Motorsport is dangerous. It always was and ever will be. No matter how experienced a driver is, at the end of the day, they're still human, they make mistakes. These very mistakes would lead into missed opportunities, missed victories, and sometimes, missing limbs, and more the worst: lives.
WHEN IT CAME TO SPA, MISTAKES ARE NOT TAKEN LIGHTLY.
The circuit was designed in 1920 around the roads of Spa-Francorchamps, Malmedy, and Stavelot. The triangular-shaped course held its first race in August 1921, but was cancelled as there was only one car entered! The first car race was held in 1922, this time with more than one car participating. The famous 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps was first held in 1924, and the first Grand Prix race a year after.
The old high speed incarnation of the circuit was a world away from the layout we'll see on this weekend's race. It was essentially a high speed course, with only two slow corners, the La Source hairpin, and the Ancienne Douane, named so because there was a customs office of the German Empire there. But the latter was cut short in 1939 to make way for Raidillon. One of the most dangerous sections of the track was known as the Masta Straight, which was a full-fledged, flat out straight, only interrupted by the also high speed Masta Kink. Top speed in this section of 2 2.4 kilometers straights hit by around 190 mph.
The tracks former self wasn't actually a race track, rather public roads routed together to make the circuit. By then, the safety precautions in motorsport were, to be put to a degree, elementary. Other than straw bales to cushion your car in the event of it losing controls at 190 mph, there were also, houses, trees, poles, people... When it came to Spa, former F1 owner and driver Jackie Oliver said:
With all the high speed kept up for 3 to 4 minutes, the unpredictable weather, which made some sections of the track wet and others completely dry, and the absolute lack of safety, save for the bales, the circuit had some pretty gruesome incidents. The most notable one is in 1960, where drivers Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey were both killed in the horrifying span of 15 minutes. It was also the race where driver Sir Stirling Moss crashed in practice and his injuries made him miss 3 races. Another horrific ordeal is in the 1972 edition of the 24 Hour Touring Car Race, where a driver yells to his co-driver during a night stop to "look out for body parts at the Masta Kink". The co-driver only arrived there to see the botched remains of a marshal. Concerned about the absurdly high amount of fatalities and the poor safety measures around the circuit, driver Jackie Stewart, along with other drivers, boycotted the 1969 edition of the Belgian Grand Prix to be held at Spa. They only raced in 1970 with the addition of armco barriers and a small chicane at Malmedy. It would be the final time F1 cars raced on the old circuit. The last formal races held on the old track by 1978 was the Belgian Motorcycle Grand Prix and the Spa 24 Hours.
The track was then revised in 1979, when a new permanent track was built. It broke off at Les Combes and rejoined the original circuit at Blanchimont. By 1981, in an effort to slow the cars down, the Bus Stop Chicane was made. F1 returned to the track in its newest form in 1983 with pit facilities exclusive to F1. The track was in trouble again in 2005, where it failed to meet the improvement demands of then F1 owner Bernie Ecclestone, and the bankruptcy of the event's promoter. The race was dropped from the schedule a year after, but was rejoined in 2007 when a new financial backer went in. After then, the track was used for events from F1 to WEC to GT3 Racing.
With the accidents, also came history-making moments. Such are the victories of drivers like Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna, the debut of Michael Schumacher, among other things. There was also the complete pile up at the start of the 1998 Grand Prix, the controversial end of the 2008 Grand Prix, where Lewis Hamilton was robbed of the victory by receiving a 25 second penalty after cutting the chicane to pass Kimi Raikkonen, the more recent establishment of a new lap record, also by Lewis Hamilton, reaching pole position and matching Schumi's record of 68 poles in the process, and more daring maneuvers.
Spa was in its baptism a dangerous circuit. With the incredibly long circuit coupled by the lack of safety, it was considered as the most dangerous circuit on the calendar, compared with the likes of the Ring and Circuit De La Sarthe. But through the intervention of drivers, and some fatal accidents, the track was transformed into not just a track that was a little less dangerous, but still retains the charm of its former self, but also as one of the most gorgeous tracks of the season.