This month, Joe walks us through, what he feels, will be the crucial sectors for a fast lap around the vaunted 7km Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, but reminds us all that a good race strategy is what will really make the difference this weekend.
Words – Joe Bradley
Images – Petr Frýba
Arguably the most majestic 7km of racetrack anywhere in the world, the Circuit de Spa-Franchorchamps offers drivers the challenge of a lifetime.
To be quick around Spa in any car requires a certain psychology. Drivers will find themselves staring at the ceiling at night when, really, they should be sleeping, thoughts undoubtedly wandering towards where on this daunting track they can be better. No matter how experienced a driver may be, they will still be pondering hard and mustering up shear courage to go that little bit quicker.
The most challenging section of track is, of course, the mighty Eau Rouge. It’s so steep, no television camera can do it justice. To walk up the hill from Eau Rouge to Raidillon, you would be better off putting a staircase there. But Eau Rouge, Raidillon is not the only section of track that can put a driver off their dinner.
Blanchimont, the ultra-fast left-hand sweep that in most cars is not quite comfortably flat. You need the aero of an LM prototype before that becomes possible. In modern times, Blanchimont has been sanitised for safety but the challenge of setting a fast lap time and not going off-track is still there.
However, and people may be surprised at what I'm about to say, the most challenging part of the Spa circuit, in my humble opinion, is the 'Bus Stop' chicane.
So-called because it used to resemble a layby type 'Bus Stop' configuration, these days the modern version is a tight right-left chicane with a big change in elevation right in the middle. You can get through Blanchimont and see that your delta time has you 0.8s up on your best time. Then the simplest slip of concentration, missing your braking by a mere metre, clobbering the kerb going in or coming out (or indeed both) can have you crossing the line two seconds down on your best time. Hero-to-zero at the slowest point of the circuit.
Let’s not forget it was the late great 'Brilliant Bob Wollek' who said that the most time gained over your competition was at the slowest parts of any track.
'Endurance races are won on the pitwall' is a phrase you’re probably sick of hearing me say, but tactics and strategies are not going to be as straightforward this weekend as they are on a shorter track. The longer lap at Spa means that engineers and team crew are going to have to stay wide awake and be ready to react to those pesky Code 60s appearing. Pitting under Code 60 and taking on precious fuel is going to totally depend on where their car is at the point those purple flags fly: coming through Blanchimont is perfect; going through Eau Rouge, and driving the remainder of the 7km lap at 60kph, not so much.
It was exactly this scenario that brought victory to ST Racing at the last round at Mugello. Reacting to a queue in the re-fuelling area, and instructing Samantha Tan to take the BMW M4 GT3 straight back out of the pits without stopping, was a brilliant strategic choice, as was the team’s decision to bring in the ST BMW under green flag conditions for a ‘potential’ Code 60 – a quick reaction when they saw another car beached in the gravel – when the cars just behind came in under purple. This enabled the BMW to take on maximum fuel, which allowed the team to stretch its fuel window, slowly putting them out of reach of the competition. Great decision making on the pit wall, plus all three drivers racing fast and faultlessly, is ultimately what secure ST Racing the top step of the Hankook 12H MUGELLO podium, a lesson this weekend’s competitors at Spa will want to pay close attention to. Regardless of what the Spa Gods throw at them.
You can also check out Joe’s column in our magazine for the 2022 Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, available for download below.