There are good reasons why Spa has become a favourite of recent generations of grand prix drivers
The majestic circuit of Spa-Francorchamps looked much the same at the weekend as it did the last time I visited it in 1967 – the year of Sgt Pepper and the assassination of Che Guevara. But that’s one thing about great race tracks. You can spend 43 years smoothing out the trickier corners, replacing earth banks with run-off areas, moving the pits and the start-finish line from one bit of straight road to another and erecting new grandstands here and there, yet the essential character of the place – its integrity, you might say, as well as its ambiance – will usually survive.
Generally speaking, this is because the older circuits followed two patterns: that of the public roads on which the earliest motor races were held, and that of the land itself. Spa is a particularly good example, since a track laid out on what were originally public roads also follows the hills and valleys sculpted over millennia by wind, water and geology among the pine forests of the Ardennes.
It is no accident that Spa has become a favourite of recent generations of grand prix drivers. As grateful as they may be for the safety precautions introduced over the past half-century, they still relish the challenge offered by corners that do not conform to the regular geometry usually produced when a circuit architect fires up his computer, and they are not entirely impervious to a sense of history.
The longest track currently used in Formula One, at 7km, it was twice as long back in 1967. The old Masta Straight and its legendary kink may have disappeared in the intervening years but surviving features such as Eau Rouge and the hairpin at La Source retain a shape that was originally dictated by custom and nature.
A week before the race in Belgium, and about 150 miles south-east of Spa, I stopped on a straight piece of road cutting through agricultural land outside the city of Rheims, where long-disused whitewashed pits and grandstands still mark the location of the circuit that hosted important races between 1926 and 1966, including the French grand prix on 14 occasions. It was not hard to imagine the crowd in the tribunes rising to their feet as Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari and Juan Manuel Fangio’s Maserati roared neck and neck towards the finish line in 1953, the bow-tied Englishman becoming the first British winner of a round of the world championship. If the long-silent Rheims circuit is a well-known place of pilgrimage, the fine memorial at the junction of the D937 and the D1029, on an otherwise featureless plateau south of the town of Péronne, came as a complete surprise. It commemorates the deaths in June 1933, during the Picardy grand prix meeting, of a pair of Bugatti drivers.
The first, Louis-Aimé Trintignant, one of five sons of a Vaucluse vineyard owner, died during practice after losing control at high speed when a gendarme wandered into the road. The second fatality came the following day, during the race itself, when Guy Bouriat, a French count and a talented driver, was attempting to retake the lead from Philippe Etancelin. As the two of them came up to lap a slower car, its driver spotted Etancelin’s Alfa Romeo and let him through but then moved back on to his original line and collided with Bouriat, whose car left the road and burst into flames.
Trintignant was 30 years old, Bouriat 31. The last race at Péronne was held in 1939, and the memorial, once pockmarked with the evidence of fighting in the second world war, has been carefully restored. No other trace of the triangular circuit, which passed through the villages of Brie and Mesnil-Bruntel, remains.
Standing in these places, listening to the echoes of heroism and tragedy, it made me laugh to think that Hermann Tilke, Bernie Ecclestone’s pet circuit designer, has apparently been asked to incorporate the outlines of famous corners from historic tracks into a new Formula One facility in Austin, Texas. Just what the world needs: the first karaoke grand prix.
Church Cup final is perfect antidote to spot-fixing
Even lifelong cynics are experiencing a sense of profound disillusionment following the allegations of spot-fixing in the Lord’s Test. My own preferred antidote is to attend Thursday’s 60th Church Times Cup final, the climax of a competition between cricketing clergymen representing the various geographical subdivisions of the Church of England. The match takes place, as it always has, at the attractive Southgate ground in north London, and this final pits Litchfield against Bath & Wells, neither of whom has appeared in any of the previous 59 finals. It is almost certain that any no-balls will be the consequence of excessive exertion rather than skulduggery.
Time for Button to take races by scruff of the neck
Over the past few years it has been customary to compare Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton in terms of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, the smooth approach shared by Prost and Button contrasting with Senna and Hamilton. The comparison has been even more tempting this season, in which they are both driving McLarens, as Senna and Prost did 20 years ago. But on Sunday Hamilton turned that comparison on its head. Once he had taken advantage of Mark Webber’s poor start, he drove with an air of calmness that Prost would have recognised. Now all we want to see is Button performing a similar volte-face, taking a race by the scruff of its neck, and reminding us of the great Brazilian.
Wenger slipped up when he sold Diarra to Real Madrid
Lassana Diarra was the outstanding performer in Real Madrid’s weekend draw with Mallorca, the Frenchman moving easily from midfield to full-back when José Mourinho brought on Sami Khedira for the last 20 minutes. Diarra now rivals Javier Mascherano for the title of the world’s most effective holding midfielder, and how Arsène Wenger should be regretting the decision to let his compatriot leave the Emirates two years ago.