At this year’s Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, drivers will take on the foreboding, 7.004km Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, located in the heart of Belgium’s Wallonia district. But what’s the home of the Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix actually like to drive around? We ask Belgian superstar – and two-time 24H SERIES GT4 Drivers’ champion – Nico Verdonck his thoughts on, and memories from, his home circuit.
Words – Nico Verdonck / James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba
“I will never forget my first time driving at Spa. It was like driving through the woods and thinking I’d never get to the end because the track was so long! That was in 2002 when I tested with Team Astromega in Formula Renault 1600. At that time, there were no real simulators, or let’s say, ‘accessibility’, so I had to discover the track just by doing as many laps as possible. Which is not a bad way to learn!”
A then-16-year-old Nico’s first fast lap of Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in 2002 will have started on the start-finish straight, down which GT3 competitors this weekend can expect to hit the top end of 4th gear and up to 210kph. Thereafter, they’re braking hard and slamming back down through the transmission to 1st gear for the sharp right dive into La Source at around 65kph.
Immediately, the frontrunners are back on the power for the long run downhill – past the exit of the ‘Grand Prix’ pitlane – towards Eau Rouge, where, from the permanent configuration’s earliest use in 1979 up to F1’s return to Spa after a 13-year break in 1983, the chequered flag would be flown.
Slightly further back, TCR runners will have hit 5th gear and up to 190kph before braking back down to 2nd for their own 65kph dive into La Source. By the time they line-up for the infamous left-right-left, downhill-then-uphill rollercoaster that is Eau Rouge-Raidillon, the tin tops are back up to 5th gear and their turbocharged four-cylinders are already pushing upwards of 220kph. The GT3 runners up ahead meanwhile are already back up to 240kph as they tip their respective noses in to Eau Rouge.
While competitors may hope to take one of motorsport’s most famous configurations flat-out, a significant elevation change and a tighter-than-expected racing line mean even the heartiest of drivers will need to lift, briefly, on the approach to the second apex. Indeed, for Nico, Eau Rouge-Raidillon, a corner sequence synonymous with ‘old school’ motor racing, still holds one of his fondest early memories at the circuit…
“In 2003, I ran at Spa several times in the Formula Renault 1600, which I finished 2nd in [again with Astromega]. And as a result of that vice-championship, I got a test in the team’s Formula 3000 car, which today is Formula 2. Going up from 150bhp to a car that had 600bhp, with much more downforce, was obviously very intense. As I was only 16 years old, I didn’t have enough power in my arms to turn the wheel at such a high-speed through Eau Rouge, because I was not prepared for it at the time. I will never forget that amazing experience!
“Spa, like everyone everywhere, is improving its facilities and making the circuit much more modern. Which is good. But when you go through Eau Rouge, it’s still just as it was in the olden days. Also in the briefing room, you see many people like Jacky Ickx and, let’s say, a lot of the older school drivers that have made a lot of success in national and international motorsport. And that’s great! At Spa, for sure you feel the heritage and the history, which just makes the whole experience more unique.”
Cresting the hill – mind out for snap-oversteer over the final kerb as the car readjusts to the elevation change – the GT3 and TCR runners begin screaming their way down the 770-metre Kemmel Straight, at the end of which they’ll be bouncing off the rev limit in top gear and approaching up to 260kph and 240kph respectively before, once again, braking hard for Les Combes. GT3 drivers in particular can expect up to 2G throwing them forward under braking.
Hold 3rd and 115kph through the left-right configuration with a short blip back up to 145kph (135kph, TCR) for the mid-speed right-hander at Malmedy. Let the car ease wide to make full use of that acceleration, and you’re back on the power for the short, 4th gear 205kph (185kph, TCR) charge back down to the off-camber, downhill left-hander at Bruxelles. What feels like an eternity will be spent keeping the nose pinned to the apex before the short charge down to Speaker’s Corner can begin. Keep an eye out for the brand-new, motorcycle-dedicated alternate track configuration there too.
