Corner by Corner at the Mighty Spa-Francorchamps
A winding 4.35 miles deep in the Ardenne Forest of Beligium lies the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. Also referred to simply as Spa, it is one of the most highly revered, yet technically demanding circuit on the Formula One calendar. One of the original four tracks featured in the inaugural 1950 Formula One season, which also featured Monaco, Monza, and Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps is a maniacal combination of high speed, high g-forces, elevation changes, and a mix of tight and sweeping corners. Most cars are set up from the factory leaning toward capturing straight line speed, but what if the weather goes bad as it usually does? The best word to describe Spa-Francorchamps in dry conditions: challenging. In the wet? Evil. Let’s have a look at each and every aspect of the track from corner to corner:
La Source Hairpin
The collector. At the end of the start/finish, it is a great place to capitalize on a good start or to out brake somebody else on cold tires. Bravery and foolishness will be a slim grey area on Lap 1 come race day. At race pace, it is one of the slower corners but an ideal place to make a pass. Although the front straight will not be a DRS activation zone during this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, it is an exciting, tight hairpin to watch especially in the wet with a lot of spray from cars affecting depth perception.
The beast. This really separates the men from the boys. A huge, blindingly vertical compression just before apex on this right hander precedes a tricky exit and critical straightaway to follow. Even the best of the best might be tempted to lift slightly at some point on entry especially if things are wet. Sticking this corner flat out, however, signifies both a huge pair of attachments (hat tip to David Hobbs) and an aerodynamically superior car. The real challenge may be for the mechanics though. After the huge compression, when the car springs upward and becomes almost weightless any oil in the engine’s oil pan slings upward and away from the oil pickup starving these incredibly machined engines from vital lubrication. Even as little as .5 to 1 second without proper oiling could spell disaster for a Formula One engine. Eau rouge is nerve wracking for everyone! Any loss of control here can be devastating.
This is a left hander that immediately follows Eau Rouge, and it is usually what makes the hair stand up on the back of drivers’ necks. This is where the rapid right-to-left directional change and skyward (destabilizing) flight of the car really tests the aerodynamicists’ worth. If the car sticks and the driver can stay on the gas, then driver and team can capitalize on critical straight line speed over the hill.
Drivers can hold still and take a breath for a moment as they keep the right foot pinned to the floor. The Kemmel Straight is one of the most important parts of the circuit as drivers can use DRS to help passing and this straight ends in Les Combes, which provides great overtaking possibilities. Formula One cars will hit top speed on the Kemmel Straight and it is quite long, so it is very important to maximize exit speed through Eau Rouge and Raidillion immediately before. Make no mistake drivers, you are not out of the woods by any means just yet!
Les Combes and Malmedy
From nearly 200 mph (ok, ok about 320km/hr) down to about 50-60 mph drivers will push, push, push on the BRAKE pedal trying to finish or execute an overtake at this challenging chicane. Les Combes will provide a good bit of brake lockup as drivers–now presumably feeling more confident after Eau Rouge–once again test the limits of the amazing carbon brakes on a Formula One car. Once through the chicane drivers will be quick to get back on the gas through Malmedy, a quick right hand turn setting up a short downhill chute. For drivers chomping at the bit to make a pass or stuck in traffic, Malmedy can be a bit of a patience-testing corner.
Ah, Rivage! A fantastic downhill chute on entry sets up a wonderful first corner–a 180 degree right hander– with significant elevation change, but some negative camber on exit! It is a tempting corner to make a mistake as the car’s momentum shifts forward under braking, and then downhill and the right rear of the car becomes very light. If an over-zealous driver isn’t careful, this is a place where good saves are few and far between. Exiting Rivage 1 the elevation goes sharply more downhill approaching Rivage 2, which is a quick, but often difficult left hander to get through cleanly on exit.
The mighty Pouhon–where the most accidents typically occur at Spa Francorchamps. From the above image, it is a great corner to witness some brave overtaking and dramatic shunts. A very fast corner and one that takes a bit of discipline to stick a clean exit without getting into the barriers! Don’t let your guard down for a second here.
Now that Poulons is in the rear view, Des Fagnes is a quick right-left chicane that sets up an important next few corners that will heavily dictate Sector 3 times. This complex is a bit slower and has comfortable runoff, but drivers will need to stay left on exit to set up the next corner, Stavelot.
Stavelot is a very important complex of two right handers, the first being the tighter of the two at nearly 90 degrees. Drivers will be quick to get back to the gas after apex of Stavelot 1 and hustle the car through Stavelot 2, which then lead onto a curved, but relatively straight section. If a driver is feeling comfortable through Stavelot, then the next complex will surely remind them of why Spa Francorchamps is such a daunting circuit. Stab the throttle, boys, but don’t get too comfy in there!
Reality check: this is Spa. Spa is not a friendly place. As drivers approach Blanchimont, their hearts should be leaping into their throat as the cars are wound up to high speed and the entry is BLIND! The site of many bad accidents and shunts over the years, Blanchimont is just as terrifying as Eau Rouge, however, drivers cannot see through this complex like they can in Eau Rouge. With two apexes, Blanchimont is a complex where aerodynamics and testicular fortitude will reward the brave. This is the last place to claw back some time before hitting the Bus Stop Chicane up ahead. Check your underwear after this complex, drivers.
And last but not lest, the Bus Stop! Down through the gears one last time before the final straightaway! One of the slowest corners on track and it features a tricky entry to pit lane midway through the chicane. Don’t cut over the runoff boys for fear of a drive through penalty, or a fine! Just ask Michael Schumacher, who botched the entry in the pouring rain of FP2! Exiting the chicane it’s now pedal to the metal for the start/finish. Now, take a deep breath before another lap of this monster circuit…
Mike is a long-time Formula One fan whose favorite drivers of the modern era include Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. He also believes in racing cars with fenders and fields his own car in SCCAs Spec Miata class in the United States. He most admires racers like Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, John Surtees, Jack Brabham, Mark Donohue and Jim Hall–the rarest breed who could build, race, and win in their own machines. Mike is confident the world will not end in 2012.