Ahead of this year’s Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Joe reminds us of the challenge that await drivers and engineers alike at the daunting Eau Rouge and Raidillon.
Words – Joe Bradley
Images – Petr Frýba
This weekend, the 24H SERIES returns to the majestic sweeps and undulations of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, and there can be no argument that this is a bucket list place to race or indeed to just drive. Our own John Hindhaugh still waxes lyrical about the day he drove his classic Porsche 968 here, so if you have the opportunity and some time on your hands, stop him and ask him about it. Bear in mind however, you may be there a while.
Spa can be a daunting place for drivers with the iconic likes of 'Eau Rouge' and 'Blanchimont' to contend with. It can also be daunting for our teams’ engineers and strategists. With the longer lap time that comes with the 7km circuit, we have to rethink the book on how best to react to Code 60 periods and pit stops.
A challenge for drivers has always been to take Eau Rouge and Raidillon flat-out. Touring cars can take those corners at anywhere between 160 and 180 kph and GT3 cars between 220 and 240 kph. But Formula 1 cars can hit anywhere up to 300 kph. 1997 F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve has spoken in the past on the effects of downforce, saying that to get through the corner you have to drive faster, because downforce increases the faster the car goes. The fact that Eau Rouge was the site of Villeneuve’s most famous accident in 1999 is neither here nor there…
Similarly, in 2004, future two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso described the Eau Rouge / Raidillon run as follows to Formula1.com ahead of that year’s Belgian Grand Prix:
“You come into the corner downhill, have a sudden change of direction at the bottom and then go very steep uphill. From the cockpit, you cannot see the exit and as you come over the crest, you don't know where you will land. It is a crucial corner for the timed lap, and also in the race, because you have a long uphill straight afterwards where you can lose a lot of time if you make a mistake. But it is also an important corner for the driver's feeling. It makes a special impression every lap, because you also have a compression in your body as you go through the bottom of the corner. It is very strange – but good fun as well."
Consequently, in a Formula 1 car, the throttle is flat out from the La Source Hairpin, through Eau Rouge, over the crest at Raidillon and along the Kemmel straight to Les Combes, a total distance of 2.015 km. It will be slightly different in the fastest GT3 class this weekend, with only the bravest capable of using as much of the limited downforce on these sportscars. Still, it will be a daunting sight for spectators standing at the bottom of the hill looking up to Raidillion, and well worth the visit.
The long uphill climb to Les Combes will present a big challenge for race engineers too, who will spend a lot of time searching for that small window of a balanced car that suits all of its drivers.
I remember when we took our Renault UK Clio cup team to compete in the Renault Italia Clio Cup Championship at Spa a few years ago. Walking around the paddock with our race engineer, we noted that all of the Italian series cars were absolutely slammed low at the rear, in complete contrast to our UK cars which carried a lot of rake with the rear end looking like it was on stilts. This had us concerned, as we had no time to alter our setup before the first practice session. Our concerns were somewhat alleviated when our main driver topped the time sheets by quite a margin. The second session, you'll be surprised to hear, had the Italian cars with their rear ends on stilts too. We went on to win the race, and be disqualified, but that's a story for another day. It wasn't anything to do with our rear ride height though!
There were major works carried out in the five month-off season in 2021/22, which required a complete track closure, in itself a major logistical operation. The track layout is as we raced here in 2022, with the new enlarged run-offs featuring gravel traps at La Source, Raidillon, Blanchimont, Les Combes and finally Stavelot. This may have cured the headaches caused by track limits controversies and alleviate the 'shall I, shan’t I' for drivers out on-track.
So the challenge of the Circuit de Spa-Francochamps has many elements, and to factor in 12 hours of racing around this magnificent track, the challenge for our 24H SERIES teams and drivers this weekend will very much be #ThisIsEndurance.
You can also check out Joe’s column in our magazine for the 2023 Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, available for download below.
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