Spa 24 Hr
Conceived by Jules de Their and Henri Langlois Van Ophem in 1924 a year after the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans was run. It used over 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) of public roads between the towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot, under the auspices of the Royal Automobile Club Belgium (RACB).
The Spa 24 Hours was part of the European Touring Car Championship from 1966 to 1973, again in 1976 and from 1982 to 1988. The event also counted towards the World Sportscar Championship in 1953 and the World Endurance Championship in 1981. As on the Nürburgring, both a 24h and a 1000 km race is held at Spa, with the 1000 km introduced in 1966.
Cars entered have spanned from the Russian Moskvitch and models with sub-1 liter engines such as the NSU Prinz TT to the luxurious V8-powered Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3. Tuned by Mercedes-AMG, the 6834 cc and 420 hp (313 kW) so-called "Red pig" finished as high as second in 1971.
The present 7.004 kilometres (4.352 mi) circuit was inaugurated in 1979. With the participation of Swiss Lilian Bryner on the victorious Ferrari 550 of the BMS Scuderia Italia team, the 2004 race marked the first time in history that a female driver was part of a winning team of a 24-hour endurance race in a Gran Turismo with more than 500 hp.
The best manufacturer wins the Coupe du Roi (King's Cup), which is not necessarily the race winners. The cup is won by the manufacturer with the most points, accrued by cars that are made by the same manufacturer. Australian car manufacturer Holden won the trophy in 1986 with their cars finishing in 18th, 22nd and 23rd positions outright.
Information courtesy wikipedia
If Le Mans is the straight-A student, and the 24 Hours of Nürburgring is the kid that ran away to join the circus, then the race at info-SPA-Francorchamps is somewhere in the middle. But just like its Le Mans and Nürburgring counterparts, the 24 Hours of Spa is also a race where, behind the highlight reel glory of past triumphs and tales of derring-do, there lurks a scarred, darker history.
Racing at night at Spa is a unique challenge
In 1924, the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium decided the 15-odd-kms of undulating public roads between the towns of Malmedy, Francorchamps and Stavelot, deep in the forests of the stunning Ardennes countryside, would be perfect for an endurance race.
It quickly proved popular with manufacturers like Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Mercedes-Benz. They ran their 6Cs, Type 44s and SSKs at the race right up until the glorious thunder of those cars’ engines was replaced by the ominous thunder of World War Two, as the Battle of the Bulge scorched through the Ardennes.
The dark ages of the 24 Hours of Spa
In 1964, following an 11-year hiatus, the race was reborn with Touring Car machinery from companies like BMW and Ford, piloted by a mix of gentleman amateurs and the cream of the Formula One crop – most famously endurance racing legend and home favourite Jacky Ickx.
A Ford Escort going through the La Source hairpin© Ford
Telegraph poles, ditches and razor wire awaited any mistake
The formidable challenge of Spa had an undeniable allure, and it’s not hard to see why. Even today on the shorter info-SPA-Francorchamps circuit, scorching sun can give way to rain, sleet and thick, dense fog in a matter of minutes. Half a century ago, telegraph poles, ditches and razor wire awaited any mistake. In the 1964 race, just a few hours after a multiple accident, the hard-charging Italian ace Piero Frescobaldi died when his Lancia went into a deep ravine at the superfast Malmedy corner.
BMW loved sending their cars to Spa© Paul Kooyman
During the 1967 race, as midnight approached and fog enveloped the circuit, Belgian Eric De Keyn suffered a violent off in his Alfa Romeo GTV. Minutes later talented 21-year-old Dutch driver Wim Loos, also in an Alfa, swerved to avoid the ambulance attending to the fatally stricken De Keyn, and in the resulting impact was thrown through his windscreen and killed.
