The Final F1 Race on the Classic Spa Layout Was... Weird

AMS2 Spa 1970 Start.png
The Belgian Grand Prix is usually one of the highlights on the Formula One calendar as one of the races with the most tradition. Spa-Francorchamps is synonymous with F1, which is setting up shop there this weekend, and much of this stems from its early years using the classic layout on public roads - which was much faster and more dangerous than today's version. The final time it was used in F1 was in 1970 - and that race was a bit of a weird outlier compared to the ones before.

Races at Spa were and still are rarely uneventful, and this usually meant the potential for disastrous accidents in the years of the circuit's classic layout. Over 14 kilometers of public roads winding through the Ardennes countryside were spectacular, but also inherently deadly, having infamously claimed the lives Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey minutes apart in unrelated incidents during the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix.

Six years later, Jackie Stewart found himself trapped in his BRM after crashing into a telephone pole and ending up in a farm building. Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant saved the fuel-soaked Scotsman from a potentially disastrous situation, which famously sparked Stewart's crusade for safety precautions in Formula One. While looked down upon initially, this gained some traction in the following years and even led to the cancellation of the 1969 Belgian Grand Prix.

Danger at Every Corner (and Straight)​

At the time, the circuit's only safety measures, if they could even be called that, were straw bales on the outside of some of the corners - that was it. Drivers could strike telephone poles, ditches, barbed-wire fences, houses, earth banks and more if things went wrong - and they did for Brian Redman in 1968, who luckily escaped his blazing Cooper with just minor burns and a broken arm.

Spa-Francorchamps 1970 Belgian GP Map.png

The classic layout of Spa-Francorchamps featuring the somewhat out-of-place chicane at Malmedy - its addition is a bit of a head-scratcher in retrospect. Image credit: racingcircuits.info

Cornering speeds had started to increase due to the appearance of wings on the cars that year, so the drivers vowed to boycot the 1969 race if no improvements were made to the track. As the circuit owners deemed them to be too expensive, the race was canceled.

It did return for the 1970 season, however, as guardrails had been built in key sections to keep the cars from hitting the myriad of obstacles lining the track. Possibly the least effective chicane in F1 history was installed at Malmedy in order to slow the cars down for the Masta Straight and subsequent Masta Kink - which did not really work as about 2 kilometers separated Malmedy and Masta, which meant plenty of time to reach top speed even in 1970. The Malmedy chicane was certainly a weird decision.

AMS2 Spa 1970 Malmedy Chicane.png

Instead of continuing through Malmedy at high speed (left), F1 drivers had to negotiate a chicane at Malmedy (right) that did little to slow them down into the Masta Kink.

Tragedy at McLaren​

Adding to the unusual feeling leading into the race was the absence of the McLaren team. Just five days before the Grand Prix, Bruce McLaren had tested a CanAm car at Goodwood where he suffered a fatal crash in his McLaren M8D after some of the car's bodywork had come loose. Peter Gethin would have driven a second McLaren at Spa as Denny Hulme had been injured in testing for the Indy 500, but the team decided not to enter the race as a result of its founder's death.

This left an entry list of just 18 cars, and even less would take the start as Àlex Soler-Roig failed to qualify his Lotus. Remarkably, considering all the big crashes and difficult weather conditions of the past, the race was rather uneventful. Having started on pole position, Stewart would drop out after 14 laps due to engine failure, and Pedro Rodríguez immediately started moving through the field from sixth on the grid, snatching the lead on lap 4 and never relinquishing it, despite having a hard-charging Jack Brabham behind him for most of the race. The Australian eventually retired due to clutch issues.

AMS2 Spa 1970 Masta Kink.png

The 1970 Belgian Grand Prix marked the final time Formula One cars would fly through the fearsome Masta Kink.

Rodríguez took the win ahead of Chris Amon's March and Jean-Pierre Beltoise (Matra) - it would prove the final F1 victory for the Mexican, who lost his life just a year later at the Norisring. Interestingly, the final points scorer of the day did not even see the checkered flag: Henri Pescarolo had to park his Matra with electrical issues on the penultimate lap, but was still classified.

