Chris Amon's Ferrari 312/67 speeds through the Masta Kink at a 1967 version of Spa-Francorchamps in Assetto Corsa

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One Lap at Classic Spa-Francorchamps

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As the Formula 1 circus sets up at Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix, the rumors of it being the last race at the historic circuit are still frequent. Will it be the final time we are going to see F1 cars race in the Ardennes? To appreciate why this circuit is so legendary and what helped shape its legacy, we want to look at the classic layout of Spa on which F1 raced from 1950 to 1968, driving one lap in Chris Amon’s 1967 Ferrari 312/67.

The classic version of Spa was used until 1978, after which the track was transformed to the layout that is still mostly in used today. Put simply, the circuit had just become too unsafe, and drivers who raced at the old version – especially before the introduction of armco barriers in 1970 – actually found the track to be extremely fearsome due to its high speeds.

Spa Classic Layout Wikimedia @Wikimedia Commons

Start/Finish

Aside from the complete lack of barriers in most places, the first thing to note is the location of the start/finish line – it is after La Source and on the run to Eau Rouge and Raidillon, which is where GT races and other series still take the start today. Brick walls line the track as drivers approach the first series of corners.

Eau Rouge/Raidillon

The most iconic section of racetrack in F1 was the very first challenge drivers had to manage during a lap at classic Spa. It was tighter than it is today and has virtually no runoff, which makes it obvious where its reputation as a section drivers need courage for comes from – especially in the no-downforce cars of the pre-wing era.

Kemmel Straight

Just like today, once drivers had conquered Eau Rouge and Raidillion, they would head down the Kemmel Straight full throttle – except it was not exactly straight in the original configuration as the track was comprised of public roads in its entirety. Very fast turns lead down to another name racing fans are still familiar with today.

Les Combes

Still a right/left combination of corners, Les Combes had a bit of a different character in the vintage version of Spa. The right turn requires some finesse in its approach as drivers had to reduce speed in time for the following left, which was no easy feat in early Grand Prix cars while turning. Hugging the apex was key to get a good exit to the next full-throttle part of the circuit.

Haut de la Cote

This left/right bit of track does not look like much of a challenge on the track map, but in the cars of the time, it was crucial to get the turn-in point right to take it flat out. Run wide, and you would end up dropping down a few feet to the meadow right beside the track – or you spin across the track and hit a barbed-wire fence, a telegraph pole or a tree on the other side.

Burnenville

Flying down the following straight, the long right-hander at Burnenville, named after the the village located on the inside of the turn. Even in race cars of the 1960s, this was a high-speed turn taken in fourth gear in the F1 car of our choice. Barriers are not in place here, it is mostly fencing, houses and straw bales lining the track.

Malmedy

Burnenville immediately leads to Malmedy, a left/right combination that was taken at medium to high speeds. Again, nothing to protect the drivers in case of accidents was in place at the time – just a marshal post, telegraph poles, some parked cars and straw bales.

Masta

Having passed Malmedy, drivers would reach up to 300km/h even back in the 1960s on the following Masta Straight, which lead to the Masta Kink – and it is the latter that has cemented its place as one of the scariest parts of any racetrack in history. Taken almost flat out, this left/right combination is lined by farmhouses on both sides, making mistakes and crashes there have devastating results. Maximizing speeds through the Kink was crucial for the following Holowell Straight.

Holowell/Stavelot

This series of right-handers was no less tricky than Burnenville, possibly even more so: Holowell can be taken in fourth gear, but a house and a brick wall await on the outside – which drivers needed to run as close to as possible to get the best entry to Stavelot (a corner name still in use today, but in a different place). Keeping up the speed in this slightly banked turn was important for the following part of the track.

La Carrière

A few flat out left turns later, drivers arrived at La Carrière – a deceptive right-hander which did not look like braking was necessary, but running wide on exit was easy to do if you did not. The ditch on the outside did not make things easier, and neither do the trees and barbed-wire fences around the track there.

Blanchimont

A long straight follows, and towards its end, it rejoins the current layout just before the fast left-hander at Blanchimont, preceded by a slight right turn. Blanchimont is one of the few places around the classic track where there were barriers on the outside of the track, keeping drivers from flying into the woods in case of a crash.

Clubhouse/La Source

Nope, no actual Bus Stop has give the current last chicane its name – it used to be a fast left-hander leading onto the short straight before La Source. In fact, even after the rebuild of the track, there was no chicane there until 1981, when the first version of the Bus Stop Chicane was built as Clubhouse was deemed too fast. After clearing this corner, the only other corner apart from Eau Rouge and Raidillon where drivers would have to drop below third gear follows in La Source – negotiate the hairpin and start another lap blasting through the Belgian countryside.

It should not come as a surprise that racing at this version of the track was abandoned relatively early. Spa still used public roads between Blanchimont and Les Combes until 2007 when it became a de-facto permanent race track by being sealed off from the public roads. The majority of those used for the original circuit are still there, however, and can be driven (though not at racing speeds) by anyone until they reach the circuit entrance located before Blanchimont. They snake through the Belgian countryside as a testament of how racing used to be – a fascinating but often deadly discipline.