Making Tracks - The Spa-Francorchamps Edition
Welcome to the second edition of Making Tracks, the travel guide from AutoFocus. This edition focussed on an iconic track in the middle of the Belgian Ardennes forest. Should this guide be updated, this will be reflected in this Author’s Note.
Photo credit: Lou Johnson
Spa-Francorchamps, a circuit that I hold very close to my heart. The first racetrack outside of the UK I ever visited, the first place I achieved media accreditation and the best chips I’ve had at a circuit (a crucial factor when rating a track!)
Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
Location: Stavelot, Belgium
Time Zone: Central European Time (UTC+1)
Currency: Euro (EUR €)
Situated in the beautiful Ardennes forest, the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is probably one of the most famous and favoured tracks in the world. With a twisty, tricky track layout and its own microclimate, Spa presents unique challenges that are loved by fans and drivers alike. Despite the name Spa-Francorchamps, the track is not actually in Spa. It sits in the small town of Francorchamps, partly in the municipality of Stavelot and partly in the municipality of Malmedy.
Personally, I prefer to drive to Spa. It’s a quick hop over The Channel and then about a 3½ hour drive to the track from Calais. Plus you’re treated to some beautiful views on some of the roads surrounding Spa thanks to the hilly nature of the surrounding areas. If you don’t fancy the drive (but you should do it at least once), then your options are flying, or getting a train. The nearest airports are Liege and Maastricht; both are less than 100km away. If you needed a larger hub, try Lille or Dusseldorf. As for those of you who prefer rails to wings, Verviers is the closest station, though depending on where you’re coming from, getting a train into Brussels and hiring a car might be easier!
There are plenty of places to stay within 10-15 minutes of the circuit; whether you’re in need of a cutesy AirBnB or prefer the luxury of a big hotel, the local area has got loads to choose from. Want to stay in the centre of the town of Spa? Then if you’ve got the budget, I’d highly recommend the Radisson Blu Palace Hotel. With its own restaurant and a private funicular railway to take you to the Thermes de Spa, it’s the ideal place to relax before and after a day at the track. Alternatively, Stavelot, Malmedy and Spa offer a multitude of flats, houses and cottages suitable for single travellers or groups, a quick search on Airbnb or booking.com should help you find what you need, but be quick! On busy race weekends such as WEC or the F1, places will sell out fast.
If you’re staying in or around Stavelot, I can thoroughly recommend eating at La Table de Figaro (also known as Pizzeria Figaro.) Great food, reasonable prices, right in the middle of Stavelot. Well worth a look! Alternatively, if you’re staying in Spa, check out La Brasserie des Thermes. It may be a bit far down the TripAdvisor rankings, but the food is good and it’s open late - perfect if you’ve had a super long day working at the track.
Two words. Chips, and waffles. Spa is probably one of the best tracks outside of Italy in which to carbo-load. Frites and mayo are a must, or in my case curry ketchup, followed by a Belgian beer (for non-designated drivers) and a warm waffle. Your waistline won’t thank you, but your heart will.
Obviously, access during the F1 weekend will be slightly different, but for races like the WEC you can get into the paddock and wander along the back of the garages without an issue. This paddock offers something that few others do - a fantastic view of the circuit. In the upper section, behind the pit garages, you can stand and watch as cars hurtle down towards Eau Rouge and Raidillon, it’s truly a sight to behold. Or, pop down to the other end and you can see them accelerating out of La Source.
Bring an umbrella and comfy shoes. The weather in Spa is so unpredictable and there aren’t that many places to shelter in the paddock, so it’s very easy to get caught in an unexpected rain shower. Not to mention how un-flat the terrain is at Spa, you’ll no doubt be walking a lot and on some fairly steep inclines! Be prepared!
Historic race tracks always have a special atmosphere about them. A combination of love from the fans, respect from the drivers and the stories that swirl around the paddock make them an intoxicating place to be. Spa is no different. Each entrance provides you with a great view of the track unfolding in front of you - the best of which is probably the ‘Entrance Ster’. This brings you into the circuit between La Source and Eau Rouge, arguably the most famous points on the track. It’s a great way to introduce young fans to the place.
