Living the dream- Spa Franchorchamps
Yummy in Villeneuve's BAR garage at
Spa Franchorchamps October 2002
Sometimes, just sometimes, life doesnít get any better! Picture the scene; nine am on a Friday morning in mid October. Walking through the door of my office there was little me pondering what I was going to do with the oncoming weekend. Kettle on and my laptop just booted up I go through the usual routine of opening Outlook and check my emails. Wait a minute! Whatís this? The title immediately grabbed my attention; ďAndy from Bookatrack thought of youĒ. Eagerly clicking on the message to see what it was I nearly fell off my seat upon reading it!
ďThereís a bunch of us off to Spa-Franchorchamps with Bookatrack on Sunday though one of my friends has had to drop out. Andy mentioned that you just might be the person to askĒ It carried on and said that the ferry leaves on Sunday and because it is short notice the cost is only £230 including; ferry, two nights Hotel a meal on the last night and wait for it,- a full day lapping the grand prix circuit! This was a half price deal and within seconds I was booting up the adminís computer to check how many days holiday I had left! Well I had enough just and after what seemed an eternity I finally had an email back confirming my place! Picture me jumping up and down at my desk like I had just won the lottery and you get the idea! As luck would have it my car was at the time having a full service, new tyres and a four-point Sparco harness fitted. Perfect timing!
Mark Nias took about two seconds of persuading before he confirmed he was coming as my passenger. Brilliant. Ferries were booked, hotel arranged and insurance sorted all within the space of a Friday morning.
Now for those of you not aware, Spa is regarded as one of the best circuits in the world with possibly the most famous corner of them all, the legendary Eau Rouge. Put simply Wow! This place is a Mecca for motoring enthusiasts and even more so for wannabe racers. I am sure my version of heaven would feature driving Spa nine-to-five! So there it was, still sinking in, I was to be driving the full grand prix circuit, all 4.3miles of it. Yes I know, you get the idea, I was excited!
Sunday morning and an early start ensued to make the 9.30 ferry from Dover. I was in convoy with fellow IMOCíers Pete (MK2 NA) and Scott (MK2 Turbo). We were to meet up with fellow MK1 owner Alan Head at the hotel at Spa. We were a little naughty on the way there, though in all honesty the roads were deserted. We headed west taking signs to Brussels, never dipping much below 100mph and were making good progress. Lunch was had in Brussels and the looks we got! The locals seemed to love the cars and all were taken with Scottís Turbo (no accounting for taste then!), though my modified supercharger, certainly never went unnoticed. Off we set again this time driving through lots of tunnels under Brussels with Scottís dump valve whooshing and my supercharger nearly splitting ear drums as the unique sound bounced off the tunnels walls. We arrived at Spa after the odd wrong turn around five pm. We were the first there, so with our cases unloaded we sped off to see the circuit.
When you drive into Franchorchamps itself the circuit is literally just off the main (though somewhat small) high street! This leads straight to La Source which is the very sharp right hand corner after the start. What took our breath away though was our first sight of Eau Rouge in the flesh. How steep? You could see the circuit twisting downhill towards it whereupon Eau Rouge rises at a rate which must be at least 1 in 4 where it has a pronounced curve to the right on the upward slope with a quick left at the top. Think of it like a chicane as it kinks left at the entry point, then right up the hill with a final left at the top. It looked pretty scary from a distance but that was nothing to what it was like up close!
So back to the hotel and eventually people started arriving. A quick look into the car park confirmed that this was no ordinary track day. Eliseís, Caterhams, Ferrari 355 GTS and my favourite a Noble M12 adorned the front of the hotel. Together with three MR2ís parked at dubious angles it set the scene.
Eventually the Bookatrack team arrived and with them a few familiar faces. Many of the others I didnít know, but I knew that would change by the next night. By 10pm most had gone to bed as there was the big day to think about. We however, were still waiting for poor old Alan to arrive. Around 11pm he finally did to a round of applause from all in the bar. Twenty minutes later and bed.
