Why

Why

Friday, 21 August 2015

THE KILLER YEARS OF SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS

Image Source - http://bit.ly/1PDjTFE 
"There is so much more to racing when it is dangerous, because the exhilaration of success is far higher" - Sir Stirling Moss summed up what was Belgian Grand Prix like when it was twice the length as the current track distance. With an average speed of over 255 km/h (in the 50's and 60's) on a 14.1 km circuit, it was a daunting challenge for the drivers who lined up each year to race at this Grand Prix.

NOT SAFE ENOUGH  
What was considered as exhilaration in the 50's was looked from a different perspective from the mid-1960's. Drivers got together, talked openly about the safety standards about the track. The aspect of 'thrill' was there - but a lot of the drivers didn't want to see one of their colleagues die on the track. The word 'future' didn't exist in the vocabulary of many drivers as they knew all can go wrong in a matter of one second of misjudgment.

The tickets during those days clearly inscribed the words - "Motorsports is dangerous" and yet thousands of people flocked in each year and stood close to the racing tracks, completely aware a slight accident can claim their lives too.

It wasn't a test of who survived from the accidents - instead motor racing was (and is) all about pushing a car to its limit and yet come out alive and celebrate if victorious.

In case of the Belgian Grand Prix, the track comprised of public roads, not an ideal environment for speeding cars - however those were the norm during those days. Since the start of the championships in 1950, each year the car went a touch quicker as competition for the top spot intensified. Naturally, the drivers too went at high speeds and what remained constant was the track and its set up with a minimum focus on safety procedures.

In 1969, several of the drivers boycotted the scheduled Belgian Grand Prix complaining the track was way too dangerous. They had their way in the end and organisers installed the Armco barriers for the 1970 Grand Prix with the previous edition being cancelled. In spite of this added protection, the drivers still felt the circuit was very fast, dangerous and this resulted in the cancelling of Spa-Francorchamps as the venue from 1971 for a period of thirteen years. In 1983, the race distance was halved, a major chunk of the circuit was removed - and with run-off areas, barriers, and other safety measures, the Spa-Francorchamps returned and has been a regular feature since the mid-1980's.

JACKIE STEWART SURVIVES THE SCARE

The old circuit at Spa-Francorchamps - pacy and intimidating
Many drivers who raced in the 1950's and 60's have been open in saying the roads of Burnenville, Masta Kink and Stavelot happened to be one of the fastest and intimidating parts they had to encounter, even more challenging than Eau Rouge. A long fast right hand corner in Burnenville leading up to Malmédy was one such part which was challenging and marked the start of the dangerous path in the old circuit.  

And then came the most frightening of all the corners - the Masta Kink. Drivers had to be more brave than skilful to take this corner without leaving the throttle. The Masta Kink was a tight left-right chicane and cars approached it at the top speed well over 270 km/hr. The key element was the speed as this chicane was sandwiched between two unbroken straights each measuring 2.5 km. Hence the entry speed and exit speed was crucial to maintain the overall lap time.

Jackie Stewart in 1966 had his car severely damaged after his BRM crashed a telephone pole at Masta Kink. With fuel dripping all over him and coupled with broken ribs,  he was unable to get out and was stuck in his car. Fellow BRM drivers Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant had also gone off the circuit and the duo came to Stewart's rescue. With no medical support unlike in the modern era, it took a spectator's tool kit to separate Stewart from his car. Jackie Stewart admits, he was lucky to survive as he was half-drenched with fuel and was stuck inside the car for close to 25 minutes. The steering wheel had to be taken off to relieve Stewart and this incident paved way for detachable steering wheels.

AN ADVOCATE FOR SAFETY
Since that incident, Jackie Stewart always tapped a spanner to his steering wheel and off the track became actively involved to improve the safety standards in Formula One. With each year, his fame as a driver grew and so did his voice and his several messages had profound effect on increasing the track safety standards. It was him who led the driver's concerns and eventually had Spa dropped from the F1 calendar till the time it was deemed safe.

There were other races such as the touring races, endurance races that took place in the old circuit in the 70's and finally in 1979, the circuit was modified and it took a further four years for Spa-Francorchamps to make it back to the F1 calendar.

The modified circuit which helped Spa Francorchamps to make a comeback
The beauty, the charm and the nostalgia associated with Spa-Francorchamps is still there without those thrilling sections from the old track. The track revisions has had a positive effect on the organisers and thereby to Formula One - as this circuit's evolution links the several dots the sport has joined over the years.

END NOTE
I was lucky enough to drive on those roads that were deemed dangerous. Burnenville and Masta Kink are now just a pale shadow of what it represented. Since thirty five years, these have remained just another European village roads where speed limits do not exceed more than 80 km/hr. Even today, drivers are excited to go quicker and they get the same exhilaration when they win - but they have also seen a generation growing up who sacrificed their lives to make this sport safer and a lot more secure.


I love this sport because the talk is not about accidents, deaths or safety alone - there is a lot more that's discussed and written about. Formula One is no longer a threat to life as it once was (in spite of Jules Bianchi's tragic incident) - it has evolved and values safety more than few individual's exhilaration and kicks they derive by making sports dangerous. A lot has changed from those killer years when a normal race seemed like a death race. It is no longer a question of hope when a driver sets out to race, he/she is now confident about safety. Yes, being very safe that takes the sheen if one looks at it from excitement point of view alone - however, is it worth rooting for a sport that swallows lives week after week and make money out of it?