The 7.004 km long Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps has a long and storied history, stretching back to 1921 when the track was still 14.982 km long and they attempted to host their first race (which was cancelled after only one driver showed up). Several events are hosted here including the World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix, 24 Hours of Spa, as well as others. Regardless of what the name would suggest, the (now) permanent circuit is not actually in the city of Spa, but within the Stavelot municipal boundaries, very close to the town of Francorchamps. This is all located in the greater Ardennes region of Belgium, on the eroded remains of an ancient range of mountains that has created the topography that makes the circuit here special. From the famous Eau Rouge-Raidillon combination to the infamous Masta Kink there’s a lot to say about this circuit.
There have been multiple reconfigurations of the track in the last 100 years. The initial circuit was 14.982 km long and was a part of the public roads in the area; fully equipped with hay bales for barriers and all the strange obstacles like electric poles and houses that a normal road has. These obstacles and uncertainty helped add to the danger of the already fastest circuit in Europe (at the time). “If you went off the road, you didn’t know where you were going to hit” is what the F1 driver and team owner Jackie Oliver said, highlighting just how unpredictable a circuit using public roads could be. Throughout the 1930’s there were various changes to the track including the elimination of the chicane at Malmedy (though a variant of the chicane was reintroduced in 1935) and the removal of the Holowell corner, bypassing the route through Stavelot, resulting in a high speed, wide right turn. By 1938, these modifications resulted in a total length of 14.100 km and one of the fastest circuits in the world. This proved to be a problem though, as the maintained high speeds of the track mixed with turns, including the infamous Masta Kink, resulted in 20 fatalities and numerous crashes by 1969. One of these crashes included Jackie Stewart flipping his car into a ditch, breaking his ribs, and having gasoline pouring out onto him. This wreck spurred him to become an advocate for driver safety, and he even attempted to rally a boycott of Spa.
The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps drastically changed by 1979, however. After losing their privileges to host F1 races in 1971 due to unmet safety specifications, changes were made, and plans were devised. The 14.001 km track that shared roads with the public was replaced by a permanent 6.947 km track that included no public roads. While still a high-speed course, requiring extreme driving skills by racers, modern safety features were implemented. Over the next 40 years minor alterations were made to the course, causing the length of the circuit to fluctuate between 6.940 km-7.001 km before landing at 7.004 km for the current iteration of the course that’s been in place since 2007.
The geographical location has helped to make the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps one of the most interesting racing circuits around. The Ardennes region in Belgium is located on a highly eroded ancient mountain range. This has resulted in a very hilly region which lends itself to an interesting, flowing race circuit. The location also has unpredictable weather, adding another layer of difficulty when navigating a race at Spa. It is often rainy or foggy which, when you’re relying on the grip of your tires to the road, makes racing incredibly tricky. Many of the fatal and non-fatal accidents occurred because of poor weather; this includes Jackie Stewart’s crash where it was raining. The hilly topography has made for some famous corners, notably the Eau Rouge and Raidillon combination. This section comes right after the hairpin turn at La Source which leads to a downhill hill straight that comes to the left-handed Eau Rouge which immediately turns into the right-handed, uphill Raidillon section. This can be a very dangerous section because the optimal approach is to take this section flat out, which helps in the straight section immediately after. The down force that comes from the flat-out speed helps the driver get through this section, but if you make a mistake, it becomes all the more dangerous because of the high speeds.
The high speeds of this course are evident when you start looking at the lap records throughout the years. The first race lap record came in 1937 when the course was still 14.982 km long. Hermann Lang, a German racer, put down a time of 5:04.100; which comes out to a speedy 2.97 km per minute. Driving skill and technology in race cars improved, and by 1993 on the 6.940 km version of the track, the French driver Alain Prost had laid down a race lap of 1:51.095. This clocked in at a massive 4.59 km per minute and showed just how much technology had improved. On the current 7.004 km iteration of the track, the race lap record of 1:46.286 was made by Valtteri Bottas in 2018. This equals out to 4.79 km per minute while navigating an actual race. This is incredibly fast but still falls short of the non-race lap record of 1:41.252, set by Lewis Hamilton in 2020. With no one else on the course Hamilton was able to push himself to the limits of what was possible while traveling an average of 185 mph, covering 4.97 km every minute. This is mind blowing speed that I couldn’t even recreate in a racing sim when I tried. This goes to show how high the skill level and athleticism of F1 drivers really is.
A lot has changed in the last 100 years in the world of racing; faster cars, higher skill, and bigger sponsorship deals. It’s a lot to keep track of. One thing is for certain though; Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps has been an important circuit in the history of racing and it will continue to be an important circuit in the years to come.
Here's the video of us trying to break Lewis Hamilton's lap record at Spa on iRacing: