Spa-Francorchamps is steeped in Formula 1 history. Motor racing in this area of the Ardennes began over a century ago, and Spa hosted one of the seven rounds of the inaugural Formula 1 World Championship in 1950. It’s shorter and considerably safer now, but it’s always been fast – and a circuit where the driver can really make a difference.
Bruce McLaren took our first grand prix win here in 1968. It was our first time at Spa and only our 14th grand prix start.
We were a two-car team for the first time in 1968, Bruce having signed world champion Denny Hulme to drive with him, as well as arranging a supply of Cosworth V8 engines to power the new M7A chassis. In those days a lap of Spa took in almost nine miles of fast country roads, making the Belgian Grand Prix a long race that stretched mechanical endurance and fuel capacity to the limit.
Neither driver was 100 per cent satisfied with the balance of the new car during practice, but they lined up on the second and third rows of the grid. Chris Amon and John Surtees took turns in the lead but both retired with mechanical trouble, leaving Hulme to dice with Jackie Stewart for the lead. It was a thrilling battle, but it ended disappointingly when one of Hulme’s driveshafts failed.
That left one of the papaya orange M7As in the race. From sixth on the grid, Bruce had been badly held up at the start but fought his way back up to third. That became second when his team-mate retired. Considering this quite a satisfactory result, Bruce gave his pit crew a cheery wave as he took the chequered flag and then immediately pulled into the pits.
At first, Bruce couldn’t understand why his team – and the rest of the paddock - was in such a state of excitement. “You’ve won,” someone shouted. “Didn’t you know?”
What Bruce hadn’t noticed, as he started his final lap, was that Stewart had been forced into the pits for a splash of fuel…
We’ve won 10 more Belgian Grands Prix at Spa since 1968. For safety reasons the circuit disappeared from the calendar in the 1970s, and when it returned in 1983 it was much shorter, with a specially built section splitting off from the old route at Les Combes and rejoining at Blanchimont.
Alain Prost was the second McLaren driver to win at Spa, one of three wins in 1987 that delivered him the drivers’ title that year. The following year it was the turn of our new signing Ayrton Senna to win. He and Prost lined up first and second on the grid, but Prost was quicker away from the start. The two drivers had made an agreement before the race not to tangle at the first corner, so Senna made room – then used Prost’s slipstream through Eau Rouge to pull alongside his team-mate up the hill and then outbrake him at Les Combes.
Come rain or shine, Senna was peerless at Spa. He would win again in 1989, 1990 and 1991 before Michael Schumacher brought our run of five consecutive Belgian GP wins to an end in 1992.
There was a tense moment at the first corner in 1999 when David Coulthard got a better start than polesitter Mika Hakkinen and the two cars plunged towards the hairpin side by side. Coulthard made it through in front and went on to lead a McLaren one-two, while Hakkinen moved into the lead of the drivers’ championship.
Hakkinen made up for his disappointment in 2000, soundly beating Michael Schumacher with an audacious overtaking move that has assumed legendary status. Having chased down Schumacher, on lap 40 Hakkinen made his move on the run up the hill from Eau Rouge to Les Combes. He was astounded when Schumacher cut across – at 200mph – and the two cars came within millimetres of touching.
Hakkinen backed off that time, but he hadn’t given up. A lap later he had a better run through Eau Rouge once again, but this time there was a backmarker – Ricardo Zonta’s BAR – ahead. Schumacher passed Zonta on the left, expecting Hakkinen to follow, but the wily Finn switched slipstreams at the perfect moment and dived to the right. Hakkinen’s right-hand wheels were almost on the grass but the slingshot move gave him the momentum to blast past Schumacher and win the race.
Kimi Raikkonen, another of our fast Finns, took consecutive victories at Spa in 2004 and 2005. He had to do it the hard way in 2004, catching, passing and then moving away from Michael Schumacher before a succession of Safety Car interventions compressed the field, leaving him vulnerable at the restarts.
Raikkonen was in contention for the drivers’ title in 2005, and benefited from an inspired strategic call by the team to win a Belgian Grand Prix which, like many others, was affected by rain. But his team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya was hit by another driver and taken out of the race, enabling Fernando Alonso to finish second – scoring points that would prove crucial at the end of the year.
In the past six years we have only missed the podium slots just once, in 2009, and at the most recent Belgian Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton notched up another great victory. As ever, it was wet, and Hamilton never relented after seizing the lead at the start. There was a nervous moment when he briefly ran off the track at Rivage while lapping on slicks in the wet, and another when the Safety Car was deployed with just a few laps to go, but Lewis held his nerve at the restart and fended off Red Bull’s Mark Webber to take the chequered flag first.