The Belgian Grand Prix by Dick Suter
A favourite with F1 Drivers and a real crowd-pleaser. This annual event takes place in the Ardennes on August 24
Imagine driving in excess of 150 mph on a greasy road with nothimng stopping you hitting the houses facing the road should you puncture a tyre or get oil dropped by another car. It's a notion that might not unsurprisingly, send shivers down your spine and start butterlies fluttering in your stomach. Ultra high speeds and virtually nothing in the way of safety measures. That's what racing on the Spa Francorchamps circuit used to be like. The Belgian Grand Prix took place each yearon roads normally open for everyday traffic use and only closed for events such as this and the equally daunting 24-hour race.
The circuit measured almost 9 miles and contained a straight of some 2.5 miles between the villages of Malmedy and Stavelot passing through the hamlet of Masta Except the 'straight' contained some gentle curves which at around 180 mph were more like full blooded corners. And given the vagaries of the in this area, one side of the circuit was often dry while mere kilometres away the track might be awash as a cloud burst vented its fury on both spectators and tarmac.
The last Grand Prix to be heldon the 'long' circuit was in 1970 when Mexican Pedro Rodríguez took victory by just 1.1 seconds from New Zealander Chris Amon after 250 miles and one hour and thirty minutes of driving. That's an average speed of just under 150 mph. Yes, you needed an ecess of courage on that track.
But over the years, cornering and straight line speeds had been increasing significantly and drivers not unreasonably demanded greater protection. It was clear that major changes needed to be made and that required time and a large financial investment. Over the next year the Belgian Grand Prix was staged on a purpose built but somehat characterless close to Nivelles - which soon ran into financial difficulties and is now the site of a housing development and Zolder a twisty, flat circuit in the Luxembourg region close to Hasselt and Genk.
During this time a revised circuit of 4.33 miles long was being created at Francorchamps which utliises part of the original and challenging roads and a new section, not open for public road use. It winds its way from the end of the longest remaining straight onto the still blindingly fast Blanchimont bend. It is a track revision which retained the soul of the original circuit and is still one of the most challenging of any on the 17 race long F1 calendar. Most F1 drivers rank it as their favourite for getting the difficult corners just right demands outstanding skilla and no small amount of bravery. So don't get the idea that today's breed of racer is lacking in courage. It's simply the racing though it will always be danergous doesn't have to subject its participants to unacceptable risks.
Michael Schumacher made his Grand Prix debut there in 1991 at the wheel of a Jordan Ford and the next year secured his maiden F1 victory on the Ardennes track driving a Beneton Ford. He won again last year in his first year driving for Ferrari. Ferrari currently leads the championship, the cars performing well as is its number one driver, so putting your money on "Schuey" could be a good investment - except that the odds are bound to be short. Good bets also for victory are Williams Renault stars Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Mclaren Mercedes' David Coultard and Mika Häkkinen or 38 year old veteran Gerhard Berger driving a Beneton Renault. And look out for some bright newcomer like Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher, Michael's kid brother. All are capable of pulling off the big one.
If you have the opportunity, go see this race for it's one of the classics in motorport. It's also situated in one of the most beautiful hilly, wooded areas in norhern Europe. And if the sun shines, that's an extra bonus.
Left and below Dick Suter at Spa in 1997 covering an event for the Belgian Procar Touring Car championships in 1997 (These images do not enlarge)
Original article appearing in "Internationals in Belgium" Dick Suter was an editor of the magazine and contributor and Ginny Suter was a regular contributor in the late 1990's and 2000's - The magazine had a circulation of 10,000 Please note that this article was first published many years ago and telephone and fax numbers are likely to be out of date and email addresses have been removed.
Source of images, unless otherwise stated - Suter family archives