Iím not sure what it was (I think that the room was too warm) but I had the worst nightís sleep ever. I awoke at 5am with a splitting headache in a cold sweat feeling like I had the hangover from hell even though Iíd only had two Stellas all night. Not good! I had a shower and went down to breakfast feeling dizzy and washed out and well, exhausted. I had a mouthful of cornflakes and felt worse. As the other track day junkies were milling around they kept remarking how I looked like a ghost, this was awful. For a full fifteen minutes I just wanted to go back to bed, I could hardly keep my balance walking let alone drive at 110% around Spa all day. I was seriously worried and pretty upset as I just couldnít understand it.
Time was running out. I had asked Mark to drive to the circuit as I really didnít think I could manage it, but then about five minutes before we were to go the adrenaline kicked in! I suddenly started to pull myself out of it and though I didnít feel brilliant the dizziness vanished and I felt myself focus on the job in hand.
The convoy to the circuit didnít take long and on arrival we were advised to simply pull up a garage door and drive in. Up went the door and we all drove in to a pit garage. We were all pretty impressed to say the least as the pit garage was open plan, spotless and the biggest I have ever been in. Even better was when we opened the door at the other end to reveal I was in the Lucky Strike BAR Honda garage! How cool is that? I convinced myself that it must be Jaques Villeneuveís garage as of the four BAR garages present it was nearest the control tower end of the pit lane.
I had to laugh as no-one used the Panasonic Toyota garages as they were miles up the other end of the pit lane. Oh what a feeling it was milling around in garages that were witness to a Formula One Team once a year. I was feeling much better now. You could just picture the scene of F1 mechanics busy at work and the feverish pitch of excitement of grand prix weekend. The copper strips outside the garages for earthing the car during pit-stops were still there.
But, it was wet. Oh dear! I have never been on a track day in the wet before so I was a little apprehensive. What do I do with tyre pressures for example? Naturally I turned to the guy in the next garage who was preparing his Caterham and Holden HSV (400Bhp monster, bit like an M5). He advised me to pump the tyres up harder as it opens the tread out. Hmmm, everyone else was letting their tyres down, so I followed his advice and set the fronts at 36psi and the rears at 40psi (the same setting I normally use in the dry, but still much harder than I use on the road). Next up was signing on and then the drivers briefing. We had arrived early so there was time for me to fiddle with my new harnesses and get them as tight as possible and give the car a quick check over for oil and water.
It was still only 8.45am and there I was trying to relax as I gazed toward the lights at the end of the pit-lane willing them to turn green. We were to follow the usual format and do a couple of sighting laps and then the day would go open pit-lane which is great as you simply go out on track whenever you want. Sighting laps are always a tricky and sometimes frustrating experience. An official pace car led the pack and off we went out of the pit lane and onto the track with the first corner being Eau Rouge. This is one serious corner and it is so steep. This would be a challenge I commented to Mark. Thereís a long straight after that and sensing that we would be coming toward the twisty back section I dropped my speed right down to let the cars in front get away. I needed to see what the grip was and how slippery the soaking track was. It was a case of crawling along the straights and then simply accelerating through the bends to see if the car slid easily. Surprisingly the car felt very secure. After two sighting laps I came back into the pits for nearly five minutes before I was lining up at the pit exit again, the lights, now green.
Okay the first few laps and they are long laps with the circuit being 4.5miles long were fairly uneventful and as I built my speed up I was amazed at just how much I could carry and the grip available. Yes the rear end was sliding but the car felt all of a piece and just so communicative with oodles of feel with the slip angle being infinitely controllable on the throttle. Itís just as well as I have spent over seven grand turning my MR2 into the track day tool that it is.
