone erected as a memorial to Seaman. The car then careered into a road sign which someone had promised local driver Paul Frere would be removed (and wasn't), overturning in flames and inflicting terrible injuries on Archie. The shape of the track at this point - just before the pits - has been changed several times over the years. Perhaps this weekend I will be allowed to make an excursion to see if that battered stone is still there.

Looking back on what first attracted me to motor racing, I realise now that it was the gladiatorial element. I looked up to men who had the courage to do what I dared not do. In my youth, Seaman's ghost was never far away, for I had attended the same school (Rugby) and university (Cambridge) as he. In only the second motor race at which I spectated, at glorious Oulton Park, Scott Brown's mastery of a ferocious car made a powerful impression on me. After I had read Seaman's life story and seen Scott Brown at his most combative, no stick-and-ball game would ever get my juices flowing like motor racing did and still does.

If my attitude towards the old Spa and its insanely dangerous layout appears to contradict my hero-worship, then I plead guilty to ambivalence. But I am not alone. Pressure from Jackie Stewart and the GPDA ensured that the 1970 Belgian would be the last on the open road circuit, but other drivers were less picky and the end of the GP wasn't the end of the classic Spa circuit where racing had started in 1924. Sportscar racing - involving cars that were just as fast as the F1s - continued for several more years. Even when the Matras and Ferraris were not allowed to race there anymore, major touring car events remained on the circuit calendar. To race at Spa seemed to have become a test of virility for the tin-top boys, and they paid the annual price in multiple gory fatalities until the circuit authorities finally got the message in about 1976.

If those same circuit authorities gave every impression of being heartless profiteers, their subsequent actions in ensuring a viable future for Le Circuit Nationale deserve applause. I don't know who the madman was who resolved to turn the old killer circuit into a modern race track without sacrificing its gloriously challenging character. It's likely that he has been happy to melt into the background, because the project almost certainly over-ran the budget and has subsequently cost the Belgian taxpayer tens of millions more. Such wanton, grandiose spending is typical of Belgium, surely the only country in Europe where a racing circuit could become a political hot potato. Behind it all is the pointless but never-ending conflict between the Dutch- and (minority) French-speaking factions, which may eventually spell the end for the country, let alone the circuit. It's all because of penis-envy between two mutually intolerant language groups.

After the "new" Spa-Francorchamps opened for business in 1979, I persuaded my editor that its renaissance should be suitably acknowledged and that our magazine, Motor, should be represented. The first big event was a touring car race, which did not justify sending a photographer, so I dug out my own expensive Canon AE1 and set off for the Ardennes. Once the race started, it seemed like a good idea to walk as far round the track as I could, in search of good shots. You've probably guessed that when the inevitable rainstorm arrived I was halfway round the track, somewhere near Pouhon, wearing dainty penny loafers on my feet and protected by a thin cotton jacket.

A good hour later, it was a seriously drowned hack who trudged into the press centre. I thought the camera would be OK in its nylon case, but so persistent was the rain that when I opened it up, my beloved AE1 was half full of ominously green liquid. That Canon was well and truly spiked. Ever since, I have left photography at Spa to the professionals, who have to cope not only with the vagaries of the weather but also with the attentions of a police force whose stupidity is matched only by their violence. Yes, the very same Belgian cops who turf accredited photographers out of their clearly designated working areas -- then start taking pictures on their mobile phones. No wonder several leading snappers have decided deliberately to boycott the Belgian GP.

As far as most dyed-in-the-wool race fans are concerned, one of the most attractive features about Spa is its location in the forests. There's nothing like the symphony of a racing engine on full song as it echoes off the trees and bluffs of the Ardennes countryside, even more evocative in my opinion than the same sound bouncing abruptly off the walls at Monaco. The famously changeable weather and the lack of hard standing at Spa not only mean that gum boots and waterproofs have to be packed (see above), but it also means that the fair-weather poseurs and well-nourished sponsors' wives stay well away from the place. That leaves more beer and fried potatoes for the rest of us, although I hasten to add that you don't have to slum it food-wise at Spa if you can afford to set your sights a little higher. There are some outstandingly good restaurants to be found not far away, and I would happily recommend the grub in the modest pub where I stay to anyone. Except, of course, that I'm keeping the place a tightly guarded secret ...

Assuming you stay clear of the intellectually underprivileged police and their savage dogs, Spa should be on any race fan's short list of destinations. After last year's huge investment in an extended paddock, up-to-date garages and a large permanent grandstand, nobody can grumble anymore about the lack of facilities. Unfortunately, nothing seems to have come of plans to bring a lot more racing to the circuit, and it is a little worrying that there has been no repeat of the big pre-race F1 test that took place there in July last year.

The big talking point this weekend, I'm sure, will be the durability of the Ferrari engines. In terms of handling and tyre management, this year's Ferrari should have the legs on the McLaren-Mercedes at Spa, but two engine failures in two races - and the uncomfortable Spa statistic that drivers have their foot hard in the throttle for 79 percent of the time here - may force the Ferrari boffins to send their drivers into the race with cautious engine settings or mapping. It may also be appropriate for rival team bosses to speculate openly about the sudden failure of connecting rods which are supposedly identical to components that have run trouble-free ever since the engine freeze was imposed by the FIA at the beginning of last year.

Even if Ferrari has isolated the cause of the rod failures, will the FIA authorise replacement parts to be fitted? Is it my own mischievousness or simple common sense to wonder why the two teams using customer Ferrari engines have not suffered similar failures?

Once the race starts, we'll be able to put these questions behind us. As a look back at the list of past pole position and race winners will demonstrate, Spa is such a demanding circuit that the best drivers have an opportunity to show their class. After this column's spectacularly inept attempt at forecasting the winner in Valencia two weeks ago, you won't catch me trying to do the same this week. I'll just say that whoever wins on Sunday will be worthy of his hire. And assuming that the weather hasn't jumbled the result, I suspect that the man at the top of the podium will be the man on whom to put your money for this year's World Champion.