Spa 1000Km - 1971



A Spectacle of Speed


ONCE AGAIN THE SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS circuit's claim to being the fastest road course in the world was heavily underlined on May 9, when Pedro Rodriguez and Jackie Oliver drove their Gulf- JW 5litre Porsche 917 to victory in the 1000Kms race. The car averaged a staggering 154.70 mph, compared with Pedro's 1970 record average of 149.942mph in the Belgian GP-winning Formula 1 3litre BRM, while the second placed sister car of Jo Siffert/Derek Bell took the lap record when the Swiss did a sizzling 3m 14.6s, 162'0Imph, lap. This time bettered Pedro's 1970 record of 3m 16'5s, 160.513mph, which shocked everybody at the time because it meant the Gulf-Porsche had got under the existing record by no less than 14 seconds!

But while these shattering new times were being set, and some more highly impressive statistics being added to the record books, was it also the last major World Championship-qualifying race to be run at long-famous Spa circuit?

Ever since the disastrous opening lap of the '66 Belgian GP, when half the field skated off the road in a sudden and unexpected rainstorm, numerous members of the Grand Prix circus have been moaning about the course and the dangers it represents. Jackie Stewart, whose injuries from his personal first lap accident were the most serious, has hit the headlines with some scathing attacks on the course, and it is most certainly a daunting place.

Apart from the 'Raidillon' link road by-passing one of the original course's hairpins just beyond the pits, the whole circuit is composed of public roads in everyday use, specially closed on practice and race days. During the late 'fifties and early 'sixties the Belgian promoters had a race, first with Monza and later with Enna and Reims, to have themselves the fastest road course in Europe and later in the world. . . and they succeeded. They produced a super fast course which was no speed bowl or cunningly devised stadium circuit, but a succession of ultra-high-speed curves and medium fast corners' joined by long, long straights, a tight first-gear hairpin and bordered by trees, telegraph poles, unguarded drops and houses; a true road circuit, and one which took a lot of courage as well as skill to be lapped really quickly.

Situated high in the Belgian hills near the Ardennes it is not blessed with reliable weather, the area being just across ,the border from the Nurburgring and 'enjoying' similarly changeable conditions; cloud, squall and bright sunshine following one another with a capricious and painful irregularity.

And the course, its challenge, and its nature, took their toll. Dick Seaman, Richard Stallebrass, Archie Scott-Brown, Wim Loos, Eric de Keyn, Alan Stacey, Chris Bristow and Tony Hegbourne all lost their lives in accidents on this 8 mile stretch of roadway, and in recent years as cars became faster, probably more difficult to handle, and their drivers more safery conscious, so the reaction against racing at Spa became inevitable.

The GPDA, led by Stewart, Bonnier and the late Jochen Rindt, decided against racing in the Belgian GP of 1969 unless certain concessions were made for their safety. The RAC de Beige and the RAC de Spa could not accede to all their requests, and a general breakdown in communications between both parties concerned and the press led to much acrimony and mud-slinging, in turn leading to the race's cancellation. To some extent the GPDA's ill-handled pan in the matter was used by internal Belgian factions as a handy cover for some political inter-club shenannigins due to problems with spectator insurance. An anti-Spa faction wanted to bring the race closer to Brussels, either at Zolder or at a new circuit to be built south of the city at Nivekles. But neither project came to much and the race was run at Spa in 1970.

But for this race, and for the 1000Kms sports car event which preceded it by a few weeks; the Spa club and the local authorities with an interest in the circuit paid heed to the drivers' recommendations and lined much of the circuit with mile after shining silver mile of Armco crash barriers. They still hadn't done enough, leaving gaps, in the barriers which a spinning car could easily pass through to hit the stub end of the next one, and also leaving numerous drops unguarded. The GP was run on a slightly modified circuit, using the original old hairpin bend at Malmedy instead of the fast sweeping by-pass curve entering the notorious Masta Straight, but even so Pedro and the BRM set their record figures.

For 1971 three meetings were scheduled by the Spa club, the 1000Kms, the Belgian GP for motorcycles and the annual 24 Hours saloon car race. Last season a 2litre European Championship round for sports car completed the season, but nobody went to see it so the event has been dropped. It seems that so far as M. Sven and the organising club are concerned the more the GP circus keeps away the better; it seems they are more trouble than they are worth particularly if the interested parties involved can run a restricted programme of events and show healthy profit as well.

But it does seem a pity that Spa Francorchamps may never again see a Grand Prix race, particularly since the CSI have banned open wheeled racing there for the time being. This bizarre decision makes one wonder if they have seen the Ferrari 312P with its bodywork off (how close to Formula 1 can you get?) or if they have watched any of the motorcycle GP races there? If the course does not show a profit this year the sports and saloon car races may also be removed from the calendar or from the venue, and this would leave one of motor racing's greatest challenges. lying dormant and disused.

If you tot up the number of top drivers who are actively opposed to racing at Spa at almost any cost you will find you have a list of perhaps three or four, including Stewart, Bonnier and Beltoise. There will be an infinitely longer list of drivers who don't exactly like racing there, but are prepared to do it, and a similarly small total of drivers who actively like the place.

Pedro Rodriguez -something of a Spa ace-admits that he doesn't exactly feel happy at the circuit, but the challenge of doing well there is so great, and so difficult, that the feeling of satisfaction if you succeed is really tremendous. Smoothness and consistency are vital: At Spa you have to be very precise. You have to balance the car carefully. It isn't the sort of track where you can let the tail get loose. The fastest part is just before the kink in the Masta Straight we're getting up over 200mph there in the Gulf-Porsches with 8800rpm showing. You lift just a little going into the kink and the revs drop to about 8000. If you're running well, they should only drop to 8200. The kink is one of the trickiest parts of the track because if you lift too much it takes a while to get up to speed again'. Quoted in a Gulf release, Pedro went on to say of the circuit; ' it does feel fast when you go out for the first laps of practice, but you soon get used to the speed'.