I was starting to get into the groove and with the advice that a lot of speed can be carried through Eau Rouge from one of the Caterham guys I was pushing ever harder through this behemoth of a corner. At first I was turning into it at 90mph or so (remember it was wet!) but as the morning wore on I had upped the ante to 100mph. The car would turn into the corner hard then as it went steeply upwards the gradient ever rising you could feel the car pushing itself into the wet tarmac allowing a lot more grip than youíd first think. As you get about halfway up Eau Rouge the corner tightens slightly, add more lock, push the car into the turn it will do it. A little bit of faith and a lot of trust was required at this point, but it is vital to keep over to the right so as to straighten the exit. Of course as Eau Rouge levels off near the top, the car gets very light and at this point the steering inputs need to be quickly corrected; push into the right wind off to the left, hold the slide, keep the power even and consistently applied. A smidgen of opposite lock here and just there and then you are kind of spewed out of the top with the car slightly out of balance and there is yet still the left hand bend at the top to make. This isnít a sharp bend, more a gentle curve but you need to hold a slight amount of lock as the car is still a little light; otherwise a spin at around ninety beckons. This, put simply; is as good as it gets!
Yummy after much abuse on track. And
Interestingly I was starting to notice that I kept passing a lot of other cars on track. Normally I am pulling over to let the Caterhams and sometimes the Elises past. But in the wet the tables were turned! Even better Jonny who runs Bookatrack and has just won EVO track driver of the year was out in his Caterham Superlight. Coming around the back section of the track through Stavelot and toward Blanchimont I could see the silver Caterham in the distance. I was reeling him in! Out through the bus-stop and onto the start/finish straight I knew I could catch him up with some late braking into La Source. Out of La Source and hard on the power using the limited slip diff to itís utmost with the rear tyres scrabbling for grip I accelerated hard on the run down to Eau Rouge. Jonny was still a good hundred yards in front and his Caterham Superlight is quick, slightly pulling away on the downhill run. Right, this is my best chance to make some more time up, keep the power on over the left kerb to straighten my line for the turn-in to Eau Rouge just easing the speed to a whisker over 110 and turn-in hard. Then get the power on hard and push the car into the turn. My mind at this point saying; ďjust straighten the wheel and run over the kerbs at the topĒ but as the car neared the top I resolutely held it turned in hard and then harder, the back steps out, but before I have had time to think I already have the right amount of opposite lock applied and my foot is hard on the floor. As I shoot out the top at beyond the limit of adhesion the car finds grip and makes the turn to the left. Iím right on Jonnyís bumper and in a split second past him with all the speed I carried up the hill!
Pic of La Source
The run up to Malmedy des Combes is a long uphill straight that just feels like itís never ending and only around 20mph is added to the speedo in half a mile. The first right hander in this trio of corners is deceptive as it is all too easy to turn-in too fast. With three 90 degree corners all on top of one another getting the first right is crucial. Hard on the brakes and turn-in hard wary of initial grip fast fading at the front and hold tight to the right side in preparation for the 90 degree left immediately afterwards. But donít go too deep as it ruins the line. Holding it to the right and getting the power back on the car unsettles mid-corner, no matter a dab of opposite lock, squeeze the power on and before it is quite straight, pull the wheel to the left and lift off in order to turn-in for the ensuing left. Let the car run a little wide toward the kerbing and then squeeze the throttle for just a bit longer than you might think and the rear squats and pushes wide setting the car toward the left kerbing giving a perfect line for turn-in for the following right hander. Again lift off for turn-in slightly and power confidently out of the last of this trio of corners being ready to get some opposite lock fairly quickly as the car catapults its way down to the nasty hairpin that is
The trick is here is to get on the brakes fairly late and leave the turn-in to the last possible moment. Just as the white line denoting the edge of the track is about to disappear under the bonnet get the lock on quick for this 180 degree right turn. Careful not to get the power on too early and let the car run out near the left kerb. Itís all too easy to spin here and you get little warning when you do! Armco isnít far away either so this corner keeps you focused. Into third and down to the next left hander. Itís a bit off camber and downhill and the rear very nearly steps out on the exit. Itís easy to carry too much speed and get very close to the exit kerb which though fine in the dry is deadly in the wet.