Get all that right, and you’re ideally placed to hit 230kph (205kph, TCR) in 4th gear before downshifting for the double-apex Pouhon. Get it wrong, and you’re likely to end up axle-deep in one of Spa’s newly laid gravel traps at Bruxelles (others have also been re-introduced at Blanchimont, La Source, Les Combes and Malmedy). A handy ‘old school’ throwback for a circuit that can trace its lineage back to the original, 14.9km road course of 1921, the gravel traps are one of several safety-conscious changes made as part of Spa’s €80 million renovation project. Of course, some drivers may be less than thrilled with the re-introduction of gravel beds though, Nico conjectures…
“On the one hand, it’s challenging to have the gravel traps back. During the races, when you go over the limit, you penalize yourself, so there’s an added challenge for drivers. On the other hand, for those who go to Spa to do track days and just drive their cars for fun, they may be a bit frustrated: miss a corner, end up in the gravel trap, and that can delay a whole session. Plus, this can put a lot of stones onto the track, which could cause more delays. Obviously for motorbikes, it’s a must, but I think for people in their roadcars, they may not appreciate it.
“I’ve raced there when there were gravel beds, so personally, I’ve no problem with that. Some people will just need to be more cautious and not think, ‘oh, I missed my corner, I can just carry on through it’ like they would on the Playstation. This really will make you focus.”
Heading out of Pouhon – lateral g-forces are up past 1.5G again in the GT3 cars, so watch those neck muscles – the Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS field must now deal with one of the circuit’s more underrated though still highly complex mid-speed sector through Les Fagnes. Entry speeds can hit 240kph for the GT3s now in 5th gear (215kph for the TCRs) before they’re back down to 3rd gear and around 130kph (120kph, TCR) and wending their way, right then left, through to the hard-braking right-hander at Campus. Blip the throttle slightly at Stavelot, and now the real charge can begin all the way back up the hill, through Courbe Paul Frère and Blanchimont. More lateral g-force, and be sure to use as much of the track as possible to keep the speed up through left-hander.
By the time the GT3s have hit the Bus Stop chicane, they’re teasing 255kph in 6th gear. No less committed through one of Spa-Francorchamps’ most notorious corners, the TCRs are up to 230kph before throwing the anchor out. Speeds like this require – nay, demand – respect from their drivers at Spa-Francorchamps, as Nico knows only too well…
“I’m fortunate enough to say I’ve been racing at Spa since 2003, and I’m still not finished there! From my place, the circuit is only 1h 15m away, and during the season, I’m there on average at least once a week, not just for racing but for coaching [with his driver coaching company, NV Academy]. And, of course, all of my customers want to drive at Spa. Which I can definitely recommend when they have enough experience.
“But Spa is one of the longest circuits in Europe, and it’s also very high-speed, especially at Blanchimont. This is what we try to warn our drivers about. They have to be well-prepared before going to Spa because it contains a lot of risks if you don’t have enough basic driving skills. That’s where our guidance and support at the NV Academy can really pay off.”
Back down to 1st gear, both the GT3 and TCR runners duke right then left, trying not to unsettle the car over the kerbs as they fire back on to the start-finish straight and begin the 7.004km loop all over again. It’s fast, it’s technical, and it’s incredibly demanding for any driver, PRO and ‘gentleman’ alike. Especially for 12 full hours.
“There actually aren’t that many endurance races at Spa-Francorchamps, other than the 24 Hours of Fun Cup, the Spa 24 Hours with the GT3s, and the 24 Hours Deux Chevaux. So it’s good to have another endurance race there, especially because the timing allows people to make good use of [the Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS] for events later in the year like the Spa 24 Hours. I think it’s very wise for CREVENTIC to host this event, and also one of the reasons why I think there is more and more interest from people looking to drive in the 24H SERIES.
“Sadly I won’t race there this weekend, but I have good memories after winning with my client/teammate Rodrigue Gillion and PROsport Performance in the Aston Martin Vantage GT4 [in 2019]. I hope to be back soon in the 24H SERIES.”