LAPPING THE OLD SPA WITH LEWIS
“It’s just so fast. I can’tn’t believe they used to race round here”
There were, of course, plenty of reasons why it wouldn’t happen. The race-weekend life of today’s front-line F1 driver is carefully regimented, strictly controlled. The old Spa circuit on a Thursday afternoon? It exists somewhere in the mists of time, where debriefs were sandwiches by the pitwall and the team garage was a lling station in downtown Stavelot.
I therefore feared the worst. Lewis wouldn’t show. I recalled Nigel Roebuck’s conversation with Juan Pablo Montoya a few years back. “Have you been out to look at the old circuit?” “No. I must do that. Must nd the time…” “Well, it’s probably not far from where you’re staying. What road do you take to get there?”
“Turn right out of the car park, then right again. Up the hill and down the other side.”
“In which case you’ve been driving the circuit every day. That’s what it is. The public road…” “What? Que? Are you serious?” Appear, though, the silver Mercedes did. I call our meeting point ‘Redman’s gulch’. It’s what happens next at Spa when you don’t turn right at the Mika Häkkinen chicane at the top of the hill on the new circuit. Instead, the road goes on into the Belgian countryside, peeling into a very fast left-hander, followed by a perilously quick downhill series of lefts and rights. The road tears between elds. Cows graze, and grazed, on the left. White marker posts casually mark the shape of the asphalt strip. It is narrow. It is, today, peaceful. Neat cottages line up on either side. People wash cars on Saturday mornings here. Postmen deliver letters.
And bottom wishbones break on 1968 Cooper-BRMs. I show Lewis a photo of Brian Redman’s car, the right-front suspension arm in the process of snapping as he arcs the big Cooper
into the at-out left-hander. Lewis doesn’t see it at rst. He doesn’t understand what I’m saying. ‘Broken wishbone?’ He’s looking for some slight deformation, a stress loading, 2014-style. The actual break is so blatant, so violently in-yourface, that you can’t see it for the smoke. His jaw drops in horror. “This is of course a famous photograph,” I explain. “Cooper assumed, as teams usually do, that Brian had made some sort of mistake. It wasn’t until this photo, taken by Peter Burn, was published a week later in Autosport, that Brian was absolved of all blame.” “What happened to him?” I show Lewis the photo of the wrecked Cooper, amid the parked marshals’ cars, where nally it stopped, hissing and steaming but thankfully not ablaze. It was only because it came to rest among people who knew what they were doing that Brian was able to be lifted, still conscious, onto a stretcher. Meanwhile, the race went on, and on…
We walk down the hill. “I just can’t believe that they raced F1 cars here,” says Lewis. It’s so fast. It’s so narrow. What a section of road!”
“Could you have done it?” I ask, conscious of the fashion among current Formula 1 drivers to appear to be somewhat nonchalent about the heritage of their sport.
“If this was it? If this was the Spa on which we raced? Yes. Denitely. I’d love this bit. So fast….” He narrows his eyes. He’s picturing the scene. Lewis in open-face helmet. Lewis in a Lotus 49…
I’m conscious of not wanting to punctuate our time with just the memories of accidents. I can’t, though, let an even faster section pass without mentioning that race weekend in 1960. “This is where Stirling lost the left-rear wheel of his Lotus 18 during practice. He ended up over there, by the roadside. It was a huge accident, as you can imagine. It brought practice to a halt. This was Stirling Moss. The greatest driver of his time. All the rescue vehicles were there and plenty more cars besides… “…I was doing perhaps 140mph when the car suddenly went into a very violent oversteer condition,” Stirling would later say in Ken Purdy’s book, All But My Life. “First, I thought I had hit oil. Then I saw the wheel go past me. I knew I was going to crash. I jumped on the brakes and tried to spin the car around. It’s best to hit going backwards. It distributes the shock
more evenly over your body. Also, you can’t see what you’re going to hit! I took 50mph off it before I hit. I hung on – you’d better believe I hung on – until I felt the tail start to come up. I knew the car was going over, so I let myself go limp and I went out. Next thing I knew, I was on my hands and knees beside the road and I couldn’t see and I couldn’t breathe. And that frightened me. I was in great pain around my chest, and I was afraid I had broken ribs and that they would puncture my heart or my lungs. That was how Bobby Baird died, at Snetterton in 1953. He got up and walked around after the crash and then he died.
