Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Change, Uncertainty Await Formula 1 in Belgium

Though the 2021 Formula 1 season technically hosted the 77th running of the Belgian Grand Prix, it has been since 2020 that proper racing laps have been turned at the event.

After rain washed out last year’s running of the legendary race, the 78th iteration of the Belgian GP will feature a host of changes to the fabled circuit aimed at improving driver safety while maintaining the demanding nature for which the circuit has been known. With these changes, the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps has addressed what has frequently been seen as an elephant — mammoth? — in the room by drivers and fans alike.

Meanwhile, whether F1 will see the rejuvenated circuit beyond this year is still up for debate.

Welcome back.

The Elephant

The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps’ famous Eau Rouge-Raidillon complex has been a talking point in the motorsport community for decades.

Following a long downhill trek from the La Source hairpin (turn 1), drivers are greeted by a hard and fast left-right-left complex of corners, climbing 134 ft. from entry to exit — all at full throttle. Before one can process the absolute miracle of engineering playing out, the car is out of sight and shooting down the Kemmel Straight. Gone in just over three seconds.

The spectacular nature of this section of the track has come at a cost, however.

The 2021 W Series’ Belgium round featured a massive pileup in qualifying that saw six cars piling into the barriers at the exit of Raidillon, sending two cars airborne and leaving one bisected. Ayla Agren of Norway and Beitske Visser of the Netherlands were briefly hospitalized for evaluation as a result, though no drivers were seriously injured.

Then-sophomore Kevin Magnussen survived a heavy crash exiting Raidillon in 2016 when his Renault suffered a hard snap of oversteer, sending the Dane into the barriers at a force sufficient to entirely dislodge and eject the driver’s headrest from the car.

The design of this legendary corner complex isn’t, in and of itself, problematic. Rather, the inherent danger of racing at high speeds is compounded by the barriers surrounding Eau Rouge-Raidillon.

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The lack of lateral banking here means any car that loses control is going off the track; there’s very little chance to save a loose racecar after corner entry.

The runoff area to the left of Eau Rouge and the right of Raidillon is completely paved, meaning wayward vehicles have little means of shaving off speed.

And most importantly, the barriers just past Eau Rouge are angled nearly — but not quite — parallel to the racing surface in the second half of the corner. The result of this arrangement is such that many cars which slide into the barriers at Eau Rouge — at speeds approaching 200 mph, mind you — are often sent spinning back across the racing line and into the path of approaching traffic.

This elastic style of crashing has been displayed not only in F1, but through endurance and sports car racing as well. Most infamously, it was such an impact that sent Giuliano Alesi spinning across the track and flinging around the debris that sent the late Anthoine Hubert first into the barriers exiting Raidillon and then into the path of Juan Manuel Correa. Hubert was pronounced dead 90 minutes later.

For the 2022 season, the runoffs surrounding Eau Rouge and Raidillon have been enlarged, giving cars more time to decelerate and slide to a stop after impact if need be, lowering the chance of any cars becoming stranded in the path of oncoming traffic.

Fortunately for the traditionalists in the crowd, this alteration has been completed without any changes being made to the corners for which Spa Francorchamps has found its fame. And thank the stars for that. None of us want a repeat of the 1994 situation where a proper chicane was added to Eau Rouge, citing safety concerns following the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. Don’t make me talk about it.

All in all, these adjustments made to one of the most dangerous stretches of road in all of motorsports are hard to spin as anything other than necessary. Perhaps overdue.

Not the Elephants

Backing up just slightly, Spa’s first corner, the La Source hairpin, has been redecorated with a new gravel trap in place of its previously paved runoff area. Likewise, Les Combes (turns 7 through 9) have taken up the gravel trap look with turn 11 following suit.

Approaching the end of the lap, the fastest corner of the circuit has also received some much needed improvements.

A flat banked and flat out left handed corner, Blanchimont is taken at speeds approaching or exceeding 200 mph. Side by side if you’re Max Verstappen.

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Like Eau Rouge, Blanchimont has seen more than its fair share of high velocity impacts over the years. Prost Grand Prix driver Luciano Burti’s F1 career was ended by a heavy crash at Blanchimont in the 2001 Belgian Grand Prix following contact with Eddie Irvine. The force of the impact was such that the tires composing the barrier were sent flying into the air and then coming back down to land on Burti, knocking him unconscious.

Blanchimont is now outfitted with an enlarged runoff area, a fresh gravel trap and a new access road for safety personnel and equipment.

Future Elephants

With Spa and the Belgian Grand Prix’s future on the F1 calendar uncertain, these changes could barely come at a more critical time. Though the Belgian Grand Prix did not take place during the 2003 or 2006 seasons, the presence or expected presence of the Spa circuit has been an interrupted stable on the schedule since 1985.

As the sport continues to push into new markets such as the Middle East, room will have to be made on the calendar to accommodate these new, modern circuits. This necessitates that some older tracks will find their heads in the guillotine.

Spa’s current contract expires this year and promoters have yet to reach an agreement with Liberty Media and Dominecali to extend that contract into the future. It’s hammer time for the legendary racetrack.

Of all the tracks that could be sent home, Spa seems like a poor choice, but money talks and fans vote with their feet. Tradition may not be thicker than water.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Editor at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also leads the Center for Asia-Pacific Policy at the BIED Society, an international think tank in Washington, D.C. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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