River runs red - The old spa-francorchamps

Some rust fell off the old Armco-barrier as I stood up. Along it, you could almost see the since long sun-bleached words “Total”. Just across the road, an older Belgian man was sipping some unknown beverage. I wonder if he was here forty years ago, during the golden age of sports-car racing. Next to him there was a sign. The sign said “Bournenville”. I wondered how it would have been when the sounds of German Flat-12s, big American V8s and italian V12s echoed along the mountains of the Ardennes. I stood in the middle of the road. For 50 years, legends such as Fangio, Hawthorne, Bell, Ickx, Stewart and Moss, amongst many others passed this very spot at +320km/h. This was a corner in the infamous and stupendous quick Spa-Francorchamps race track.

Today it is quiet, now and then a tractor sputters past the rusty armco, being passed by a Prius. It is kind of sad fate for one of the worlds most revered temples of speed.

The modern 7-kilometer layout of Spa-Francorchamps were just a couple of kilometers to the west from my position, a far cry from the extraordinary road-circuit of old. Between 1921-1980 one lap of the demanding circuit were 14-17km depending on year. The Mantorp park race track in Sweden is about 2km. One extraordinary thing is that the old race track is actually open to the public, since the track was the surrounding public roads. To drive the old track is a must if you are in the area, and see for yourself that it must have been an absolutely terrifying experience when something went wrong. Which it frequently did.

The track is located in the Ardennes, a mountain range in the eastern part of Belgium close to the town of Francorchamps. One of the few race tracks that respect the topography in the area. It’s like someone dropped cooked spaghetti on the mountains below. The result is a beautiful track with its twists and turns through the forests. Work began in the early 1920-s when the Belgians liked the idea of endurance racing of which the French almost perfected with the LeMans circuit. The final result was a track stretching between the towns Francorchamps then east to Burnenville, then south towards Stavelot. There the track abruptly turned north again back to Francorchamps.

Modern track in red. Blue where the track continued and joined back again.

The car that was chosen in this adventure was a friends Subaru Impreza STI Racing.

The start-finish began just after the “La Source”-hairpin on to the steep downhill section leading down to the legendary and extremely exciting “Eau-Rouge”. It means the “red water” and is a river running under the track and it is said to be colored red after the blood spilt in the fighting during the Battle of the Bulge during world war two. The corner is comprised of a compression in a left turn immediately followed by a right and become a steep climb upwards to “Radillion”. This section is one of the most legendary, fun and adrenaline filled corners in the world. If taken wrong and at speed, it will spit you out without mercy.

View down to Eau Rouge with the track disappearing up towards Radillion.

When you are “on top” of Radillion there is a ~2km straight called the “Kemmel Straight” where you just keep the gas pedal buried all the way down. It turns slightly right, but it’s safe to drive at full speed in any car. At the end of the straight, the new layout goes right into a chicane called “Les Combes“, however we will follow the older layout that keeps on going straight for a couple of hundred meters. The track than gracefully turns left and shortly thereafter to the right again.

Run off areas? Not really. Maybe a stack of hay on race day.

What you notice when you drive here is the steep downhill part that will help your car speed up to ridiculous speeds, and the lack of any kind of barriers. It’s just a sudden drop down into the forest below. continuing downwards we pass houses that are just next to the track.

Yes the race cars thundered past here.

After the first kilometer, you reach a small village called Bournenville. At the time the track was active, this was the longest corner in the world.

Today, all you can see along the sides of the road are rusty old armco covered with moss and algae. A desperate attempt to make the track safer after drivers noticed that the barbed wire in neck-height used earlier made for bad run-off areas.

A relic withering away.

Before you exit the corner, you pass an even smaller village called “Malmedy” and continue out on the “Masta Straight“. This straight, loved and hated by drivers are 2,5km narrow road with only forest and trees along the sides. If you missed here during a race, a fatal outcome was more rule than exception.

Imagine reaching 350km/h here on the Masta Straight. In the rain. At night.

When you drive there in a normal car, you also notice that the road is not even at all. The racecars must have bounced around quite a bit here when the speeds were over 350km/h on some of the Group-5 cars. Suddenly the road turns slightly left and right again. This is the “Masta Kink“.

Masta Kink

It was here Jackie Stewart almost died after a crash where he ended up in a farmers cellar. Trapped, upside down with racing fuel gushing over him. A small spark and the wreckage would have turned into a larger-yield bomb. It all ended well though, but it was that crash that marked the beginning of the end of the old Spa. After the Kink, another straight named the “Holowell straight” continued for about a kilometer and a bit until you reached the southern part of the track near the town of “Stavelot”. Here, a sweeping right turn brought you back north.

40 years between the pictures. Little has changed

A small straight continued in another full-speed left hander that went on into an even faster section of right and left corners.

One last right corner brings you back to the “Blachimont” part of the new track, where the old track joined and brought you back towards “La Source” and the finish line and the lap started over again. We stopped at the entrance where they joined and I stepped out of the car. I stood in silence and reflected over my experience. This 30 and a bit minute trip gave me a harrowing and chilling realization. The lap record on the old track is three minutes and thirteen seconds. It took some time to take in. An AVERAGE speed of over 260km/h where you can barely keep 100km/h with a normal car. You simply couldn’t believe it. Especially when you see what cars they drove back then.

After this trip I came to two conclusions.

1: The drivers of old really knew how to drive, and they where absolutely crazy.

2: I have realized what real Street-racing means.

I closed my eyes and silently absorbed the history.
Suddenly I understood the words of Graham Hill.

-“Racing is like being an artist. The track is my canvas, the car is my brush“

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