“Other drivers kept running up. Bruce McLaren and Graham Hill and Phil Hill and others. I think I asked Bruce to help me breathe by giving me articial respiration. I was confused. He wouldn’t do it and of course he was right not to, because I could have had broken ribs. As it was, my back was broken with three crushed vertebrae…”
“Poor Mike Taylor,” I add, “who was driving his Lotus 18 back to the pits to try to get more medical help for Stirling, went off on the other side of the circuit when the steering column broke on his car. No one discovered him for well nigh 30 minutes. He was paralysed by his injuries, but Stirling made a rapid recovery and was racing again by the end of the year. After he won at Riverside, at the US GP, he was amused to see a delicately made racing car atop the tiered cake at the victory dinner. He sliced off the left-rear wheel and said, “Here, Colin [Chapman]. This is for you…”
We climb back into the Mercedes. “Is this really the track?” asks Lewis. “It’s just so hard to picture. It’s just an open road…”
We approach Burnenville, where the road plunges even more steeply downhill. The right-hander is slightly banked, blind and constant-radius. There are walls and houses on either side – not to mention a sheer drop on the right. It’s where Jo Bonnier’s Cooper-Maserati sat, teetering, at Spa in ’66. “I spoke to Brian Redman a few days ago and asked him what sort of entry speed he had at this point in the Gulf Ford GT40s. He said he was doing about 140mph when he nearly lost it on his opening lap in the 1968 Spa 1,000km. It would have been faster for Jim Clark in the Lotus 49 in 1967. And remember that Jim had no downforce, apart from nose bib-spoilers in practice, and that he wasn’t wearing seat belts. Jim’s pole lap here that year averaged well over 150mph, and even then he was slowed by a fuel issue and a slight misre. On his standing lap in ’67 he averaged 144mph – and that included the 30mph La Source hairpin!”
There’s lots to talk about here, lots of sadness. It is inevitable at Spa. “Chris Bristow. You would have liked Chris. Very fast. Very brave. A raw racer who was always stretching the limit. This is where he lost his Cooper in 1960 – and his life. Hit a wall and also the marker posts. His Cooper somersaulted. Chris was thrown out.
“…I was the rst to arrive on the scene at Burnenville when Chris was killed,” Jim Clark would recall in his autobiography, Jim Clark at the Wheel. “I heard Chris got on the outside coming into the corner. He tried to get the car across but lost control. The car rolled over
and over before throwing him out onto the circuit. I came bustling down behind him and there were no ags to warn me of what was around the corner. I saw a marshal suddenly dash out on to the road, waving his arms and trying to stop me and then next thing I saw was another marshal run from the far side of the road. I remember thinking, ‘where is he going?’ and then he bent down and grabbed this thing by the side of the road. It looked just like a rag doll. It was horrible. I’ll never forget the sight of Chris’s body being dragged to the side. I remember at the end of the race nding that my car was spattered with blood…” “Not much has changed,” I add, pointing to the building on the inside and the period photo in my hand. This is just how it was.”
We pause. So many young lives. Alan Stacey, the genial, talented Norfolk farmer-cum-works-Lotus driver also died at Spa in 1960.
“Let’s head to the Masta Kink,” I say, to change the mood. That was the real corner at Spa.”
We drive on. And on. Slowly. Lewis looks at both sides of the road, pondering the trees. “Is this it?” he asks, as the road sweeps to the left.
“No. This was just a part of the straight. This little kink didn’t even have a name.”
We trickle through the new road junction to the nearby motorway. “Is this still the circuit? I never knew it was so long – so far from the pits. Amazing.”
Finally we see the row of trees directly ahead. From 500 metres we appear to be approaching a sharpish left-hander.
“Here. This is the Masta Kink.”
Always I’m amazed by its tightness. As a corner it’s ultra-fast. As a at-out kink in one of the world’s longest straights it was outrageous. I tell Lewis about the time, in 1962, when Jim Clark lost his famous white helmet peak. “It was the rush of air through the Masta Kink. The peak fell over his goggles and he had to rip it away with one hand on the wheel. From there it was a logical progression to the following year, when his Lotus 25 kept jumping out of top gear. He’d hold the gear lever with his right hand and put his left hand at the bottom of the steering wheel in case he needed to apply a dose of opposite lock in the middle of the kink. It was wet, of course…”
Lewis smiles at the thought. He’s heard a lot about Jim Clark but, on this Thursday at today’s Spa, with autograph hunters clamouring at his sides, he can perhaps identify a little more. “The good news,” I say, trying to be upbeat, “is that I don’t recall too many accidents right here. Compared with Burnenville, the Masta Kink was historically a relatively safe section of road. Perhaps it’s because Burnenville was inviting. The Masta Kink commanded nothing but respect.” Lewis nods in agreement. He looks up the track, from where we have just driven. Then he looks away, towards the exit. He is judging the distance between the left and the right. He is comparing the radii of the two curves. “They were at through here?’ “Not always. It was always a thing. At Spa, in 1970, Chris Amon spent the closing laps behind Pedro Rodríguez’s oil-spraying BRM, convinced, as ever, that the BRM engine was about to blow. It didn’t. As they came up to the last lap, Chris decided to take the kink at. Bear in mind he was driving one of the most awkward F1 cars of all time – the March 701 – and you get the picture. And if Chris Amon said he was at, he was at. In ’67 Jim Clark was timed at 193mph on the Masta straight in the Lotus 49. Dan Gurney, who won, was clocked at over 200mph in the Eagle.