Despite the long list of retirements, no crashes caused drivers to drop out of the race, which was a rarity at Spa. All retirements were caused by mechanical issues.


Formula One had dodged a bullet, it seemed, especially considering two drivers would go on to lose their lives during the remainder of the season: At the very next race at Zandvoort, Piers Courage lost his life at Tunnel Oost, and Jochen Rindt did not survive a crash in practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, making him the only posthumous Formula One World Champion in history.

As Spa was not up to the newly-installed FIA safety specifications for 1971, the race was off the calendar again, and F1 would not return to Spa until 1983. The vintage layout was still used for other events until 1978, after which redevelopment of the track started and gave it its current shape for the most part, with alterations having been made to the new layout over the years since.

Old Spa Lives on in Sim Racing​

While the classic layout was feared by many drivers in their day, we as sim racers are lucky to have it conserved in multiple titles to get at least somewhat of an approximation of what racing at Spa must have been like - a thrill ride at 300 kph even in the 1960s, with a single mistake bearing the potential for enormous crashes.

Versions of the track are available in rFactor 2 (in its 1966 guise), Project CARS 2, and most recently in Automobilista 2 using the 1970 Belgian GP as its scenario, although the track is available without the Malmedy Chicane in AMS2, too. Additionally, mods for other platforms also exist. Meanwhile, most of the original track is still in place and used as public roads today, so if you ever visit the track, make sure to take in at least parts of the old layout - and try to imagine that over 50 years ago, there were Grand Prix cars flying through there, inches away from catastrophe.

Your Thoughts​

Looking back at Spa's history, was F1 maybe even too late to leave the circuit in its classic layout? Have you driven it in a sim - and if so, what do you think about the ultra-fast track? Let us know in the comments below!
About author
Yannik Haustein
Lifelong motorsport enthusiast and sim racing aficionado, walking racing history encyclopedia.

Sim racing editor, streamer and one half of the SimRacing Buddies podcast (warning, German!).

Heel & Toe Gang 4 life :D

Comments

Its one of my favorite historical race tracks. It has a nice flow and the danger lurks on every corner. A single mistake quicky end your race.

We did a amazing championship with historical Formula cars on the AMSU community. I will never forget that. Best racing experience I had!

Here is a video from the stream:
 
Last edited:
Visited the old Spa in 1991, my dad (and I besides motor racing) being interested in pro road bike racing and history, visiting Stavelot (as a cornerstone in bike Monument race La Doyenne/Liége-Bastogne-Liége), I took over the wheel, my dad knowing zero what I was mumbling about.
And THEN, with a few twists and turns here and there, managed to make a historic lap!

Unfortunately no GoPro back then an no time for photoes, so pictures still only inclined in my memory.

Sometimes you have to grab the opportunity when it stands right before you.
 
Its one of my favorite historical race tracks. It has a nice flow and the danger lurks on every corner. A single mistake quicky end your race.

We did a amazing championship with historical Formula cars on the AMSU community. I will never forget that. Best racing experience I had!

Here is a video from the stream:
Adorable!
The bumpiness of the course in your AMS1 display reminds me of my personal likewise fun in rF1 a couple of years ago:
 
Historical tracks are always more fun, the safety standards that have ruined sight lines and undulations and created a stale experience at many tracks over the years and in the sim racing world the clock can be turned back and the challenges await those who load up the historic tracks... Even ones that don't seem to have changed much on paper are massively different to drive like Bathurst...

Spa itself is one of the few that was redesigned in such a way that it retained a flavour of the original whilst gaining it's own soul... Very few have managed that...
 
"Spa 67" has long been one of my favorite sim tracks; I look on its modern incarnation as I do many classic tracks still in use - a castrated lackluster shadow of its former self.

Tracks do not kill drivers, their driving kills them.
 
"Spa 67" has long been one of my favorite sim tracks; I look on its modern incarnation as I do many classic tracks still in use - a castrated lackluster shadow of its former self.

Tracks do not kill drivers, their driving kills them.
Tracks indeed, do kill drivers. Even the best drivers make mistakes, it’s human (Lauda; Stewart; Jim Clarke, etc, etc, ). Mechanical failures, killed drivers back then, on horrendously unsafe tracks, without basic safety features, where they could have survived with them. Do you really wanna go back, to those days, I don’t thanks. You’re comment, ‘tracks don’t kill drivers‘, is ridiculous.
 
