I have visited Spa-Francorchamps several times before, and I have to admit I like the place a lot. I lived in Antwerp, on the other side of Belgium (geographically, politically and culturally) for a little over a year in the mid-1990’s, and although much about the country leaves room for improvement in all kinds of areas, the Ardennes and the Haute Fagnes (or Hoge Venen as the Flemish speakers would have it) are worthily areas of ‘outstanding natural beauty’.
So it was a great pleasure indeed this year to visit Spa for the 24 hour race, barely a month after returning from the Nürburgring 24 hours, itself a week after Le Mans. There may be readers of this who have visited all of these, as well as Dubai, Daytona, Silverstone and Snetterton (the other circuits that I have been to for 24 hour races), and I am sure you will have your favourites (just as I have). But I may have other readers who have not had the opportunity to go to any of these famous (and less famous) endurance races, in which case, I would like to provide a little of the flavour and encourage you to go and visit!
Le Mans is, of course, top of the list. For me, as for many, it is the first item to go into the diary every year (after my wedding anniversary and wife’s birthday). And yes, I do still use a physical, hand-written diary. Having been to every Le Mans 24 Hours since 1981, it was (and remains) the one race I would choose to visit, if I could go to no other.
Indeed I did have to choose, when my children were very young, and spending weekends at home became more important. The one event that remained in my diary was Le Mans. It is an event that lends itself to an annual visit. An event whose continuity is in its annual nature, not the part that it plays in any series or championship. The importance of the vingt-quatre heures du Mans transcends the WEC, just as it has the various other World Championships in the past. Many, many people go to Le Mans, and it is the only race they’ll go to all year.
And it won’t matter so much either. They’ll recognise cars from one year to the next. Not just those on the track, but those in the campsites. Le Mans gets under your skin and stays there. I’ve tried many times to explain to people what it is that makes it special and it’s hard to do. The trouble is that very little of what made it special thirty or more years ago, when I became addicted, is still there; but it remains special.
Seeing cars of vastly different performances, racing into darkness, overtaking all the time; being able to explore the circuit, from one corner to another, to wander off for a nice meal, being able to actually see the drivers; drivers who may not quite carry the celebrity status of the top F1 stars, but who nevertheless are known stars (or superstars) – it all contributes to the timeless appeal of the race. But it’s only a part of why I keep going back.
In comparison, Daytona is less sophisticated, less romantic. When I went there for the first time, the cars that competed on the famed Florida banking were the same as those that went at speeds of up to 240mph (or more), down the Mulsanne straight in La Sarthe. Indeed, virtually identical TWR Jaguar XJR-12s won both the Sunbank 24 (as it was called in 1990) and Le Mans six months later.
Nowadays, despite the arrival of the United Sports Car Championship, it’s not the same of course. My last visit to the self-proclaimed ‘World Center of Racing’ was in the Grand-AM era, and the 24 hour race was rather different: in terms of entry, strategy and tactics. But the track is the same, and the atmosphere, walking around the centre of the circuit, watching cars on the banking, surrounded by motorhomes the size of a small bungalow on the south coast of England is just as it was.
And when you go into the grandstand, and stand (against the rules), right up to the fence as the cars come off the turn 4 banking to cross the start finish strip, you feel the impact of a Daytona Prototype blasting past just a few meters from your face in every fibre of your being. You can’t do that at Le Mans.
The number of darkness hours at Daytona is hard work, too. Like Dubai (to which I’ll return later), holding a 24 hour race before the equinox means a lot of dark running. Just as Le Mans is the first date to go in my diary, though, I know some folk for whom the Nürburgring 24 hours is the top event not to be missed. I have sympathy with that view, but do not agree. For me, the ’Ring is a great event, but it doesn’t have the same international credibility as Le Mans or Daytona. That said, if you’ve not been, and you have been to Le Mans, then I would strongly suggest that you make a sacrifice to get there.
