Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Stavelot, Belgium.
I know I say this about a lot of tracks (because so many of them are damn good), but this really is one of my favorite tracks in the world, second only in my book to the famed Nürburgring. But where the 'Ring is brutal for it's bumpy pavement, stomach-churning drops, and ramen noodle turns, Spa challenges would-be conquerers with sheer speed and sweeping corners that suddenly reveal themselves to be a lot less tame than previously thought.
Spa weekend is the favorite of all who follow the World Endurance Championship. Besides--of course--Le Mans. (Though there are some who would challenge you on--never mind.) The 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps is scheduled right before the Le Mans weekend as sort of a final test of readiness of both cars and teams alike. Don't let this fool you. Spa is not important because it precedes the big race at la Sarthe. No, it's quite the other way around. Spa precedes Le Mans because it is Spa.
The unique layout Spa offers probably comes the closest to mimicking the challenges faced at Circuit de la Sarthe. Long full-throttle sections that test motors as they scream into the highest of their RPM ranges lead into sudden panic-mode deceleration zones, demanding monumental reverse thrust from the brakes and "holy sh--!" from the tires to see the driver safely into the corner. The Bus Stop chicane makes the interruptions on the Mulsanne Straight look tame in comparison. Getting La Source just right is hunting a wild boar for dinner compared to the relaxed brunch of Mulsanne Corner and Indianapolis. The uphill Eau Rouge-Raidillon forces drivers to balance precariously between scrubbing speed and maintaining momentum to get up the hill and make a good run at the straight; a shorter, if more intense, version of what they'll need to master through the Porsche Curves or the complex from the Dunlop Curves through Tertre Rouge at the big 24-hour race.
Thing is, the on-track technicalities at Spa have to be harder (arguably) than those at at la Sarthe. Because where Spa's relatively forgiving (for a 1920s track) runoffs make room for more mistakes, a crash at Le Mans is often race-ending. There is little runoff where it matters there. Lose it at any point of the 24-hour race, and chances are it won't be a simple matter of getting a tow out of the kitty litter. If you can't make the cut at Spa, you probably won't get through Le Mans...emphasis on probably. We know how this endurance game goes. Endurance racing is like a real-life George R.R. Martin novel--the good guy probably loses, and the strongest contender gets a dagger in the back. You can predict nothing.
The 2016 round at Spa-Francorchamps absolutely lived up to its name. This was Le Mans in miniature, and it gets no better. It was an old-school, attrition endurance race of the finest order. By the halfway point all three LMP1 manufacturers only had one bullet in the chamber, so to speak. So many cars broke in LMP1 that a Porsche 919 missing the "Hybrid" piece of its namesake still took second place overall. A podium finish with a dead 400-horsepower "go fast" button on a track where stretching your legs really counts. There are 6 factory-backed cars making 1,000 horsepower, yet a privateer car (Rebellion Racing) with half the horsepower and a fraction of the budget made it to the podium on merit, not by virtue of a technical infraction. There were also heavy crashes, untested drivers getting caught out everywhere, but who can fault them? Your favorite driver's favorite driver has probably wiped out at Raidillon or run right through the bus stop.
The 6 Hours of Spa is a big race, and as a result, media passes are granted on an invite-only basis (guess we weren't invited). Still, we sent Chris Frays out, and he showed us what can be done at the circuit from the spectator areas. I dare say he may have even enjoyed the track better than if he'd had the magical password to get inside the photographer areas. The folder he returned is full of breathtaking vistas of the track; beautifully-framed snaps of cars heading down towards Eau Rouge; and some through-the-tree shots to remind us that mighty Spa-Francorchamps was once an even more formidable speed track winding through 9.3 miles of Belgian woodland and countryside.
Unfortunately, I only caught 40 minutes or so of will likely go down as one of the most memorable races in recent WEC history. Lucky for me, I can catch a replay on the WEC app. If you want more views from this place, you're not alone. Stay tuned. Next weekend's Spa Classic and Blancpain's 24 Hours of Spa in July are both on the Benzin calendar this year.
Chris Frays is our German correspondent on hand for his fantastic coverage of events from a country with deep roots in motorsport. A Canon shooter with a paternally-inherited love for motorsport, his work and contact information can be found at Frays Imaging.
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