The summer-break of Formula One is finally over as the circus returns to one of the most beautiful and fastest circuits in the world for the 48th running of Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps. Located in the Ardennes countryside, this historic racing venue has the reputation for hosting motor races since 1920’s and the original triangle layout, stretched about 14.9 km, was an unnerving tarmac with weather being often so varying on the three villages it ran through.
From every now and then, Spa featured unique challenges of its own with the straightforward and speed-obsessed unforgiving track layouts. In 1939, Ancienne Douane was cut short thus the Eau Rouge/Raidillon uphill sweeping corner was born. The blindingly-fast track claimed 10 victims in the ‘60s and in the wake of 1969 boycott led by Sir Jackie Stewart, F1 wouldn’t return there until 1983 after Pedro Rodriguez took his second and coincidentally last victory in 1970 driving a BRM P153.
Back then, cars would hit their top speed before approaching the notorious Masta kink, a left-right chicane flanked by two high speed straights. In 1966, a sudden downpour made the relentless course treacherous as Stewart crashed into a ditch unable to control and trapped in his BRM. Luckily his team-mate Graham Hill slid off at the same spot and saw the stricken Stewart before running to release him off his fuel-spilling car.
That instigated Jackie Stewart and BRM team manager Louis Stanley to launch a campaign for improvements in safety standards and on-track emergency medical facilities. Unfazed by critics in the quest for greater driver safety, the Scot braced himself for a long uphill fight that would pave the way for a safer future.
The race course has seen many modifications over the years with the start/finish straight moved from downhill straight to the one before La Source hairpin in 1981. From the La Source to turn 5 at Les Combes, F1 engines would spend approximately 23 second on full throttle – most for any track.
The engine power curve has to be smoother for the flowing nature of Spa and as the layout is a mix of everything, power delivery at all torque and rev limits must be immediate. The middle sector possesses 10 out of 19 available corners where it’s easy to get things go wrong. Often used as a control circuit on the dyno, medium downforce setup as similar to Canada is used to tackle the ultra -fast corners and long straights.
A good exit at La Source ensures a quick first sector as maximum speed could be carried into the downhill straight then up the hill for left/right/left fast turns on the famous Eau Rogue and onto one of the long straights. The modern, aerodynamically sculpted F1 cars could be taken flat out and the compression of nearly 2G the drivers feel before the kemmel straight will be immense.
Heading down into 3rd gear turns five, six and seven in which hitting the kerbs at right time make or break lap time before braking hard for Rivage. The latter is slightly off-cambered so the cars tend to fall off the track a bit and front rights lock up while going in sometimes as the cars struggle for grip and moreover there’s a bump on the exit to deal with.
The key is to carry as much speed as possible out of Rivage and down the hill through turn nine and into Pouhon which is another fabled corner of Spa. Heading into it on full power, lifting off a tiny bit and then straight back on the throttle again, it’s quite tight on the entry before opens up on the exit so a fair amount of speed is carried out of it leading to turns 12, 13 and 14.
Turn 15 lies pretty much at the bottom of the valley and on the way back up to the start / finish straight. Next comes the high-speed final sweeping corner of Blanchimont largely unmodified from the original layout; taken flatout the fearsome left-turn could cause scary accidents while fighting wheel to wheel.
Erik Comas’ heavy shunt in 1992 and Irvine-Burti crash in 2001 were prime examples. Carrying a good speed out of Blanchimont is crucial as it leads on to the tight Bus Stop chicane and ultimately the pit straight. Bus Stop chicane was re-profiled as part of a major overhaul in 2007 that made way for larger run-off areas around the faster sections of the track. (Suren M)
Lap length: 7.004km (4.352 miles)
Total laps: 44
Number of Turns: 20
Race distance: 308.052km (191.415 miles)
Pole position: Right-hand side of the track
Lap record: 1’47.263, Sebastian Vettel, 2009
Top speed: 324kph (201.324 mph)
DRS zones: Pit straight and Kemmel straight
Tyre allocation: Soft and Medium