Spa-Francorchamps Trackday

Spa Francorchamps Trackday

After weeks of mounting excitement, Monday 5 October dawned damp and chilly, heralding a 5am start in order to get round the M25 and down the M20 in time for our Eurotunnel crossing. We duly made it to Folkestone, with plenty of time to stop for a splash and dash for a top up of V Power and diesel respectively before checking in at the terminal.

The bad news was that the rain had set in on the journey south and didn’t look like easing off. After the inevitable stop in the security lane going through passport control, we boarded the train bound for the continent, hoping that the weather might make a miraculous recovery by the time we reached France. It didn’t. Northern France was as grizzly and wet as the south east of England had been and as we turned right onto the A25 towards Lille at Dunkerque, the downpour appeared to be intensifying. I knew my way to and around Lille and was pleased to see that the A25 appeared to be in the process of receiving a new surface, something of which it was in desperate need. The sections that had not yet been treated were as bad as I’d remembered them but at least traffic was relatively light and progress was good.

Once past Lille we continued along the E42, destination Charleroi airport, where Mike and I were due to rendez-vous with my friend Gareth, who was flying in there from a weekend stag do in Edinburgh, via Dublin. I hadn’t used that route before and found it quite pleasant. The Belgian motorways were better surfaced than I had expected and less busy than the E40 to and around Brussels. The miles passed uneventfully and by around midday we reached the newly moved passenger terminal at Charleroi, successfully picking up Gareth and immediately heading onwards towards Liege and thence Spa.

We arrived a little too early to check into our hotel, conveniently situated mere minutes from the Spa Francorchamps race track. Hearing the sound of engines floating up the valley through the damp pine forest, we decided to head down there for a look at the action. The first sight of the track was of a very wet Eau Rouge. Cars were coming down the hill from La Source kicking up huge plumes of spray, and were tackling the world’s most famous corner in very circumspect fashion. We sought shelter from the rain in one of the covered grandstands, before returning to the cars to go and explore the historic old Spa circuit. A fabulously sinuous road snakes up the hillside behind the Kemmel straight these days, bypassing the modern track, which itself used to be the road. We ventured up to the gate at Les Combes and turned around to retrace the route of the epic old track.

Plunging downhill from Les Combes, it is mind-boggling to imagine the speeds that must have been achieved in the days when it was an active racetrack. At the bottom of the hill you reach the fearsome Burnenville curve – a seemingly never-ending, undulating, many-apexed monster of a corner where in 1966 Jackie Stewart sustained serious injuries in a crash caused by an unexpected rain shower hitting that part of the track.

From that point the track meanders through fields and past farmhouses to the equally daunting Masta Kink; an ultra high-speed left-right flick between the houses that make up the tiny community of Masta. Sadly on this occasion, the kink was covered in a roadworks section, preventing us from seeing if we could manage the bend flat-out.

The old Stavelot corner is now little more than a derelict lay-by, but is unmistakably a racing relic. The curve is steeply banked and must have been a supremely challenging piece of track in its day. From that point, the circuit becomes a super-fast run back uphill through the pine forests, ending abruptly at a large gate at the modern day Stavelot where the tarmac carries on towards Blanchimont.

Once we’d reached this stage, time had moved on sufficiently to enable us to check in and leave our stuff at our hotel, freshen up and head for the German border and ultimately the nearby Nurburgring. With rain still lashing the Ardennes region of Belgium, we hoped that crossing into the Eifel Mountains might bring about a change. Alas, it did not. Leaving the E42 at Prum leads to a great run across to Gerolstein, then Kelberg and the ‘Ring. Along the way I became slightly concerned as the weather was getting worse if anything. We drove through a few patches of mist and I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d get there and find the track shut. My other concern was that I was down to my last few thimblefuls of fuel and knew I’d need to tank up. I knew that getting the petrol wouldn’t be a problem; it was more a question of timing and whether stopping for fuel would cause us to miss the last admission to the Nordschliefe, as on previous visits I have seen the barriers pulled across about 15 minutes before the stated end of the session.