Le Mans has the Mulsanne, Daytona has its banking. But the Nürburgring has the Nordschleife. The Nordschleife is a circuit like no other. The atmosphere is everything. Ghosts live in the woods. The ghosts of Caracciola, Nuvolari, Seaman, Fangio, Collins, Hawthorn, Moss, Clark, Stewart and Lauda: they are all here. And more. If you do go, do not underestimate your fellow spectator. They’re a knowledgeable lot, the Germans. They know their racing and they know their history. They also know how to have a good time. A race – any race – on a track whose lap time is eight minutes or more is different from any other. You don’t follow a race on a track like that: you are merely a bystander while a race is going on. That means that you need to develop techniques for knowing how long it will be until a car is due. Normally that involves drinking a certain about of beer, eating a certain amount of wurst or just setting fire to a certain amount of wood. At least, that’s the only reason I could find for such a lot of the above-mentioned activities going on.
The circuit itself is narrow – much of it is out of range of spectators. The fences, though, are close, you can smell the drivers sweating… and know that they can smell you. Everyone goes to Brünnchen; Pflanzgarten is unmissable; and the long walk to the inside of the Karussel is worth every step. Just to say you’ve been there; that you’ve watched racing from one of the sport’s most iconic places.
But at the end of the day, the Nürburgring 24 hours is a GT race. And for me, there is a big difference between watching prototypes at night and watching GT cars. Prototypes are real racing cars, Formula 1 cars with headlights if you will, and the sight of them racing at night is something very special. That’s not to say that watching full-house GT3 cars from the spectator enclosure at Wehrseifen – or most other places round the Nordschleife – at night isn’t spectacular, but for my money, prototypes just cut the mustard a little sharper somehow.
But this is to miss the point, to an extent. Most of my readers probably know that I don’t go to sleep during a 24-hour race. I stay up all night; I pay attention, and I try to follow what’s going on. To me, this is what it’s about. Endurance is all about pushing the physical boundary: whether that be of the machinery or of the people. Although it is clearly important for drivers to take breaks during a race of this distance, there are engineers and mechanics in every team that stay up for the duration (and more). It seems only fair to match their effort somehow.
So this year, and racing at Spa. Unfortunately, I only managed to get out and watch at La Source and the chicane (ex-Bus Stop) at night, but looking back from there towards Blanchimont gave a good impression of what the rest of the track might be like at night. Spa, a bit like Belgium itself, sits between Le Mans, France and the Nürburgring, Germany. It may not have the culture and the depth of history of Le Mans, but it is not quite as raw as the ’Ring.
In the back of my mind is the thought that while Le Mans has built its heritage on prototypes and the Nürburgring on sports cars, the heritage of Spa is Touring Cars and although it is great to see the GT cars racing through the night in the Ardennes, there is a piece of me that sees it as rather too similar to the race in the Eifel the previous month. Of course this is to overlook the different agendas of VLN and SRO, who may have the same songsheet, but don’t quite seem to be in harmony.
Then there’s Dubai, of course, run by the very slightly wacky Creventic organisation. As a competitor, the event ticks all the boxes: it is accessible, well-organised, in the right place at the right time of year and extraordinarily good value for money. As a spectator though, I think I would need to have another reason to be in Dubai in order to want to go to the 24 hours. The place itself is in the middle of a desert, of course. Personally, I find the UAE rather distasteful. And the track looks rather like someone laid out some scalextric on a table in order to design it.
And if you’ve been to all these, and fancy something a bit different, then there are the two big 12 hour races. Bathurst and Sebring. I’ve never been to Sebring, and that is something I regret, and something that I would like to address. For one, it’s a race with a heritage and history. Two, it’s got prototypes (for the moment). Three, they run into the dark. And it’s the dark that somehow blots the Bathurst copybook. Great circuit, yes. Great location, yes. Strong entry, too and plenty of variety. But the atmosphere is lacking a bit. Although I’ve never been there for anything other than the 12 hours (and that only twice), one has the feeling that the place has better things to do than to run the 12 hours. It’s a bit like trying to explain to a died-in-the-wool F1 fan what Le Mans is about. Everyone in Australia knows about Holden v Ford, but find the GTs rather too exotic. Maybe they are put off by a perception that endurance racing is too complex, too. That may be about to change, and then all we need is someone to take up the challenge of organising a 12 hour WEC race (Phillip Island?) and have that a fortnight before the Bathurst 12 hours, providing just the impetus for a big entry for both!
Just a thought.