We love it when the F1 circus rolls into Belgium every year. It gives us a chance to see the fastest circuit cars in the world take on the best circuit in the world. One of the stalwarts of the calendar, Spa-Francorchamps is one of the few original F1 circuits left and a fearsome 4 mile ribbon through the Belgian Ardennes.
These days, circuits – particularly the modern F1 Tilkedromes – are in the middle of nowhere. They’re a recovered bit of industrial landscape, or a purpose-built facility in a desert and there’s nothing around. Even Silverstone – which is a truly great track – is a little isolated as a former airfield and there’s just not that much to see around. They’re remote by design – so they’re not near anyone who might complain about the noise – and they’re not pretty. But Spa is a European track of the old school – like the Circuit de la Sarthe or the Nürburgring – and Spa is pretty. Really very pretty indeed. Even the flow of the track is aesthetically pleasing, but it nudges up against coniferous forests and sweeps off into natural beauty like the road is meant to be there. There’s even a Belgian farmhouse just sitting on the outside of Stavelot – and I doubt the occupants have ever complained about the noise. It’s just about impossible to take a bad photo of Spa-Francorchamps.
Many tracks have challenging signature corners – a corner the drivers all take a momentary deep breath and involuntary sphincter-tightening as they approach it. Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew is one of the best known and most infamous, but Silverstone’s Maggotts/Becketts, Istanbul’s Turn 8 and Canada’s final chicane and Wall of Champions are all similar in ethos. Spa doesn’t have this. Spa is entirely signature corner – every single bend is challenging and epic, every one has claimed a great name. Despite repeated circuit upgrades over the years, the modern track is only fractionally sanitised compared to its first version on the current layout – with only gaping tarmac runoffs at Pouhon and Blanchimont providing any semblence of a safety net. Hell, even the straight bits are tricky.
Along with Monza, Spa is the most demanding circuit of the season. The duty cycle is particularly severe, with 72 per cent of the lap spent at full throttle – only Monza exceeds this figure, with 76 per cent. Furthermore, this includes two prolonged full throttle periods of over 20 seconds.
The most challenging of these is undoubtedly the run of approximately 23 seconds from La Source to Les Combes, which includes Eau Rouge. This sequence exposes the engine and its ancillaries to extreme positive and negative vertical ‘G’ forces through the compression and over the crest that follows. This is a factor we take into account when designing our lubrication systems, in order to avoid problems with oil feed under the extreme loadings. Spa is also the longest lap of the season, and the circuit has a very high fuel mass penalty. Under the current qualifying regulations, this means that an engine with good fuel consumption can be a particular advantage.
The circuit features a high number of ‘aero corners’ – only six of the 19 turns are taken at less than 95mph – and this would normally push the teams towards relatively high levels of downforce in order to maximise grip in the corners, as is the case at a circuit like Silverstone.
Almost the only part of the car which has a relatively easy time is the braking system. The circuit features just three very heavy braking events, before turns one, five and 18. Overall, though, this is one of the easiest circuits for the brakes owing to the numerous high-speed corners that require little braking effort.