Thankfully I needn’t have worried. I squeezed 48 litres of Super into the tank while Mike replenished Tingtong’s supply of the black stuff, at the same time tipping some magic elixir in to stop it spewing out black diesel fumes! We then headed round to the car park, which was more deserted than I’d ever seen it. There were about 10 cars in there, but the key thing was that the track was open for business. As I had a valid ticket tucked into my car’s sun visor already , we headed straight through. I felt slightly trepidatious as I hadn’t really had time to psyche myself up properly, but out we went. Gareth had never been before so this was a first for him and I’d promised him he’d be impressed. I’ve been there enought times now to know the basic layout of the track but not all the fine detail; nevertheless I decided to give a commentary on the corners. We headed down through Tiergarten and past the manufacturers’ secret entrance, before dropping downhill towards the pinball between the kerbs at Hatzenbach. At this point, I turned in to the first right at what appeared to be a fairly tame speed and found the car failing to grip and just pushing on in helpless understeer. It was no problem as I was going slowly enough simply to back off and let the car regain purchase, but it was as clear a sign as I needed that the track was to be treated with extreme caution, and I decided to stick to normal road speed from then on.

Just about the only traffic we encountered on that lap were a British-registered X5 and a gaggle of ‘Ring rentals, and we emerged at the other end unscathed. Mike and Gareth were keen to do another lap and I didn’t mind pottering round again, so off we went, with the blessing of the gate marshal who said we’d be fine as long as we went out straight away. The treacherous state of the track was forcibly brought home to us as we descended from Kallenhard towards Miss-Hit-Miss, as a Mondeo estate was parked up on the grass on the left, with its front corner mildly re-arranged. I didn’t need another reminder to proceed with extreme caution for the rest of the lap – a slippery Nurburgring demands great respect!

Once we had safely completed the second lap, we returned to the Dottinger Hohe petrol station so that stickers could be purchased – a black one for Tingtong and a pink one for Gareth’s wife Helen’s pink Corsa… That done, we dropped back down the hill into Adenau, via the spectacular section of forest road behind Hohe Acht – a snaking band of silky smooth tarmac that is beyond the wildest dreams of any British driver. We parked in the town centre and repaired to the Blaue Ecke Hotel for dinner. A hearty meal later, we set the sat navs for Spa.

I was initially reluctant to follow the TomTom as she seemed to want to take us a strange route, which I ignored, and then up towards Bonn. After a couple of U-turns, I decided to give in and do what she said, which turned out to be a good move. The cross-country route took us over the top of the Eifel National Park, along roads surfaced with beautifully smooth, glistening black tarmac. We encountered only a handful of other cars, meaning that for the rest of the time progress was uninterrupted and amply lit by bi-xenon main beam.

By the time we reached the E42 and pointed the cars towards Belgium the rain, which had stopped in Adenau, was coming down in stair rods again and things did not get any better by Spa. Even so, we retired to sleep eager for the action of the following day. When the following day came, it was damp and misty. The valley leading to the circuit was laden with dense white cloud, which we hoped would not affect proceedings at the track day. We were joined in the breakfast room by two fellow Brits who had arrived late the previous evening and were also off to the track. The guy told us he’d brought down an old MG race car, which turned out to be a Magnette saloon – not what I was expecting. We finished off our bread rolls and croissants and jumped in the cars for the two-minute drive to the circuit. The anticipation increased as we passed through the tunnel and into the circuit centre, following the ramp up to the new F1 paddock.

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Already a host of top-drawer machinery was there – M3s and GT3s galore, a few Evos and the odd Radical. I was more alarmed to see what looked like a garage full of race-prepared Porsches and Germans strutting around in full race suit regalia. My personal view is that a track day intended for road cars is not necessarily the place for these. Even so, after a friendly and informative safety briefing, we signed on, collected our track passes and made our way to the pit garage we’d reserved. Once we’d managed to work out which bay was ours, we found no reason to delay further and headed out onto the famous Spa tarmac.