“This,” I say, pointing to where an old barn used to sit, “is where Jackie Stewart ended up in his BRM in 1966, when the race started dry despite rain on the south side of the circuit. Half the eld aquaplaned. Jackie was trapped in the car, soaked in fuel. His team-mate, Graham Hill, plus Bob Bondurant, rescued him. They had to nd something in an old tool set to remove the steering wheel. Jackie thereafter insisted that a spanner be taped to his steering wheels and that all his race cars be tted with seat belts. The safety revolution, if you like, started right here. Right where we’re standing.”
Lewis is silent. He’s taking it all in. You meet Jackie in the pitlane. You see the odd video clip. You hear some stories. It’s there – but it’s vague. It’s difficult to picture. It’s only now that you see the scale of the road and its boundaries. Only now can you sense what it was really all about.
We drive on towards the old Stavelot. I tell Lewis that the track went straight on here, past Bill Hollowell’s memorial, into a hairpin on the outskirts of Stavelot town. “They got rid of the hairpin because they thought it ruined the ow of the circuit. They built this corner instead.”
We’re standing on the outside of the famous, banked, uphill right-hander – the corner, as now, that heralds the return run of the lap. “This wall used to carry all those advertisements.”
Lewis looks around, astonished. “So this wall was on the outside of the corner?” It’s overgrown now and difficult to picture in its prime.
“Sure is. And this is where Dan Gurney cruised to a halt on the last lap of the ’64 Belgian GP. He’d led from the start. He ran out of fuel. Then Jim Clark cruised to a halt alongside him. They had a laugh about their joint misfortunes. Then the PA announced that Jim had taken the chequered ag and had therefore won the race. Right here. This is where the news broke.”
“I like the banking here,” says Lewis. “Very cool. Why did they do that?”
“Because they had the chance to do something different. American ovals were popular. Spa brought that avour to Stavelot. Actually, they put in a coned chicane here in 1970. People love to say the 3-litre sportscars were quicker than the F1 cars in the early 1970s but, for the most part, they forget that chicane. The drivers didn’t like it – and they were still at-out on the approach to Blanchimont – but at least the organisers were taking more positive steps towards safety.”
It’s time to head back to the new paddock. The old Spa track gives way to UBS hoardings, neat, manicured run-off areas, TV camera stands and newly painted kerbs. It’s nearly dusk. “So. Lewis. Is it how you imagined it to be?” “Yes and no. It’s an eye-opener. When I look at the old track, I see that we’re lucky to be racing today. I see what they went through. Because of that, it’s safer today. I feel grateful. I love the circuit, too. I would have raced there. I probably would have hurt myself but I would have always raced there.”
We walk down the hill. “I just can’t believe that they raced F1 cars here,” says Lewis. “It’s so fast. It’s so narrow. What a section of road!”
The front-right suspension on Brian Redman’s Cooper-BRM snaps at Spa in 1968, before sending him over the barriers
At Burnenville, where Chris Bristow lost his life in 1960,the road plunges steeply downhill. It’s banked, blind and constant radius
Stirling Moss lost the leftrear wheel of his Lotus in practice at Spa in 1964. He was travelling at 140mph
A flat-out kink on one of the world’s longest straights, the Masta Kink was the scene of Jackie Stewart’s 1966 accident in his BRM
Chris Bristow died when he was thrown out of his Cooper at Burnenville after hitting the wall
“When I look at the old track, I see that we’re lucky to be racing today. I see what they went through. Because of that, it’s safer today. I feel grateful”
Dan Gurney and Jim Clark stop for a chat at Stavelot, having come to a halt on the last lap in
1964. Clark was then announced the winner
Lewis drives the old Stavelot corner (above) and Richie Ginther does the same in 1964 (top)