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Spa-Francorchamps equals respect

Maurice Hamilton August 29, 2012
John Surtees leads the pack at the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix ... before it started to rain © Sutton Images
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From the moment Jackie Stewart finished upside down in a ditch, trapped in a BRM leaking fuel with no one able to help, it was evident that Spa-Francorchamps in its original form was never going to pass muster once Stewart moved safety to the top of the F1 agenda.

It took two fellow drivers - using a spanner borrowed from a spectator - to unbolt the BRM's steering wheel and release the hapless Scot. And that was only half the story.

Suffering from a broken collar bone and a cracked rib, Stewart found himself in a barn under the care of a couple of nuns totally unprepared for either the emergency and or the sight of Graham Hill tearing off his team-mate's petrol-soaked overalls and underwear. The nuns were at first startled and then (according to Sir Jackie's recollection) they were impressed. Apparently they had never seen a naked Scottish racing driver before.

In any case, Stewart couldn't have cared less, his priority being attention to petrol burns and fractures. When an ambulance finally arrived, it then got lost - twice - on the bumpy Belgian roads trying to find the hospital. If Spa hadn't been on Stewart's list of targeted circuits before, it was now. This was in 1966. There would be three more grands prix at Spa before the name was struck from the calendar.

With its future as a race track - never mind an F1 circuit - in the balance, I went to pay my respects in 1972 and witness the Spa 1000 kms in the days when sportscar racing really meant something on a global championship scale.

Jacky Ickx crests the hill at Raidillon in his Ferrari 312P during the Spa 1000 kms in 1972 © Getty Images
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The beauty of a five-hour race was that it allowed time to take in Spa in all its splendour. The trick was to put on your hiking boots and go from the depths to the peak. This meant standing in the dip and marvelling at the skills required as the cars plunged and twisted through Eau Rouge before being launched vertically towards the pine trees. Then you began the climb to Les Combes and the highest point of the circuit.

In those days, the run to the top of the hill was not the long straight you see now but a series of sweeping rights and lefts, each one blind and becoming faster and faster as the engine was given its head. Standing on the inside of the old left-hander at the top, you could hear the cars approaching on full noise and determine the drivers who were not lifting through the really quick sweepers. It goes without saying, Jacky Ickx in the gorgeous and nimble Ferrari 312P was full-on all the way.

Drop a couple of gears for Les Combes and then the sound would disappear as Ickx rushed downhill towards the never-ending right-hander through Burnenville - a corner you can still see to today and wonder what it must have been like to go dancing through there, the car on the limit with houses, walls and telegraph poles on either side.

Wait a while at Les Combes and, after a couple of minutes, you would see the Ferrari, now the size of a toy, attacking the gentle climb on the return leg far below, the 12-cylinder yowl echoing across the valley. Again, it was easy to detect who was taking Blanchimont (minus today's run-off) flat and who was having a comfort lift after that flat-out blast all the way from Stavelot, some way out of sight to your left. It was a truly awesome experience made surreal, in moments of comparative quiet, by the sound of birds singing and cows chomping grass in the field behind you.

Spa Francorchamps is still an awe-inspiring circuit despite recently added run-off areas © Getty Images
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We rejoiced when news came through that a shortened and revised Spa would see the return of the Grand Prix in 1983. Okay, this would not be the original but it would be better than nothing.

Our worst fears were completely unfounded. The new Spa demonstrated just what can be done while making the necessary safety improvements but without diluting the track's essential character. Since then, it must be admitted that the liberal addition of asphalt run-off areas at places such as Eau Rouge and the exit of Pouhon have removed suck-through-teeth moments that would have come with a trip into a gravel trap rather than full-throttle more or less penalty-free seconds on Tarmac. But if it's that or no Spa at all, then so be it.

At least, when the day's activities are done, you can take your road car and follow the traces of the old track at Les Combes, cruise down the hill through Burnenville towards the Masta straight - and into the Masta kink.

This you will not believe. It is not a kink at all but a distinct left and then a distinct right - with substantial buildings all around and a fish and chip shop just after the exit. This is exactly as it was when Stewart and the boys came through for the final time in 1970 at 190 mph.

Pause for a bag of frites and mayonnaise, contemplate the scene and you will be amazed Spa in that form lasted as long as it did. Respect does not begin to make a start.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1 in the build-up to each Grand Prix.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live