As with most circuits, if the option is available, get yourself a pit walk. Depending on the time of day, you may find yourself bathed in beautiful afternoon sunshine as you get up close with your favourite teams, drivers and machines.
And even when the heavens have opened and you think you’re about to be washed away, Spa is a happy place. Teams and fans alike love to come to Spa and you can feel that as you walk around. Besides, if it does start bucketing down, you can always shelter in the magnificent start/finish straight grandstand (earplugs recommended!)
Spa started life in the 1920s as an almost 15 km track that using public roads. It shrunk in the 1930s to just over 14 km and became renowned for being a very fast and very dangerous track - many drivers even feared it. The sheer length of the circuit coupled with the unpredictable weather conditions meant that frequently parts of the circuit would be experiencing torrential rain and others would be bone dry presenting really difficult racing conditions. As the circuit used public roads and for a long time had very little in the way of safety additions, if you left the track, you could hit anything. In 1966, Sir Jackie Stewart had an awful accident at the now extinct Masta Kink, the F1 world champion went off the circuit at the highspeed kink and found himself upside-down in the cellar of a farmhouse, fuel pouring in and with some broken ribs to show for it. (If you want a more extensive and at times gruesome history of the track, Wikipedia has got you covered.)
Eventually, thanks to safety campaigning and a boycott from F1, Spa received the much-needed upgrades to start it on the journey to becoming today’s beloved circuit. The old circuit was no more by 1981, and the most recent upgrades in 2007 gave birth to the track layout we use now.
It’s a relatively short run from the start down to the hairpin at La Source, a great place to watch from in the paddock, as the cars suddenly bunch up again to try and thread themselves through the very low-speed corner. A good exit from La Source sets you up for Eau Rouge - we all know that iconic view of cars flying flat out up Eau Rouge and into Raidillon. Come out of that complex, and you’re on the mighty Kemmel Straight. Next up, turns 7, 8 and 9 or as they’re collectively known, Les Combes - which is ‘quite good fun’ according to F1 driver Romain Grosjean. ‘Then you’ve got turn eight with tricky braking. You need to be well positioned on the right hand side of the exit for turn nine.’ Thanks Romain. Out of Les Combes, you’re heading down to a pair of left-turns, 10 & 11 - Bruxelles. Next up, Pouhon, turn 12, then onto the complex of corners 13, 14 and 15 including Campus and Stavelot. Head on out of 16 and you’re on your way to Blanchimont, another section of the circuit where drivers aim to run flat out. Getting Blanchimont right sets you up for the long back straight, before heavy braking plonks you into the Bus Stop chicane and back onto the start/finish straight. Ready to go again?
Prepare for every eventuality weather-wise. This track has its own microclimate, in any one day you could have torrential rain, hail and beautiful blue skies, not to mention the wind. Wear comfy clothes, pack some waterproofs and slather up with some suncream!
I already mentioned this in the Paddock Life section, but track food. Do not leave here without having had either some frites or a waffle. Personally I’d recommend both.
If you can, drive. Driving to Spa is quite easy from a lot of places, plus it’s the best way to drink in the views. And even if you’ve only got a hire car, treat yourself to some of the local roads that used to be part of the circuit. That’s history you’re driving on!
Check the place your staying - a lot of things in Stavelot close quite early, so if you’re planning on being at the track late and need a pint of milk, bear in mind that most things may well be shut by the time you leave!
Spa-Francorchamps should be on the bucket list for every motorsport fan. This iconic track is steeped in history and has managed to turn itself around from a track that people feared to one that is revered. There are so many events on to choose from too. You’ve got the big hitters of Formula One and the World Endurance Championship, plus classics, bikes and tonnes of other endurance events like Blancpain, ELMS and the annual 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. You’re spoilt for choice! And conisdering how easy it can be to get to, especially if you’re based in Western Europe, there’s really no reason not to come!