Touring cars arrived at Spa in the 1960s© Ford
Despite the tragedy that stalked all forms of motor racing in the 1960s and 1970s, the 24 Hours of Spa managed to establish itself as a jewel in the crown of the racing calendar. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” became the mantra for manufacturers like Citroën, Porsche, Opel, Mazda, Mercedes and BMW, as style, speed and reliability reputations were forged at Spa.
A humble Escort RS 2000 tackling La Source© Ford
The body of a marshal was lying prostrate on the track
Future Formula One stars Jochen Mass and Hans Joachim-Stuck claimed victory in 1972 in their bulletproof Ford Capri, fending off the mighty Schnitzer BMWs to lead a Ford 1-2-3. But once again, in the darkness and thick fog lay tragedy. At around 5am, as Mass clambered aboard the Capri and was about to head out onto the circuit, Stuck leaned into the car and told his team-mate: “Look out for body parts at the Masta Kink.” Assuming Stuck was referring to bits of cars’ bodywork lying on the circuit, Mass was shocked to discover the true meaning of his team-mate’s warning – the actual body of marshal Léon Grisard was still lying prostrate on the track, having just been hit by the Mazda of Walter Brun.
Jochen Mass had an unwanted surprise in 1972© Ford
The following year, at around 11pm and some seven hours into the race, hotly-tipped German Hans-Peter Joisten collided with Roger Dubos’ Alfa Romeo, resulting in the deaths of both men. Deeper into the darkness that year another Alfa driver, Massimo Larini – uncle of future F1 and Touring Car racer Nicola Larini – crashed, succumbing to his injuries several days later.
BMW's famous 3.0 CSL pounding around the circuit© Paul Kooyman
Bringing Spa up-to-date
By the late-1970s, safety concerns and the growing commerciality of motorsport fused together and Spa, along with the Nürburgring, became an infamous posterboy for unacceptable risk in motorsport. So in 1979, the first 24-hour race took place on the 7km circuit that we have today, and welcomed a new generation of European Touring Cars. Despite essentially chopping the circuit in half, Spa’s challenges remained the same; the weather remained a fickle mistress, the dark forest-lined track still a potential death trap.
You can never rule out rain at Spa© Ford
The 1980s heralded the glorious symphony of Group A Touring Cars, with drivers like Steve Soper, Tom Walkinshaw, Gerhard Berger and Eric Van De Poele tasting glory and exchanging nocturnal battles in a riot of gaudy sponsorship liveries, noise and huge crowds. Despite a decade of classic duels and a 70-car entry for 1987, the World Touring Car Championship ended in 1988 and the race faced an uncertain future, flip-flopping between being a round of the FIA GT Championship and a stand-alone event.
A Ford Escort about to head through Eau Rouge© Ford
In 2001, the Spa 24 Hours became a GT car-only affair, and since 2011 the race has been re-elevated to a key weekend in world motorsport as part of the Blancpain Endurance Series. Last year’s race winner and GT3 Pro Champion Laurens Vanthoor jointly leads the series overall with Audi team-mate Robin Frijns, and they will scrap together through dusk, dawn and almost-certain rain against 60-plus cars featuring the likes of former Le Mans winner André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and former DTM champ Mike Rockenfeller.
A Gordon Spice Capri about to run down the hill© Ford
All will hope for a clean race. 2014’s event witnessed a spate of accidents and was red-flagged after a nasty crash at Stavelot between Vadim Kogay and Marcus Mahy. The race was stopped for over an hour as both drivers were airlifted to hospital.
It just goes to show that even in the modern era, Spa can still bite down hard on the slightest error.Information courtesy James Roberts (Redbull.com)
1 - Alfa Romeo 6CS
2 - Bugatti Type 44
3 - Mercedes Benz SSK
4 - Bugatti 6CS
8 - Spa24 1931
7 - Spa 24 Hours,1953: Farina & Hawthorn's race-winning Ferrari 340/375 MM
5 - Spa 1967
6 - Race start 1978
9 - Shane Van Gisbergen fastest in qualifying for the Total 24 Hours of Spa
10 - Parade 2015