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Turning sharp right out of the pitlane, you head downhill, through a right-hand curve bordered by the old pit wall and find yourself presented with motor racing’s most celebrated view: the spectacular eminence of Eau Rouge, which takes its name from the stream, tinged red by its rocky bed, that runs beneath the track. It is a formidable corner – once accustomed, I was approaching at just about 100mph, braking hard and selecting third before hugging the white line on the inside of the first left and then turning into the steeply uphill right-hand sweep, pointing the car straight towards the left-hand kerb that is just visible at the summit and keeping it balanced on the power before giving it all the gas once out the other end. The right-hand part was decidedly greasy and taking it at 80mph had the car squirming and moving around. Touching the kerbs or white lines was to be avoided – I did it once but I got away with it…

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Once out of the dip, the Raidillon curve lay ahead. Even in the wet it was easily flat, but the consequences of touching the white line on the insde here could have been serious. Following was the relentless uphill slog of the Kemmel straight, followed by the tricky right-left-right of Les Combes. At the top of Kemmel I was braking in plenty of time, well before the 200m board. When I went out with an instructor, he told me not to hit the middle pedal until 150m! At 120mph on a wet track, that’s more nerve-wracking than it might sound. There was plenty of grip in Les Combes itself, but the following downhill right-hand hairpin at Rivage was very slippery indeed. Just a few mph too much would have the car sliding well wide which, in a corner that requires a wall-of-death approach to the entry so that you can make a late apex, and is bordered by gravel, is not a good thing!

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Out of Rivage there is a short, third gear squirt down to a nameless left-hander that was one of the tricker corners. A fairly tight bend going through about 90 degrees, it was very greasy and slightly off camber. This, combined with the fact that on entry you’d be braking and changing direction having pulled the car over to the right from Rivage to haul it back over to the left-hand apex, meant that my car at least was often getting pretty sideways on turn-in. It never felt anything other than controllable and of course it was great fun!

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The run down to the awesome Pouhon corner is much more downhill than TV would lead you to expect. This was where Michael Schumacher infamously ran into the back of David Coulthard in the rain-hit 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, costing himself the race and possibly ultimately the World Championship. It was also here that I came up on Tingtong’s bootlid while out with my instructor. Leaving Rivage, I commented that this was my friend ahead in the Focus. As we went through the following left, he said “Go on, then – overtaken him.” Mike duly indicated right to let me past on the left but kindly kept his foot in, making me work for the pass. I was forced to leave my braking slightly later than I’d have liked and was out of position on the track, which led to a rather sideways moment as I slowed and a stern word from the instructor. It was Mike’s fault, of course.

The double-apexed left hander, Pouhon, is a challenging corner, although it held less fear than it otherwise might the consequence of getting it wrong would have been little more than a trip to the huge tarmac run-off area on the outside. Turn-in to the first part was fairly late but then it was necessary to hold the car to the outside for longer than felt immediately natural mid-corner, so that the second apex could be clipped nice and late. I started off tackling it in fourth gear but later switched to third, the better to power out. After that it was a case of bringing it back over to the left to brake for the Fagnes chicane. Describing it as a chicane possibly does it something of a disservice as it is more like two third-gear corners one after the other. The first right is fairly long and steady state; you aimed to end up in the middle of the track to flick into the left-hand part, where power could be fed in gradually, using all the road to the outside. This led to the short run to what I found to be the trickiest corner – the first right of Stavelot.

Very narrow and slippery, it was necessary to tread carefully here because a gravel trap beckoned on the outside, not a forgiving tarmac apron. The car was very keen to run wide and it was very tricky to put any power down while still in the mid-corner. The second part of the corner is faster and more open on the exit, with full power in third gear possible as you headed from mid-corner to exit, although my DSC always winked a note of caution at this point! There followed a flat-out run up through the revs of third and fourth, reaching about 110 or so in my car before easing off for the first apex of the ultra-fast Blanchimont. Both Mike and I were taking this at about 90, but I was always aware that there was nothing but grass between the edge of the track and the tyre wall on the outside, so a mistake would almost certainly lead to a huge shunt. The second part of the corner required a dab of brakes and was taken at about 80 by both me and Mike. However, whereas the Tingtong Focus felt very sure-footed at that speed, mine was a little edgy and oversteering slightly towards the corner exit. The good news is that here there was a substantial tarmac run-off, although I never needed to use it!

