Chills down my spine. Still. I have known the village of Spa-Francorchamps for more than 30 years. Every time I come back, just before I drive into the village, it happens. Those chills. That has everything to do with the circuit. The circuit. Not even the modern one, which is rightly called one of the most beautiful in the world. No, it’s the old job. The one of 14 kilometers. I can only imagine how the racers used to feel when they drove through the village…
Raidillon. Eau Rouge. Pouhon. Blanchimont. Anyone who has ever driven on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit pronounces those names with due reverence. And sometimes a little proud. But there was a time when those names paled against those of Combes, Burnenville, Masta, and Stavelot, which were spoken not so much with reverence and pride as with a quivering voice of terror. Those were the curves that marked the old Spa-Francorchamps. The old Spa was bloody fast, faster than any other circuit, and perilous. It required a lot of balls and at the same time the precision of a brain surgeon if you wanted to triumph here. And in many cases luck too. The old Spa-Francorchamps was open to the public during the year. And it still is now.
I look over my shoulder and peer through the gate at Les Combes. Where the new circuit turns right, the old track turned left a little further. A long, blind left running over a ridge and thus the mother of all blind bends. I accelerate full from the gate and 200 meters further hit something that should resemble the apex and do that already at 130 km/h. I drive it in third gear. Phil Read took it in second gear in 1975, the last MV victory here, partly due to the extremely long gearing that Spa required. That should be nothing compared to what the GP riders clocked off here, keeping up the pace or letting the apex hit the mark for the miles of full throttle descent towards Burnenville.
That Burnenville descent is now briefly interrupted by the connection with the N62C which bypasses the modern circuit and from here on is simply called N62, Route De Spa. The Turismo Veloce scrapes its raspy three-cylinder. The sound must still sound more or less familiar to some local residents, I hope. It pops with every tap of the quickshifter. Straight to six. There is a slight left/right kink in the road that you hardly notice and that used to not get a name, but at thick 200 it had to be taken very precisely. Especially on the diagonal tires of that time. Spa was a full throttle orgy and any hesitation with the right hand meant a second loss of time at the end of the lap. Every detail mattered.
Mike (meanwhile Michelle) Duff, the Canadian winner of the 1964 250cc GP on Yamaha, once told me that at Spa, having your feet sticking out too much could save 100-200rpm at top speed; which made his less aerodynamically shod teammate Phil Read invariably think his block was running slower. I involuntarily glance up at the sky. Not a cloud to be seen. Fortunately, because on Spa, especially the old track, it could just rain in one part of the circuit, while the sun was shining elsewhere. In 1966, after his successes for MV Agusta, John Surtees won the F1 GP in his Ferrari, having just passed the start of a cloudburst at Burnenville, where others slid left and right of the track.
Burnenville was dubbed the ‘Cocoa’ or ‘Coconut bends’ by GP racers, referring to the size of the pair of balls it took to take this immensely tall judge at the limit. Precision was everything. Deviating a little too much from your line, hitting a bump you weren’t used to or simply going down meant the end here for sure. Either you ended up against one of the houses, or you hit the guardrails (which the gentlemen of F1 demanded in the last few years they drove here), or you slid hundreds of meters on your back at a time when the back protector was no more. then a thin piece of leather.
Phil Read kept holding his breath here until he made it safely to the apex. He did that on his MV Agusta 500 in fourth gear at more than 220 km/h. As fast as I dare and taking into account the traffic, I don’t come close yet; despite a much better engine than what he must have had then. But there was no relaxing, because the Malmedy S followed shortly after Burnenville. It seems twice now, but then required enormous precision, because every kilometer you took along was carried along by Malmedy until the next bend, about 3 full throttle kilometers and further downhill.
masta. It could be the name of a Bond villain, but whatever diabolical plan he might hatch, nothing could come close in fear to the eponymous S-curve at Spa-Francorchamps. Only one person has ever taken Masta full throttle on a 500cc multi-cylinder (the British singles were slower and could take Masta full throttle with some talent on board) and that was Mike Hailwood in 1964 on the MV Agusta. When ‘Mike The Bike’ entered the pits after that attempt, according to witnesses, he was as white as a sheet and was shaking for another hour. “Never again,” was all he could stammer.
Giacomo Agostini also took Masta full throttle, he once told me, but with quite a bit of rear brake, to keep the revs as high as possible and at the same time keep the bicycle section as tight as possible. In doing so, he lightly tapped the straw bales on the inside of the right one, to the delight of the spectators. At over 240, 250 km/h. Pure affectation according to competitor Phil Read, but typical of the precision with which Ago drove. Because every mistake was unforgivable. You only had about ten meters of leeway to insert Masta, at 260 km/h. Otherwise you had to unload gas or you came out too far. The run-out strip then consisted of an adult house that now functions as a chip shop. Masta was the bend where the great were separated from the very great. And drama was never far away.
Once Masta survives, the track descends even more sharply and almost straight ahead towards Stavelot and the bend of the same name. It was preceded by a right nod that made it difficult to brake and assess Stavelot. Stavelot was slower and shorter compared to Burnenville, but arguably the most important corner of the entire circuit. Because from here it was almost 6 kilometers at full throttle towards Blanchimont, who still sees the sweat of fear from the foreheads of accomplished racers. And it was all uphill. Certainly in the lighter classes, taking Stavelot full throttle was of vital importance. Juliaan Van Zeebrouck, who was the first and only Belgian to win a GP here in 1971 (Didier de Radiguès won the 250s in 1983 on the already shortened route) once told me that Stavelot on his 50cc Kreidler was just full throttle, which the thin machine and quasi-bicycle tires demanded a lot of finesse. Letting go of the gas meant a loss of almost 30 seconds at the end of the lap! Julian reached an average speed of 160 km/h on his 50cc. Meanwhile, Stavelot is the most nostalgic-looking corner of old Spa. But the rising cant that transitions into the flat N640 must have given you a huge kick if you could take that full throttle.
From Stavelot, the old Spa follows the N640 and although the six bends from here to Blanchimont have no name, as far as I’m concerned this is the stretch of road that makes me dream away the most. Because the road now comes to a dead end and only leads to the now completely closed paddock through a gate at the back, there is no traffic. After I’ve given the MV quite a bit of spurs this part and try to cut the kinks as tight as possible, which the MV is quite happy with, I turn back, stop and stand in the middle of the asphalt. I see Hailwood flat on the tank, but also Pedro Rodríguez in his Porsche 917 speeding past in a dreamscape. Their screaming multi-cylinders echoing through the vast pine forests, drowning out the rippling Eau Rouge a little further. And more than ever I feel the shivers run down my spine…
Text Pieter Ryckaert Photography Jonathan Godin
Read the full article in Motorcyclist May 2020
#SpaFrancorchamps #shivers #Motokicx