The Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS is set to be held for the first time in three years this weekend. We take a look back on the event’s history, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamp’s illustrious heritage, and what fans can expect from the fourth edition this weekend.
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba
Few realized, when an enthralling Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS drew to a close on 20 April 2019, that it would be just over three years before Belgium’s most famous racing facility once again appeared on the 24H SERIES calendar. Calendar clashes and logistical hurdles notwithstanding, the world… changed quite considerably in those interim 1096 days.
CREVENTIC was adamant however that, one day, its signature endurance racing program would return to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.
“Our whole team was very excited when we finally confirmed Spa-Francorchamps on our 2022 calendar last year!” explains CREVENTIC sporting coordinator Ole Dörlemann. “Spa is one of those circuits that’s guaranteed to spark interest in our customers. It’s fast, but technical. ‘Old school’ but contemporary. It’s an unbelievable challenge, both mentally and physically, for any driver, given the topography of the region and the commitment that’s required to nail a fast lap. Plus, the history of the track is legendary! For a promoter, Spa is just ideal.”
‘Legendary’ bordering on ‘awe-inspiring.’ Of the 21 circuits the 24H SERIES has visited since 2006, the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is by far the oldest, with origins date back more than a hundred years. In 1920, Jules de Thier, owner of Liège’s ‘La Meuse’ newspaper and motorsport enthusiast, looked to revive the annual ‘La Meuse Cup’ hill climb albeit with more grandeur and on a newer, faster race course. With support from benefactor Baron Joseph de Crawhez, and design input from prominent national racer Henri Langlois van Ophem, the triangular, 15.820km road course linking Stavelot, Malmedy and the town of Spa-Francorchamps via long straights dissecting the rolling countryside was inaugurated in August 1921.
Or at least it would have been had more than one car registered to compete (racing finally got underway a year later with 23 motorbikes). Validation though finally arrived in 1924 with the inaugural edition of the 24 Hours of Francorchamps, and, one year later, the ‘European Grand Prix’, the circuit’s first truly international event for single seaters won by Antonio Ascari. The late great Italian would be emulated in the 96 years that followed (thus far) by luminaries Juan Manuel Fangio – who’d win Formula 1’s first official race at Spa in 1950 – Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi, Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton among many others. Not to mention the likes of Hans-Joachim Stuck, Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, and Bob Wollek on the world sports car stages.
As internationally recognised motor racing in the Ardennes became more prevalent (the first 24 Hours of Francorchamps was held just one year after the first 24 Hours of Le Mans), sections of the 15km course were re-paved in 1928 and, in 1939, a connecting road bypassing Virage de Ancienne Douane introduced a new uphill left-right-left sweeper that would become one of the most famous corner-sequences in all of motorsport: Eau Rouge-Raidillon.
Of course, the oppressive might of World War II meant the circuit was abandoned until 1947, by which point Malmedy’s fast chicane had been bypassed altogether on the grounds of safety and replaced with a new, banked right-hander you’ll know today as ‘Stavelot.’
‘Safety.’ A slightly ludicrous concept at the time, given that 10 fatalities had befallen the circuit in the 1960s alone. Indeed, deep-rooted change would not impact the still-14.1km, still staggering quick circuit until 1979, a full SIX years after Henri Pescarolo set a terrifyingly quick 262.461kph average lap time at the 1973 1000km of Francorchamps.
The far smaller, and thus more controllable, semi-permanent 7(ish)km road course was finally introduced in 1979, one that still incorporated the old circuit’s configuration between Blanchimont and Les Combes. The famous Bus Stop Chicane would be introduced for 1981 – and overhauled for 2007 – as would a temporary chicane at Eau Rouge in 1994, though the latter today is spoken of only in hushed whispers.
101 years in the making, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, boasting one of the fastest yet most technically demanding layouts on the planet, and with history books figuratively straining their bindings, remains a bucket list item for professional and ‘gentleman’ racers alike to this very day. Naturally, when the opportunity came in 2017 for Spa to host a round of the 24H SERIES, CREVENTIC jumped at the chance.
“Spa-Francorchamps was one of those circuits we’d been speaking with for a few years by that time but hadn’t quite managed to nail down in terms of timing,” Ole continues. “Then everything just fell perfectly into place, as we needed a host venue for our season finale in 2017, and they had a gap in their calendar that October. We didn’t want that to slip through our fingers, and the management team was a huge help pulling the details together.”
Of course, running a 24-hour event was out of the question – Spa already had a fairly prestigious one of those on its books – and thus the first Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS succeeded Silverstone, Magny-Cours, Misano and the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya as the season finale of the touring car-dedicated 24H TCE SERIES on 6-7-8 October 2017.
One year later, the 12H SPA now welcomed GT entrants alongside its TCE divisions – hence the 59-strong grid – but, adhering to the Ardennes region’s endurance racing heritage, ran as one full 12-hour event. Admittedly, come the third edition in 2019, and in its new May calendar slot, this had been side-lined for the series’ now traditional overnight intervention. Still, the fluctuating format certainly didn’t seem to detract competitors – there was 44 entrants on the starting grid in 2019 – nor was CREVENTIC dissuaded by the prospect of trying something new.
“We’ve never worried too much about races adapting from one year to the next. I mean, there are certain events that will usually be run at the same time each year and run to the same format. Dubai’s a good example of that: it’s our biggest race every season, and fans know it will be 24 straight hours and hosted every January because that’s the tradition we’ve worked hard to build since 2006.
“With other, ‘newer’ races, we actually find it quite exciting to try something different. Either because our competitors have come back to us with ideas they feel will improve their experience, or because we’ve learnt lessons and have the flexibility and the encouragement of circuit management to adapt. Spa’s no different, and that’s one of the reasons why competitors keep coming back, and why we have more than 50 entries on the grid for the 2022 race.”
Indeed, the fourth Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS is set to feature more changes, the most notable of which are revisions to select parts of the circuit’s run-off area and grandstands, all part of a €80 million renovation project announced in October 2020. Gravel traps are being re-introduced at La Source, Raidillon, Blanchimont, Les Combes and Stavelot. Asphalt run-off has been widened at Raidillon in particular, and new service roads have been constructed at Blanchimont, Les Combes, and Malmedy for quicker response times. New grandstands and VIP boxes are also being erected at La Source and Raidillon, the 13,000 seats double that of the circuit’s previous capacity.
Ahead of the track action, CREVENTIC is also reviving its city parade to neighbouring Malmedy, a concept first showcased in October 2019 ahead of that year’s TCR SPA 500. At 16.00 hrs on Thursday, a full grid of racing machines will travel 10km, on public roads, to Malmedy’s town centre, providing an unorthodox though no-less welcome photography opportunity.
“The parade was something we wanted to bring back because it gives fans, even those who don’t follow motorsport, an opportunity to see these amazing machines up close and personal. And in an environment you might not expect! The feedback we get from parades like this we’ve done in the past is always very positive, largely because everyone can fun with it.
“We’re also very excited to be among the first international series to experience the upgraded run-off areas and gravel traps at Spa this year. It’s a massive project, one where safety is the priority. So we’re obviously more than happy to support that!”
Compelling in and of itself as a standalone event, the Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS is also the third stop of the 24H SERIES championship chase in 2022. While teams and drivers will be gunning for that top step (as so many of their sporting icons have done in years gone by), there’s a far bigger prize to play for this year. And as we’ve seen down the years, the rigours of racing at Spa can so easily make or break a championship season.
Yep. It’s good to be back!