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Out of Blanchimont, the view ahead was of the recently developed new end to the lap, with a vast open space leading down the the revised Bus Stop (now no longer a bus stop and simply a right-left chicane) and the gleaming new pit facilities. Braking could be left nice and late, accompanied by blipped downshifts into second. I had been negotiating the switchback in third to begin with but on the advice of the instructor, I dropped to second and used more power, making the back end work a bit more. With plenty of room on the exit it was perfectly possible to feed in the power without troubling the electronics before spearing down the pit straight.

I could reach the braking zone for La Source hairpin just before touching the rev limiter in third; again, having started off taking the hairpin in third (there was more than enough torque to haul it out), the instructor changed my approach by barking at me to get second, come off the brakes and turn in sharply. Obviously he was right – there was a surprising amount of grip at the apex and second just gave that extra spice to the run down the hill. This is another corner with loads of room to start straightening up the wheel as soon as you’ve passed mid-corner, meaning that full power could be poured in quite easily.

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And so begins another lap of Spa! The wet weather actually made for a more enjoyable day for me, I suspect. I had feared that the big braking zones would take a heavy toll on my car’s brakes, and having experienced serious tyre graining in hot, dry conditions at the Nurburgring Grand Prix track earlier in the year I was worried that there’d be more of the same at Spa. As it was, the surface only began to approach anything like dry at one point and more rain soon put paid to that. Slower cornering speeds, earlier reaching of limits and cooler air temperature meant that brakes, tyres, suspesion, steering and cooling systems all had much less hard a time that they would on a sunny day.

The 130i actually impressed me hugely – much more so than I had expected. It pulled with immense strength on Spa’s long straights and proved nicely poised and well-balanced through its corners. Loss of grip was well telegraphed through steering and seat of the pants and it was benign at the limits of its tyres’ adhesion, nudging controllably into oversteer or safely into understeer. One of the most interesting parts of the day was experimenting with technique to try to improve the way the car was going round corners. Early on I found that my usual smooth turn-in approach was not really delivering ideal cornering, with the car adopting a nose-led stance that more power only increased. I found that by making the first steering input sharper, the front would grip, the back end would slip out by a degree or two and the car would hold that attitude. It transformed my approach to the lap and gave me much more confidence in the car’s stability.

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The only thing that had the potential to spoil the day was the amount of faster traffic on the track. As it was, most people were courteous and well behaved, carefully following the ‘overtaking by mutual consent’ rule. I can of only four drivers who deemed it unnecessary to heed that guidance, and one of them crashed his Caterham into a wall before mid morning. As it turned out, I did get a number of clear runs in the afternoon, where I managed to string together sequences of five or six laps with no interruptions from behind. It was most satisfying to hit the brakes at the top of the Kemmel hill and look in the mirror to see an empty track, with a similarly clear view ahead. By about 4pm lots of people were starting to leave, as well, which made it even easier to get a good run.

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At one point, Mike and I exchanged passenger rides in each other’s cars. The experience reminded me what a class act the Focus chassis is. In slower corners it would slide wide a little bit before mine would but in the faster stuff it was rock-steady, and never felt off the pace on the straights. Credit where it’s due to the driver, too, who impressed with a smooth and consistent performance!

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As the end of the day drew near, Gareth and I did a run of about six laps and I came in to the pits to cool off in readiness for one final go before the 6pm chequered flag. Sadly, some minor incident on track brought out a red flag and that was it for the day. I was mildly put out as I hadn’t treated the last lap I’d done as my last of the day, but Mike had already started resotring his car to road spec (removed the towing eye, in other words), in between games of trying to find a drink bottle that wouldn’t fit inside the BMW Performance tail pipe.

