Spa-Francorchamps is the name of both a town and a track, each nestled in the Belgian Ardennes. The town is less than four hours from Calais, the French end of the Channel Tunnel. Meanwhile, the track is composed of 19-mostly-high-speed-turns over 4.3 miles to provide a very different driving experience than most other race tracks.
I drove Spa the day after my Nurburgring experience. The drive from one circuit to the other took less than two hours and spanned across the picturesque German/Belgian border.
Despite the tracks 100-year history, Spa is fundamentally a modern Formula 1 facility. In contrast with Nurburgring, it is much broader and allows passing on both sides. With a seemingly perfect surface, Spa enables drivers to focus much more on their line than what is possible at the Nurburgring.
I wasn’t the slowest during my experience, I shared the track with a Fiesta ST – which I spent some time behind, opting to copy his lines through the turns – and some Russian plated Golf GTI’s, BMW M3s and M4s, one British-registered F10 M5, and tons of 911 GT3s. The fastest car in my group was a seriously modified Ferrari 458. The other drivers were, as you might expect, quick and committed.
Spa has plenty of high speed turns and a few that require reduced speeds, similar to other tracks though the turns at Spa are what makes it a popular circuit among Formula 1 drivers, though it wasn’t always.
The course was dropped from the F1 schedule during the 1960s because the sustained high-speed became dangerous for F1 cars of the time. Spa returned to the F1 circuit lineup in 1983 after it had received a redesign that kept its character intact and allowed it to retain its majestic, sweeping, only-the-brave-need-apply turns.
To prepare, my friends and I learned the circuit using this guy’s onboard film. He breaks each turns up into sections, which was far more detail than we needed on our first visit.
Where To Stay?
We stayed in a Radisson Blu hotel on the main square of the town of Spa. It was comparable to a 4-star Best Western-style hotel in the United States and was ideal for our needs. There was plenty of parking, with secured underground parking available and thoroughly recommended.
Having driven over from the Nurburgring, we had steak frites watching the world go by without having to set foot outside the hotel. The following morning it was a ten-minute drive up the hill to the circuit. Overall, it was very civilized and left you feeling you too should be a pro racing driver.
What to Drive on Track?
A poorly handling car won’t be fun at Spa, and while a slow car that handles well was ideal at the Nurburgring, it won’t be fun at Spa either. I decided to drive a Megane 265 as it can exist on the track alongside BMWs and Porsches, which I feel speaks volumes about the quality of its chassis. It has 265 hp and is about as small of a car as you would want.
The Megane 265 rental has similar power to my daily, a 2001 Bullitt Mustang, and in that respect, it was easy to approach your limits as a driver while being confident in the car. Basic Meganes are common, just like a Focus’ or Golfs, but the sporty ones like “our” 265 are rare. You might think of the sporty Meg as a French Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Type R or Golf GTi – the latest and greatest front wheel drive hot hatchback from a mass market firm with the motorsports heritage of Ford or Honda.
Like Fords, Renaults tend to have a shoddy build next to VW or anything Japanese or Korean but usually feature an exciting design. By chance, one of the group has a Megane 265 as a daily driver, which he brought along on the trip, when I asked my buddy about the reliability worries, he replied “Mate, I am going to sell it once it has 30k, the glovebox already rattles…”
Like at the ring, we used a local rental company – RSR Spa. Located on the way to the circuit, RSR Spa is run by some young blokes inside a very cramped office, while outside mechanics stood around smoking, no doubt awaiting the first casualties of the day.
I met Jacques, the guy I had dealt with over email when booking, inside the office. While the offices are scruffy, the actual level of customer service is high: I brought my helmet but left it in the streetcar I arrived in, which was disbarred from the circuit. Jacques popped back to the office to get me a helmet to use for the first session; otherwise, I would have missed it.
After the first session, he suggested I come out of the circuit and back to the rental offices to re-check tire pressures. I did, and the smoking mechanics fell upon the car like I was Lewis Hamilton or Jimmy Johnson.
The Driving Experience
Exiting Stavelot, I would always find myself in the wrong gear or bouncing off the rev limiter, kicking myself at the lost exit speed. The run to Blanchimont is straight in that you can hold the throttle wide open, but it curves; I usually opt to feather the throttle through the kink somewhat – a 120+ mph proposition in the Megane – and stay right lest one of the bevies of Russian registered 911 GT3s come barreling up on me. I do this because all day I am working up to taking Blanchimont, a 100 mph 90-degree left-hander, without a dab of brake…
So this is Spa – its commitment. The circuit is extensive, the surface marvelous, the runoff enormous. No road experience can prepare you for the speed.
