Spa-Francorchamps which lies in Belgium's Ardennes forest just over the hills from The Nurburgring, is an absolute favourite with racers the world over. The obvious attraction, other than an ocean of Belgian beer and the availablity of mayonnaise for your daily diet of chips, is the track's changing elevation. Silverstone Grand Prix is challenging and interesting, but it's not grand like Spa. It could be, but only if the road rose and fell by a similar amount. The other thing which is sometimes overlooked, is Spa's scale. First used in 1921, and utilising the public roads which still serve the place, it ran for over nine miles. Progressively shrinking over the years - as safety improved in inverse proportion - it is now a mere 4.3 but instead of cramming dozens of corners into the same area in an attempt to make it busy, there are only 15 - or thereabouts. Sometimes it's hard to decide whether a very long bend with more than one clip, is actually two corners.
That though, is the point. The downhill left hander at Pouhon sweeps through nearly 180 degrees, which at Snetterton would make it a hairpin, but at Spa the track keeps turning for about half a mile and the radius means it's a top gear corner in most things, even those running on Dunlop's finest CR65s. See what I mean about scale. A fourth gear hairpin. Just say it to yourself... Pouhon is my favourite Spa corner but the one most people will quote when asked about the place, is Eau Rouge. This is the left hander at the end of the downhill straight past the old pits (the cramped ones which are still used for some events) and is so named because of the muddy red stream which used to flow across the dip. The piece of road that causes most problems though comes immediately after Eau Rouge – at the top of the steep hill which follows - and it's called Raidillon.
It causes problems because it spans a sharp crest which completely hides a left turn. All you can see on the approach - assuming you are even looking in the right place - is the sky. You have to aim for a spot somewhere in space, and you must already have taken note of what the crest might do to your car's handling. I have spent far too many laps trying to second guess where the car will end up and aim for somewhere different in the hope it will land where I want, which is preferably with at least two wheels on the black stuff. Trouble is, there's another four and a bit miles, much of which requires similar attention to detail and which has to be negotiated before you can revise your technique for another go.
If you find yourself at Spa when the track is closed - which is usually not until it's getting dark - walking the hill up to Radillon is illuminating. It doesn't feel so steep in the car because you are going pretty fast, but on foot, I guarantee you'll be out of breath by the time you get to the top. Then turn round and look back down the hill. It really is fantastically steep. All of which makes it a prime site for incidents, some serious, some comical, some just annoying. I've had several drive-through penalties courtesy of the layout, all of them because I had four wheels over the white line on exit. The best excuse I could offer was that I had discovered a car facing the other way, or upside down, or on fire, or something but it only became visible once I had crested the summit. Four wheels over the line was a better option than hitting whatever it was very hard indeed.
More prosaic was an incident with a single-seater being towed to safety behind an over-enthusiastic recovery vehicle. The unfortunate driver got into a tank slapper, and rolled on the end of the towrope... fortunately without injury. It was also the scene of what Jacques Villeneuve called his "best ever crash". It's flat for today's Formula Ones but in those days, obviously it wasn't quite. Modern aerodynamics and the grip of slick tyres means that most single seaters with wings, and protos like the Radical can certainly get through without a lift but the car having the capability is one thing while the driver overcoming the desire to lift off the gas, is quite another. Even Fernando says he is occasionally tempted by what he calls "that special feeling..." So, here's a brief guide to Eau Rouge and Raidillon in something which definitely can't take it flat.
You'll be travelling past the pits, gathering speed easily down the slope and you can already see the road bending left at the bottom, threading past the armco which seems to be heading right to form a bottleneck with the long white expanse of pit wall on the right. There's a distinct sense of heading into a funnel but because you need to start so far over to the right, almost scraping the pit wall, the left turn becomes just an extension of the sweep across the road. All too easy to focus on that though and when the rasp of the left side's tyres on the kerb prompts you to look right, it's already too late. The road climbs oh-so steeply away to the right and time after time I have eased the wheel right and found the car unwilling to put its right side wheels close enough to the kerb. Either that, or I have taken too much speed through the left and even when my aim to the right had been in time, the car didn't have the grip to make use of it.
The real trap still awaits. The road climbs and bends right, but just on the summit is where it turns left... This is officially Raidillon. At exactly the point where you are still cursing because there's a couple of feet of road between you and the kerb, the car goes light just at the point you have forgotten to aim left. Which means that whichever end of your car is weakest is the end which will head you over the white lines on the exit and to the right, but hopefully not to the armco beyond.
If Raidillon was flat - as in level - then it would be so much easier. Fortunately for the enthusiast world, the Ardennes aren't like that, and it isn't...
Charlies 1 and 2 are a brilliant challenge. Blind on entry, you use the gradient to slow the car and make it point.
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