F1 History – a trip around Old Spa-Francorchamps

Of the four circuits I have visited to watch Formula One live, every single one is historic. I started off at the top visiting Monaco, which boasts a wealth of history and glamour, and not to mention atmosphere, something which I also found with the Brits at Silverstone and the Tifosi in Monza; both tracks having been on the calendar since F1 began. But the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium, the fourth race that I’ve been to (twice), has a history unlike the others, and it is where I spent the day with Shell V-Power ahead of this year’s race.

If you’ve been to Spa and pitched a tent just outside the Les Combes entrance to the track, then you have camped on the old Spa circuit, where from the 1930s until the 1980s, Formula One left the Kemmel Straight and raced down the hills of Malmedy and Stavelot, claiming lives and terrifying the drivers.

Shell took us on a tour of the old and the current Spa-Francorchamps circuit, with a lap of each, guiding us around the two tracks as we went. On a bus it’s hard to imagine how terrifying it would have been to be racing on such a fast circuit, but just the thought that the old circuit remains unchanged since it was last raced on is a terrifying thought alone, and as I guide you through the lap we went on, you’ll maybe understand why.

Imagine back in the 30s, when the track was first raced on, turn one of a 15km, 21-turn lap was Eau Rouge. Back then Eau Rouge looked nothing like it does today. Forget taking the mighty corner flat out in the dry, in the middle of it there was a hairpin, there was no armco, and spectators sat by the side of the track with their picnics. Even in the 1950s Eau Rouge was a monster, when all four wheels of the car would leave the ground as it hurtled over the crest of the hill.

These days, Eau Rouge is a baby, with corners like Pouhon demanding more from the drivers, but the Kemmel Straight is still as fast as it always was. The difference back then began at Les Combes, where the drivers would carry on, past today’s campsite and begin descending down the valley, past houses and spectators at the side on the track, all the way down to the fast downhill right-hander of Burnenville. It’s here where you begin to understand how terrifying the old circuit was, mainly because it remains unchanged. There was no armco or catch fencing like there is today along the Kemmel Straight – houses line the roads just like they do on the road I live on. It was at the Burnenville corner in 1960 that two drivers were killed within 15 minutes of each other in the same race as they came down to the corner, which would have been the first challenge after Eau Rouge, and this was just one of many reasons why they no longer use the old circuit. Back in the 1930s, attempts were made to make the corner safer, by adding in a chicane to slow the cars down, but it was decided the chicane was boring and it was changed back, ultimately costing lives in the years that followed.

The next corner is the historic Malmedy corner, another very fast downhill right-hander. It was here that we got off the bus to have a look around and to reflect on what it would have been like to have raced on the track. One of the things worth noting here is just how hard the engines would have been working to produce as much power with the fuel of that racing era. Engine revs were considerably less back then, at just 9 or 10,000 rather than today’s 18,000 and reliability was nowhere near as good as it is today.

The Malmedy corner

After Malmedy comes the Masta Straight and the Masta Kink. Here, the drivers would have continued to race downhill. Speed from Malmedy would have been crucial to optimise speed onto the straight and it would have been critical through the kink as well. It was on the Masta Straight that Sir Jackie Stewart crashed, losing consciousness, before waking up upside down in a cellar covered in petrol. And it was this that saw Sir Jackie Stewart begin his crusade to improve safety in Formula One. Even at the Masta Straight the drivers would still be accelerating fast downhill from Les Combes – in fact here, they would have been going the fastest they could go, so it’s no wonder the crash was so horrific.

The Masta Kink. The high speed left-right curbs are still there today.

Next on the lap is Stavelot. The very old lap saw a right-hand hairpin, but in the 50s banking was introduced, and this remains to this day. The track then continues round through the forest at Holowell and La Carriere, to where it rejoins the current track where today the drivers hurtle to Blanchimont flat out. As they head down to the Bus Stop, the drivers now pull 5Gs on their helmets as they break as late as possible down from 300kmph. To help us understand what this is like, we were told the force of breaking into the Bus Stop chicane is the same as someone pushing down on the back of the driver’s crash helmet as hard as possible to force the driver’s head on to their chest – to do this lap after lap is a testament to how fit the drivers are to cope with such G-forces.

It’s here that today’s current lap ends and the new one begins, and the first corner is the tight turn one of the La Source hairpin which this year saw the end of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez’s races after Romain Grosjean caused a heavy pile-up down towards the tight turn. Had the four made it to turn one, the actual corner itself is better these days than in years gone by, as there is more run off than before.

At the end of the Kemmel Straight, the track now heads round to Rivage and then down to Pouhon, which today is one of the most challenging corners on the circuit. The drivers carry a huge amount of speed into the double corner and will lift, but not break. It’s a 6th gear corner where they pull 5Gs on their necks. From Pouhon the drivers continue down to Fagnes and down to today’s Stavelot corner at the bottom of the circuit, before making their way back uphill, through Blanchimont to the Bus Stop chicane and the end of the lap.

Both the old and the current circuits have many characteristics, and the most notable thing about both is the elevation changes. Les Combes is the highest part of both the old circuit and current circuit, and it’s incredible to be able to walk around the track and get a feel for the changes. The circuit really is incredible and a complete must for any fan. To have been able to tour both tracks and to see for myself what makes Spa so special is incredible.

Monza

After my trip to Belgium with the Shell team, I took a trip to Monza where I got to witness another stunning track, both new and old. Old Monza is iconic and unlike old Spa, which a lot of the drivers admitted they knew nothing about, but it is hard not to know anything about the old Italian track. Throughout the whole weekend I made it my goal to get onto the old Monza banking.

It’s actually surprisingly easy to get onto, as part of the old circuit is used as a car park for the weekend, and on the Friday we were able to park on it, despite not having the appropriate car parking pass. From there we took a walk down to the exit of what would have been the first banked corner, which is near to the current straight that runs underneath the old banking, on the run down to the Ascari chicane. Security wouldn’t let us go very far, but it was a great photo opportunity all the same.

Our grandstand down at the inside of turn one was actually inside the old Monza banking, and from there it was really easy to get close to the old circuit as you can walk through the woodland that lines the banking. Again, it’s guarded, and being an oval actually means it only needs a few security guards, as a carefully positioned guard can see a long way around the track, and once again, our attempt to get onto the banking was foiled.

Despite having been so unsuccessful in our attempt to get onto the track, throughout the weekend we heard of plenty of people getting onto the old banking. It wasn’t until after the race that we were able to make our way onto the old circuit by climbing over the wall where the old track meets the start/finish straight. From there we were able to walk part of the banking and begin to appreciate just how steep it is. We started at the very top of the banking at the exit of the corner, and there it felt like a gentle slope, but in no time at all standing upright was a huge challenge, let alone walking, as we made our way back around the corner. I think it’s fair to say you could never appreciate how steep it is until you get onto the track and walk it, and to think of what it must have been like to drive on this iconic track is beyond imagination.

The thing I loved the most about it was how eerie it was. When we got close to what was the first corner during Saturday’s GP3 race, the sounds of the cars in the distance sent shivers down my spine as you can almost envisage the old cars driving past you on the banking below in just a matter of seconds. Post-race on Sunday and it was all quiet, you could hear a pin drop. Both these things gave it a haunted feel, and many years after it was last raced on, old Monza boasts all the history of a well-loved track.

You have to go to both circuits to understand and appreciate the history, and I’m proud to be able to say of all of the circuits on the calendar, I have been to the most historic four.

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