This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the return of the Belgian Grand Prix to the heavily revised Spa-Francorchamps. Like most other Formula 1 drivers of the past three decades, the majority of the current field cite Spa as their favorite venue, with only Suzuka coming close to usurping it.
As so brilliantly captured in John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix movie, the original track was a daunting place, even more so in the rain (ABOVE). By 1970 F1 cars had outgrown it. There was no Belgian GP in 1971, but then it reappeared at Nivelles and later Zolder. By 1979 Spa had been rebuilt in a shorter format, and it was soon hosting other events, but domestic politics – and rivalry between the Wallonian (Spa) and Flemish (Zolder) factions – ensured that the latter venue initially retained the race.
However, by 1983 the time was right, and Alain Prost duly won Spa's first GP since 1970 for Renault. Everyone loved the track which, despite being halved in length from the original, retained much of the character and challenge of the original, and remained beautiful and photogenic. In short, it was an immediate classic in its own right, and for 1984 the F1 circus somewhat reluctantly returned to Zolder, a place discolored by the death of Gilles Villeneuve two years earlier.
Plans to alternate the race between the two venues faded away, and from 1985, Spa became the permanent home once more. The race has occasionally dropped off the calendar for commercial reasons, but Bernie Ecclestone retains a soft spot for it, and he has ensured the event's survival at a time when even France can't justify a grand prix.
It says a lot for the challenge of Spa that, since 1983, the only non-World Champions to win are David Coulthard and Felipe Massa (and the latter only the result of… well, read on!), while between them Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna claimed 11 victories. The track rarely produces a dull race, even on the rare occasions when the sun shines throughout Sunday, but somehow rain seems to figure in most of the memorable events. Here are five of the best:
The 1985 Belgian Grand Prix was not Ayrton Senna's first F1 victory. However, following on from his earlier wet weather success for Lotus in Portugal, it underlined that the Brazilian was a rare talent, and destined for superstardom.
The race initially forged an unusual place in the history books when it was postponed when the newly resurfaced track broke up in June's original date. The Formula 3000 race went ahead as the main event, and the F1 teams returned in September to try again.
Second time around there were no such problems as champion elect Alain Prost took pole for McLaren, ahead of Senna. Then, as so often happens at Spa, rain on Sunday blew the race wide open, and left Prost – keen to earn points with which to secure the title – taking a cautious approach.
Senna, by contrast, had nothing to lose and charged into the lead at the start, while third qualifier Nelson Piquet spun his Brabham and caused a logjam behind. As the track began to dry most drivers began to pit for slicks, leaving Senna out in front ahead of Nigel Mansell and Prost.
When the leaders finally came in, Mansell exited pit lane just ahead, but while he had shiny new Goodyears, Senna was given scrubbed tires, and they proved more effective on the out lap and he passed Mansell. Not long after that, the Englishman spun at La Source and dropped further behind.
Senna had the delicate touch required for those early laps on slicks, and he proceeded to lead with ease. A heavy shower made life tricky for a few laps in the middle of the race, but the Brazilian kept his head and won as he pleased ahead of Mansell, Prost, Keke Rosberg and Piquet – all past or future World Champions.
In 1991 Michael Schumacher, made a sensational Grand Prix debut for Jordan when he qualified seventh, only to retire on the first lap. It was highly appropriate that exactly a year later, now in a Benetton, he would score his first Grand Prix victory at the same venue.
Schumacher had shown increasingly impressive form over the course of his first full season, earning a string of podiums. However, in a year dominated by Mansell and Williams – with even Senna and McLaren just picking up the scraps – a win seemed to be out of reach. Indeed it was business as usual in qualifying at Spa as Mansell and Senna filled the front row, and Schumacher took third.
Come the start, there was rain in the air, but everyone went to the grid on slicks. However, within three laps it was wet enough for leader Mansell to head into the pit lane. Over the next few laps nearly everyone else followed him in, and the lap chart was turned upside down. However, having got into the lead, Senna opted to stay out and attempt to survive on dry tires. It worked for a while, but eventually he had to give best to a charging Mansell before he finally came in and pitted.
Mansell and teammate Patrese were leading from Schumacher when the track began to dry. The German then slid off the road and rejoined behind teammate Martin Brundle – and noticed that the Englishman's wet tires were blistered. Assuming his own were in a similar state, Schumacher made the call to come in for fresh slicks.
It was a brilliant call, and by the time the three cars ahead made their stops, Schumacher had jumped them with his early pace on dry tires. Nevertheless, Mansell looked set to reel him in and reclaim the lead, only for an electrical problem to slow him down – and leave Michael to record a little piece of history.
The 1998 Belgian GP is remembered for one of the most spectacular pile-ups the sport has ever seen, but also for a memorable first win for the Jordan team, courtesy of a great drive from Damon Hill.
Hill and Jordan had gradually been finding form as the season progressed, and at Spa only the McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and Coulthard were ahead in qualifying. However in heavy rain on Sunday, everything turned to chaos when Coulthard spun on the exit of La Source. The Scot triggered an accident of epic proportions on the run down the hill, and car after car piled into the wreckage, triggering a red flag.
There was a long delay while the mess was cleaned up, and the rain kept falling. At the restart Hakkinen was eliminated by an accident at the first corner, so Hill led initially, until Schumacher's Ferrari got past after seven laps. Second place was still going to be a spectacular outcome for Jordan. But then the TV cameras showed Michael coming out of the gloom and ramming into the back of the lapped Coulthard. Schumacher returned to the pits on three wheels, before abandoning his car and heading down the pit lane for an angry confrontation with the Scot.
When the dust settled Hill was now leading, and his teammate Ralf Schumacher was second, and closing fast. Then a big shunt for Benetton's Giancarlo Fisichella led to a late safety car period, and allowed Ralf to catch right up. On the pit wall, Eddie Jordan began to get a little nervous...
In the event the younger Schumacher reluctantly followed team orders and held station, so the two yellow cars crossed the line to score a totally unexpected 1-2 finish. Meanwhile, all hell broke loose in the Jordan pits. It was a victory that even those who'd had a rough day – like McLaren's Ron Dennis – could smile about.