Last edited:
Exactly. The drivers' mistakes, not the tracks'.
So if a driver makes a mistake (you left mechanical failures, conveniently out of this post), then tough luck, they die; as you imply that racing was better without suitable safety in place. Safety doesn’t appear to figure, into your one sided argument, at all. It’s absolutely unrealistic, to believe that drivers can go all of their careers, on the limit without making any mistakes; should they die because of this? Your arguments are disturbing, & severely flawed; safety is inherent to racing. You have no right, to demand 100% perfection from racing drivers, and then casually disregard their lives, when they make mistakes in an incredibly dangerous sport.
 
Premium
I was on holiday in Stavelot last September, close to the roads of the old circuit. When I drove over there for the first time during that holiday, it felt very special. Not because of the way the roads and the environment look (that looks like most roads in the Belgian Ardennes) but the idea that F1 cars once drove here at dizzying speed. The houses are very close to the road and in other places you can easily drive into the river Eau Rouge. Actually, those drivers were crazy at the time that they drove there. In the end, it turned out during my holiday that the old circuit route was the easiest way to get to places in the area, so I can now honestly say that I have experience driving the old circuit (as do all the people who live nearby).
 
So if a driver makes a mistake (you left mechanical failures, conveniently out of this post), then tough luck, they die; as you imply that racing was better without suitable safety in place. Safety doesn’t appear to figure, into your one sided argument, at all. It’s absolutely unrealistic, to believe that drivers can go all of their careers, on the limit without making any mistakes; should they die because of this? Your arguments are disturbing, & severely flawed; safety is inherent to racing. You have no right, to demand 100% perfection from racing drivers, and then casually disregard their lives, when they make mistakes in an incredibly dangerous sport.
Mechanical failures, in this context, are irrelevant; they have nothing to do with driver performance or the track.

My point is these are professional drivers, they should know how to handle the car and the track ; in any endeavor people are going to make mistakes, we cannot "idiot-proof" the world. Sadly there are some professions where a mistake can be fatal; if a surgeon makes a mistake do you blame the operating table? if a pilot makes a mistake do you blame the sky? So why if a race driver makes a mistake do you blame the track?

How many drivers, in how many different cars, had turned how many thousands of laps at Imola without incident? Then one driver gets killed and they must suddenly redesign the track.

Over the years at IMS "42 drivers, 1 motorcyclist, 13 riding mechanics, and 18 others including a pit crew member, track personnel, and spectators have sustained fatal injuries or have had fatal medical conditions". Looks like it's long past time to put chicanes on that track. Or maybe abandon it altogether.

And there have been cases of drivers refusing to participate on a "dangerous" track; though not because the design of the track was in question, but because the condition of the armco or the track surface itself was unacceptable. Completely understandable.

But I do not accept the idea that a track is "too fast". To be analogous, you drive to work every day on a highway with a 65mph speed limit and you are comfortable driving that speed; one morning you go out and it is pouring down rain with visibility maybe 100yds ....I certainly hope you are not going 65mph now. In racing a good driver knows the car, knows the track, knows his/her abilities ...and adapts.

It is a tragedy when anyone dies of anything other than old age, but race drivers know and accept the risks. Same as mountain climbing, skydiving, bullfighting, surfing, or any other such activities, is not the risk part of the allure?

(FWIW, I raced for 35 years - SCCA, TransAm, IMSA, SVRA, HRS, and some alphabet soup I've long forgotten. "If you're not scared you're not doing it right.")
 

Latest News

Article information

Author
Yannik Haustein
Article read time
5 min read
Views
4,336
Comments
19
Last update

What would be the ideal raceday for you to join our Club Races?

  • Monday

    Votes: 24 14.1%
  • Tuesday

    Votes: 20 11.8%
  • Wednesday

    Votes: 23 13.5%
  • Thursday

    Votes: 21 12.4%
  • Friday

    Votes: 58 34.1%
  • Saturday

    Votes: 95 55.9%
  • Sunday

    Votes: 69 40.6%
Back
Top