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.
The 2000 Belgian GP was quite a race. At half-distance it looked like being yet another glorious Spa victory for Schumacher, after rival Mika Hakkinen had thrown away the lead for the third time in two years. Instead, the fortunes of the leading contenders swapped around dramatically.
The race started on a wet track with one lap behind the safety car. Given that F1 uses single-file restarts, this was a huge advantage for pole man Hakkinen, who was able to get the jump on everyone and take full advantage of a clear run into La Source. Starting fourth, it took Schumacher five laps to pass Jenson Button's Williams and Jarno Trulli's Jordan to take second.
When the track began to dry, Schumacher was among the first to stop for slicks, while Hakkinen stayed out one more lap and found his lead reduced. Schumacher soon began to catch Hakkinen, and when Mika tried to respond, he spun on a wet curb on an unlucky lap 13, losing exactly 10 seconds.
Schumacher pitted at half-distance, taking on enough fuel to get to the end. The extra weight cost him pace on the track, and meant that his tires had to last a long time. By pitting five laps later, Hakkinen was ultimately in better shape.
Mika was now 5.8sec behind, compared with 11.5s before the stops (most of that was gained in the pits and on his out lap). But the whole complexion of the race had changed; instead of dropping back again, Mika was charging. By lap 30 of the 44-lap race, the gap was 3.5sec, and by lap 35, it was 1.1sec.
On lap 37, Mika was right on the Ferrari's tail. He now had seven laps in which to get past. And after finding his way rudely blocked on lap 40, he did it in dramatic style on the next lap as they lapped Ricardo Zonta, the two leaders diving past on either side of the BAR driver.
The McLaren was simply the faster car by the time conditions had dried and stabilized. Mika made it home safely in front to register one of his most famous wins, while Schumacher came in for huge criticism after his clumsy intimidatory squeeze of Mika on lap 40. However Mika chose not to make his own feelings public – confining himself to a quiet word in Michael's ear in parc ferme. Classy...
Had Lewis Hamilton lost the 2008 World Championship to Felipe Massa, many would have looked back to that year's Belgian GP as the event that tipped the balance – somewhat controversially – in the Brazilian's favor. Fortunately, Lewis won the title on the last lap of the last race at Interlagos, and he could put the Spa frustration behind him.
Rain at midday left the circuit very wet but, as the cars took to the grid, it had dried sufficiently for everyone to take the start on regular grooved Bridgestone tires. From pole, Hamilton's McLaren emerged from La Source in front.
Meanwhile, Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was able to drag past teammate Massa to claim second on the run out of Eau Rouge. The Finn then moved into the lead when Hamilton spun on the exit of the hairpin at the start of the second lap. Lewis quickly resumed, having lost only one place, but through the remainder of that first stint, the reigning champion's Ferrari gradually edged away, and for most of the race he remained just out of his rival's reach.
Everything began to change when rain came in the last three laps with the cars still on slicks. Hamilton closed the gap, and on lap 42 he fought his way past Kimi, as the pair twice made contact. Lewis cut the Bus Stop chicane and – briefly – let Kimi back past on the run to La Source, so as not to be seen to have gained an advantage. However, he then ducked past the Ferrari again and outbraked him.
On the penultimate lap, the rain really came down hard. Lewis went off while lapping a Williams, but then just seconds later Raikkonen had a moment of his own, and Lewis regained the lead. Later in the lap Kimi crashed heavily, leaving Lewis to crawl round that wet final lap to claim the win, with Massa hanging on in second behind him, both men lapping well off the pace.
However, after the race the FIA investigated the earlier Raikkonen/Hamilton chicane incident and deemed that Lewis had indeed gained an advantage when he jumped past Raikkonen after initially letting by. He was given a 25-second penalty, dropping him to third behind Massa and Nick Heidfeld.