I have watched F1 cars make the climb up the Kemmel straight to Les Combes on TV a million times, but done behind the wheel of a 265 hp rental track-prepared Renault Megane entirely wrung out – flat to the red line in 2nd and 3rd – trying to keep up with the Russian 991 in front on the warm-up lap, is an experience to be had.
Spa is also home to perhaps the best corner combination in all motorsports, the Eau Rouge / Radillon complex. It begins with a long run downhill, and the vista of the S-bend ahead snaking up the hill, daring you on the longish run downhill. This straight, for many years, has served as the start/finish for races and is long enough that even the slowest cars are well above 100 mph by the time the road turns gently left, and then more sharply right.
As it turns right, it climbs a short but very steep incline. Cresting the rise, it sweeps left again, just as the car goes light. Carry too much speed through the banked right, and you’re offline and in grave danger of spinning through the over the crest left. Carry too little, and the car is robbed the of that speed up the next long uphill straight. Try as I might, I couldn’t get my exit speed about 95 mph, so the Meg was touching 125 by the end of the straight, still in 5th gear.
Speeding down the hill, pedal to the metal at more than 100 mph, hugging the pit wall, you know you have to turn in late, that a late apex here will set you up correctly for the right. The harder I tried, the more I turned in too early, pinched my entry line and cost myself speed up Kemmel. All the way, thinking “Argh, next time, TURN IN LATER…” Moreover, that climb – being passed all the way, especially at the top, by 911s and M cars. At Spa, you’d be forgiven for thinking 991 GT3s are pretty standard cars.
To me, driving Spa feels like Turn 1 at Laguna Seca, the high-speed kink-over-a-brow which puts the car off balance. Apexes tend to be late, and the runoff huge, the very blacktop begging you to take each turn a little faster than before. Often, you exit corners thinking “Argh, if only I had bigger b***s, I would be so much faster….”
There were four twenty minute sessions spread through the day. In practice, barely had your adrenaline faded than it was time to helmet up and get in line again. In this respect, the day felt much like typical track days Stateside. Lunch reflected the exorbitant price – a buffet, but quite a nice one, in the tower offering panoramic views of the track and surrounding area.
How Much Does it Cost?
RSR was really expensive!!! The rental for me cost around $2000. Breaking that down a little, I had four twenty minute sessions I did about 20 laps. Around $100 a lap is pretty expensive; however, you slice it. Also, their facilities are more Econolodge than Four Seasons. However, the high price is inclusive of insurance, race gas, and track time hire. At the Nurburgring, we handled these things, and it was easy to be caught out, and miss something out which you needed to budget for. By the time you have paid for track time yourself, and bought gas, tires, and insurance the RSR price looks more reasonable. More, call me old fashioned, but I prefer to bounce someone else’s car off curbs and the rev limiter, not the one I have to drive to work the next day and am still making payments on. (Sorry RSR, sorry Megane.)
If you were feeling brave and we’re going to visit Spa as part of a European vacation, shipping your car is surprisingly affordable. Note that if you stay longer than three months, you have to pay Import Duty. However, the risk of breaking or wrecking it is a nightmare of sufficient size to put me off this approach. That tour of the chateaux of the Loire you promised your better half would have the shine taken right off it if you balled up the car at the track.
Another slightly brain-out adventure option would be to buy, from Craigslist or eBay, a cheap fast car from the US. Fly in, close the deal, and use that. However, there is high risk involved in thrashing an old M3 or Jaguar XJR on a course as demanding as this. Any dynamic flaws are immediately shown. It’s hard to be committed, really lean on a car if you’re worried about the 140,000 miles, warped brake rotors and mismatched tires it has.
The lack of sensible alternatives led me to rent. I would thoroughly recommend Jacques and the guys at RSR.
This was a unique, bucket-list thing I enjoyed far, far more than I expected to. We all enjoyed the trip so much we have been inspired to look at budget racing such as Champcar and Lucky Dog home in the US.
So yes, eye wateringly expensive but entirely worthwhile.