Spa 24 hours, get ready for the greatest show on earth
A leap into the unknown
The Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the middle of the rolling Ardennes, is a ferocious challenge at the best of times. But during the vast history of the 24 Hours of Spa, seldom has there been a predictable race around this iconic, technical and blindingly fast stretch of Belgian real estate.
While 24-hour races are far from unique, the Spa 24 is an event with its own individual characteristics. It's never a straight-forward race and such is the nature of the circuit: the gradients, the capricious micro-climates, the epic corners of Eau Rouge, Blanchimont and Pouhon, that it is perhaps the most volatile and difficult races to take part in.
You're never far away from an accident, whether due to the proximity of the barriers or the sheer relentlessness of the turns, hour after hour. It's not like the Le Mans 24 Hours where the gap between first and second can be as much as two laps. Instead, victory can be decided by mere seconds. Safety Cars are not only commonplace but expected. Late race drama has been known to shake up the results right up until the chequered flag and as for the weather…well let's just say, it is Spa after all. And at Spa, the weather decides when to arrive seemingly at random.
The biggest challenge
Ask any driver or team what the most challenging aspect of the 24 Hours of Spa is and most of them will say that just reaching the end in one piece is a relief.
The drivers in theory get the chance to grab a bit of sleep in motorhomes close to the paddock during the race, as there are three or four drivers per car, each taking turns to drive for a couple of hours or more at a time.
In reality sleep rarely comes. This is partly due to the constant noise that surrounds the paddock (many drivers choose to sleep with headphones tuned into team radio, to follow what's happening to their car during the lonely hours of the night) but mostly because of the huge adrenaline spike injected by driving flat-out on this seven-kilometre track: renowned as one of the best circuits in the world.
That's thanks to legendary corners such as Eau Rouge: a twisting compression shortly after the start-finish line, where drivers feel their spine crushed into the ground as they slam into the dip before almost experiencing weightlessness as they fly over the crest, just milliseconds later. More than 500 times in 24 hours.
The bravest drivers take Eau Rouge with the throttle buried: a gravity-defying triumph of willpower over common sense. It's most impressive at night, when sparks fly off the cars' bellies as they hit the ground, headlights carving out a narrow tunnel through the pitch-black Belgian countryside, often streaked with rain.
The Spa 24 Hours is just as old as Le Mans, having started only one year later in 1924, when the Belgians decided that anything the French could do, they could do better. The original circuit was even more terrifying than the current version: a 15-kilometre, vaguely triangular track that used the ordinary roads between Stavelot, Malmedy and Spa, before being progressively modified into its current form since 1979.
In its previous incarnation, Spa was the fastest circuit in Europe, with legendary champion Jackie Stewart calling the old Masta Kink (now part of a public road) “by far the most difficult corner in the world”. His opinion was probably shaped by a huge accident that he had in 1966, when he woke up upside down, covered in fuel, in a ditch next to a farmhouse.
This is the heritage that the Spa 24 Hours shares. And it's a race that is still ruled by tradition now, such as the unique parade on Wednesday night when all the competing cars take to the public road – an incredible sight – through the centre of Spa itself. As the name suggests, this is one of the oldest spa towns in the world, and also the town with the oldest casino in Europe, which began construction in 1763.
That's a metaphor for the race itself, where every corner and every battle is a roll of dice. But unlike the games in the casino, there's only one winner at the end.