One visit to Spa this year wasn’t enough. So I’ve been back!
After the Spa 24 Hours world endurance championship event passed into the history books four or five years back, I’ve missed what has, since the early 80s, been my near-annual fix of endurance racing. So after visiting the Biker’s Classic weekend and enjoying the spectacle of vintage bikes (and riders!) tackling the wonderful Spa-Francorchamps circuit, I was tempted back again last weekend for the 8 Hours of Spa.
It’s part of the Belgian national championship, so doesn’t attract the big crowds or the international teams but even so, there was a fair crowd with lots of Dutch riders there to watch the 8 hour race start on the Saturday afternoon, run on into the evening sun and eventually finish in the full dark.
Rather intriguingly, until 6pm when qualifying for the racing starts, the Friday is given over to a trackday. It’s around £200 to enter – so not cheap for the five sessions I understand you get, but on the other hand you get to ride one of the greatest grand prix circuits. And you can always stay over and watch the racing! We met some very happy (and wet!) riders down at the cafe on the Friday night, who’d enjoyed every moment of the day out.
It was a bit of a mad dash of a weekend. Across the channel in the small hours of Friday morning, we took a scenic time out to cross the Ardennes into the Hurtgenwald area of Germany, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of WW2.
70,000 soldiers, non-combatants and ordnance clearance personnel lost their lives in this relatively unknown conflict in late 1944/early 1945 and the area in which it took place was devastated. There’s a link to a local museum here, which was unfortunately closed.
88mm gun and driving and bogie wheels from a Mark IV Panzer
It was quite sobering to pass through a beautifully scenic area of forested steepsided hills and rivers where hand-to-hand fighting ended so many lives on both sides, and to pass through the villages and towns which had been on the front line, and where today hardly a building survives from the pre-war period.
One of the lakes, near Schmidt, in the centre of the area of fighting
From there, it’s a short drive back to Belgium and we got to Spa about 5pm, and decided to put the tent up on a campsite not far from Stavelot rather than on the circuit itself. This was mainly due to the fact that the temperature at this point was in the low 30s and I could see a pressing need for cold showers, something the circuit camping is a bit short of!
We could hear the bikes out on the circuit, by now running free practice and had a vague plan to get up there to watch the night practice, but having started putting the tent up in beautiful sun, we finished a bare 15 minutes later with threatening clouds looming overhead; I’d just put the final peg in the guys when the first spots of rain started falling.
Within minutes, the rain was torrential, and the sounds of high performance engines ceased, so we retired to the car (yes, I know – fair weather biker, me!) and took a snooze whilst waiting for the storm to pass over.
An hour later, it was clear the storm was in no hurry to go and dump its moisture somewhere else, so we took out to a pizza place in Stavelot and demolished some of their offerings.
By the time we came out, about 10pm, the rain had backed off and as we got back to the site, we heard engine noises again, so we ran up to the circuit and watched from Les Combes for 30 minutes or so, before the drop in temperature after the rain got to us and forced us back to the tent.
Next morning, we woke up to dull grey skies, with low cloud scudding round the hilltops. Just how close to the hilltops we discovered when we went back to Les Combes which is the highest part of the circuit – the bikes were out practicing in visibility of about 200m up there!
There’s a track here somewhere! Les Combes in the fog.
We watched various qualifying sessions and a support race for twins, had a coffee in a bar in Francorchamps then headed down to the start-finish straight (the original one, leading to the run up to Eau Rouge) for the start of the 8 hour race.
The track had finally dried on a warm, very humid day and the race got off to a start on dry tarmac with good visibility.
7 hours 59 minutes and 50-something seconds to go
To be honest, it doesn’t really matter that the top teams aren’t there. It’s not a ‘mano a mano’ event in the way that short circuit racing is about the personalities.
In any case, it’s never entirely obvious who’s winning an endurance race anyway, if you don’t have access to timing sheets or the ability to understand distorted “the train now leaving from platform 4” commentary in a foreign language.
The great thing about endurance racing is the ability to move round the circuit and watch from different vantage points. After an hour or so in the stand, we walked up to the new stands that replace the old concrete stand that was demolished to make way for the F1 track improvements over the top of Eau Rouge and up to Radillon. Thankfully, the stands have restored this most wonderful place to watch motorcycle racing, even though you’re not quite as close to the action as you used to be – but whether they’ll outlast the F1 race at the end of this month, I don’t know.
The MV on the climb from Eau Rouge up to Radillon
We crossed over under the track as the sun suddenly emerged from under the cloud and lit the circuit with late afternoon sun, then idled through the paddock before wandering out along the new access road that runs alongside the Eau Rouge stream itself, to find ourselves on the back part of the circuit at Fanges.
Late afternoon sun at Spa – is there a better view anywhere?
We watched from there for a while, then wandered up the hill a little to Pouhon, where we were looking up the straight to the exit from Rivage. The sun dropped below the hills and the shadows deepened.
As the shadows lengthen, the lights go on
In the deepening gloom we strolled back through the woods that fill the middle of the circuit, sat for a half hour in the half-finished new stand on the opposite side of Eau Rouge, looking straight down the start finish straight, grabbed a coffee and frites behind the pits and finished the evening back in the stands opposite the pits, in time to witness the MV drama.
7-plus hours gone
One innovation which confused me somewhat is that the teams are now allowed two bikes, a rule which some teams had taken advantage of. It’s a shame to lose the spectacle of the pit stop organisation, but I guess it’s a bit safer.
Pitlane action at night
To avoid the one-bike teams suffering too much of a penalty, there seemed to be a distinct ‘holding time’ for the swap over. The bike on track would pit with the second bike sitting ready up on the paddock stand.
The replacement rider would place the stand under the rear wheel of the bike that had just pitted, pause then pop the bike up on the stand and the first rider would dismount.
Both riders would then run to the second bike, the second rider would mount up, and the first rider would again pause, then at a given instant lower the bike off the paddock stand, and off the second bike would go. I’m not quite sure but it looked like they had to use the same key to start both bikes as well.
The MV was one of the teams running a single bike, and trickest aluminium stand in the race notwithstanding, I bet they were wishing they could have been running two bikes at that final stop.
At midnight, the race ended slightly confusingly for the crowd in the stands as the bikes were directed off the circuit and into pit lane at La Source.
I think the Brussels Kawasaki won, the MV was right up there but pitted for a splash and go with about 25 minutes to race right in front of us and refused to restart. Sitting across the other side of the track looking at the body language in the pits I was almost as gutted as the team clearly were. I’m not sure what happened to the Honda being ridden by the perennial Stephane Mertens either. There was a BMW up there somewhere as well.
With the end of the action, back to our tent and a good night’s sleep!
Sunday was grey again, but promised to brighten up much sooner, and by the time we had the tent down and packed in the car, there were patches of blue.
We took the car up to Les Combes and watched from there, now in the shade under the trees as the sun burnt through the low cloud and beat down with increasing force.
Les Combes – highest point of the circuit and very different in sun!
We watched the first of the Supersport and Superbike races, the second twins race, and a pro-twins race, then called it quits at 3pm and headed back towards the coast, taking a 75 mile scenic detour through the Ardennes before picking up the motorway north of Liege.
A near-intact Panther, a relic of the Battle of the Bulge
Just on midnight, we were back in Kent, having driven some 650 miles since Friday morning, and watched around 16 hours of racing. Not bad for the entry price of €25!