In practice for this year's 1000 Kms, after Pedro and Jo had flown to Silverstone for the International Trophy, Derek Bell took the car he was sharing with the Swiss round to take pole position with a 3m 16.0s lap, at that time the fastest ever at Spa. When he heard of his time he was justifiably elated; like a mountaineer who has just topped Everest, an athlete doing a sub 3m 50s mile or a pole vaulter clearing 17 feet for the first time. He said; 'there was more to come because I never, got a clear lap so you should be able to take another second or so off that time, but you've got to watch it getting past slower cars, especially out at Malmedy. You have to keep the car tight because the slightest raggedness or loss of line getting by there and you wouldn't sort it out until a long way down the straight'.

Teddy Pilette, the Belgian VDS Lola driver and the man who won the Coupe de Spa saloon car race the previous day, probably knows Spa as well as anybody: 'It is a place to go very fast, nearly all the time, and it is very satisfying to set a really good lap or win a race here.

But the satisfaction come afterward, when it is all over. I do not feel happy when I am driving because there are still gaps in the barriers where you could go through and hit the end of the next one along. I do not worry if I bounce from one to another across the circuit, but I don't want to be cut in 'alf! You cannot enjoy it really while you are driving because there is always the thought: where to go if something break? You must concentrate very hard and be right on line all the time, even in a saloon car like my Opel, which was only 30kph slower on top speed than the Lola. The trickiest bit is up the back, coming back up the hill from Stavelot towards La Source and the pits. The bends there are very fast and very deceptive, and you must be right, right, right for every one. Maybe I do worry in the race, but when I have finished, if I have done well, it is a great feeling. If I feel I have not done my best here, I think I try better next time. . .'

Vic Elford, one of the fastest drivers anywhere, says of the circuit; '. . . It is the one which sorts the men out from the boys. It is much safer than it used to be but could be even better; wherever you go off-if you do go off-you're going to hit something going very fast. I trust the Armco, but don't like the gaps in it. The whole point about this place is the challenge it offers; you have to anticipate the corners and everything's going past so fast, and when you're lapping slower traffic you have to make your decisions really quickly because you could be going nearly 100mph faster on some parts of the course. . .'

The speed differential problem reared its head in the I000Kms when Regazzoni's Ferrari 312P butted Martin Ridehalgh's Dulon in the tail right at the end of the Masta Straight, and both cars were destroyed as they spun along the barriers. The drivers escaped unhurt from an accident whieh could so easily have claimed two lives three or four years ago. But a notable feature of this Belgian sports car race is the number of English amateur drivers who compete each year and to them-almost without exception-Spa is a fabulous place. The natural counter to this is that they are probably not going half as fast as the aces would be, but their speeds are still high enough to prove highly injurious if they go off. I remember Gerry Marshall returning to the pits last year after dicing his Shaw & Kilburn Viva round in the saloon car race and bursting with enthusiasm for the circuit, and again after the event.

Spa-Francorchamps is a daunting, demanding and dicey circuit but the challenge it offers is tremendous and virtually unique. Denis Jenkinson, who isn't exactly renowned for his unbiased views on the subject or for his love for the 'milk and water drivers' says that if Spa is all wrong and too dangerous for modern motor racing, then it means a lot of people have been wrong about motor sport and its purpose for over 70 years, and he just doesn't believe that can be true. It's all too easy for we writers to sit at our desks and criticise those who do the driving for refusing to race somewhere and expose themselves to some very obvious dangers, but in this antiseptic modern world some of the 'Because it's there' spirit seems to be fading, particularly in top-class motor sport, and this seems a terrible shame. Jim Clark's first race at Spa was in 1958 when Archie Scott-Brown was killed at the same spot as Dick Seaman died 29 years before. After seeing that shunt he was left with a hatred and cohfessed fear of the place. This was heightened in 1960 when team-mate Alan Stacey and friendly rival Chris Bristow were both killed in the Belgian GP, and yet Clark responded not with bleats of 'Let's ban it' but with drives which won the Grand Prix four years in succession, from 1962-1965. Admittedly some of them were lucky wins, but nonetheless here was a great driver who accepted the challenge, overcame his own (and perfectly understandable) reluctance to race at the place and achieved his highest goal.

Is, this spirit dead now, or will it be left to, the amateur and club drivers to frighten themselves at Spa and to feel that flood of deep satisfaction when they have done well there? It hardly seems believable that this Everest of motor racing will be left to decay and crumble.

P.S. This year's 1000Km race was a doddle for the Gulf-Porsches who toured round in close company most of the time to win easily. The 3litre Ferrari and Alfa couldn't get near the leading Porsche times in practice, although the Ferrari did 3.22.2 against the Siffert/Bell time of 3.16.0. Not bad with two litres missing. In the race the Ferrari ran third for most of the distance until it collided with the Dulon and was written off in a 180mph crash. The ~ Dulon had lapped at 4.30.7 in practice, well over a minute slower than the works Ferrari-'nuff said. It may be a lot of fun for British private owners, to race at Spa but it's no fun to be lapped every three or four laps by the leaders. The Alfa inherited third place but finished a distant four laps behind the Gulf cars. Most of the other 51itre contenders either blew engines, blew tyres, ran out of fuel or had holes appear in the fuel tanks.

Spa 70

Targa Florio 62

Targa Florio 65

Author: ArchitectPage