We left the circuit exhilerated at the experience but disappointed that it was already over and returned to our hotel, quickly moving into the lounge to download and check out the day’s pictures. Later on we drove into Francorchamps village to eat in the one establishment that appeared to be open, where the choice was limited to the sauce we wanted on our steak. Still, it filled a gap and was a good chance to have a chat about events of the day. After that it was back for a good night’s sleep.

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Wednesday was travelling home day. We stuck around at Spa for a while, going back down to the track to watch lunatics on motorbikes braving the still damp surface (it had stopped raining and was actually quite a pleasant morning). In the late morning, we hit the road and aimed ourselves at Lille in northern France. I have a big soft spot for Lille as it is where I spent the year abroad part of my degree and I was keen to see it as I’d not been for about four years. Apart from the reversal of a few one way systems since the time I lived there it was much as I remembered it, and I drove down ‘my’ street in the old town to see if there might be space to park briefly, but there wasn’t. So we carried on down the neighbourhood’s cobbled streets and tucked the cars away in an underground car park before setting off in search of lunch.

That mission accomplished, we strolled around the old town, chock-a-block these days with designer boutiques, visited the cathedral with its darkly gothic main body and startlingly modern facade and eventually ended up walking down the street where I lived anyway. Once there, I suggested that we might as well carry on to the nearby Champ de Mars so that we could take Mike to the zoo. He was very pleased. After getting our fill of red pandas, tropical birds, reptiles, turtles, bored monkeys and fighting rhinos, we were about to set off when the heavens opened in the most spectacular fashion. We attempted, mostly without success, to hide from the rain for about half an hour, me and Gareth losing Mike in the process, before I suddenly realised that time was pressing on and we really needed to leave, given that we were going to have to contend with rush hour and then roadworks on the way to Dunkerque.

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We headed back to the town centre along Lille’s tree-lined boulevards, which were bustling with that energy of a foreign city with lots of traffic, scruffily parked French cars and the background cry of fire engine sirens. Arriving back at the cars drenched from head to toe, I was slightly surprised to find that my car’s remote control was resolutely refusing to unlock it (which I put down to some quirk of being five stories underground rather than it being wet, which it wasn’t). For the first time I had to resort to the secret hidden key and open the car manually, which of course set the alarm off. Which of course I had no idea how to stop. Replacing the key in the fob and sticking it in its slot in the dashboard seemed to do the trick. After negotiating the reverse helter-skelter to get out of the car park, we were soon on our way, handily bypassing the choked up main streets of the town centre to skirt down the edge to the motorway.

Once past the crowded traffic of town and the large queue for the roadworks contraflow on the motorway, we came across a final hurdle in our quest to be at the Eurotunnel terminal on time – appalling, torrential rain. It’s a long time since I’ve had to drive in rain like it and I hope it’s a long time before I have to again. There was so much water on the road that passing trucks was an act of blind faith where the main clue as to where you were going was to look at the white line marking out the outside edge of the lane. Happily, we made it to the check-in booths bang on time, sailed right through border control and boarded our train after only a very short wait. The crossing gave Mike the chance to put his ‘Ring sticker on, proudly saying that he didn’t need to go for an apologetic matching silver example as his car had actually been on the track.

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With watches adjusted, we were back on the M20 before we’d even got on the Eurotunnel in Calais. A brief stop for fuel later and we were on our way, reaching home in the late evening having covered 1,152 miles over three days and driven on two of the world’s most revered racetracks. My car was travel stained a mucky grey with its front wheels blackened from the brakes’ Spa exertions, but I had returned admiring it anew after a truly fantastic experience.

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Circuit photography copyright Xtreme Sports Photography

 

2009-10-11 15:07:30

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Home Forums Spa-Francorchamps Trackday

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    zAppiDev
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    Spa Francorchamps Trackday After weeks of mounting excitement, Monday 5 October dawned damp and chilly, heralding a 5am start in order to get round th
    [See the full post at: Spa-Francorchamps Trackday]

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