Flat out on the downhill straight on the approach to Pouhon (pronounced poo-on!) which pretty much sums this corner up! Itís a double left-hander that is steeply downhill and of course speed is quickly gathered. The way I found round this is to treat it as one long constant radius corner and run a little wider than is immediately obvious so as to keep the car settled and turn-in nicely to the second part of the corner. The scary part is that holding a constant radius through the first part of the corner takes you very close to the mottled white line and to my cost, in one session I caught the white line ever so slightly and instantly the rear swung out. Turning into the slide I was lucky to catch it and still make the second part of the corner. Itís not called Pouhon for nothing!
From here itís a short straight on the run to Stavelot. Hard on the brakes for the upcoming sharp right/left. Again similar to Malmedy des Combes, so an early turn-in for the immediate right, lots of grip here, feeling the rear getting very light and taking a few liberties with your right foot! After Pouhon it is nice to be able to relax on this safe wide right/left flick. Carrying on into the trickier part of Stavelot and yet another deceptive right hander. The camber is slightly Ďwrongí and though turn-in is initially good the car tended to wash out at the front provoking a quick lift of the throttle mid-corner which inevitably resulted in some opposite lock and a balanced throttle to ride out the exit. Not much time to catch your breath though as the next slightly downhill much faster right hand corner quickly looms. This one is tricky as though itís really a fourth gear hard on the power curve as the corner eases to the exit, there is some Armco that is pretty close not allowing too much room for error. Being wet and momentarily sane I thought it best to hold third till I was comfortably past the Armco and out of danger.
From here itís a good straight with a gentle right turn toward the corner before Blanchimont. This corner is a flat out left with a flattering camber taken at 115mph in my car, then a slight lift for Blanchimont proper which is a tighter long radius left which is still a test of nerve at 100mph or so. From here itís a short blast still carrying a lot of speed to the bus-stop which is an incredibly tight left/right chicane lined with tyres! It is very easy to leave the braking too late and with the tyres virtually on the kerbs thereís no room for error. On one occasion I out-braked myself and ended up running right down the pit-lane to avoid a likely coming together with the tyres! From here itís back onto the start/finish straight and another lap!
As our track-time ran from 9-6pm with no break for lunch there was plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and grab a few rides with fellow track day junkies! My first ride of the day was with Geoff in his Caterham, this nearly didnít happen as early on in the day Geoff forgot to tighten his wheels up fully and upon turning into Blanchimont his front left decided to go itís own way! Geoff managed to bring the car to a stop while his errant wheel carried on! With a brake disc resembling a fifty pence piece Geoff was soon back on track. As I strapped myself in I checked with Geoff that he had tightened the wheels this time. It was quite telling going out in the Caterham as it was clear that the wet track really slowed them down. Eau Rouge was taken a good 20mph slower than in my car and the normally Ďseat of the pantsí ride just wasnít happening. The big one for me was bagging a ride in a Ferrari 355 GTS! This was nice as I had never been in a Ferrari before. It was more of a cruise though really as these toys are expensive. It handled well though and sounded fantastic, though it wasnít amazingly fast, but would easily (as you would expect) have the legs over my car. Ride of the day though was definitely riding shotgun with the ĎAtom Boysí. Oh what fun! Strapped into this machine that looked like scaffolding on the move where someone hadnít bothered with the bodywork was a unique experience. As windy as a motorbike with a full view of the road rushing past and the front wheel in full view, I was giggling all the way round. Lots of oversteer and of course opposite lock as the car writhed under power you could feel every input instantly conveyed through the seat of your pants, fantastic stuff!
At the end of the day it was back to the hotel where just about every video was watched by all in the bar. Cheers erupted every time there was a spin and deft handling through Eau Rouge was met with gasps of excitement. Well into the night and seemingly into the next morning, every corner of every lap was relived. Jonny from Bookatrack gave a speech after the main course thanking all those that came at such short notice and he said that everyone is welcome back except for Lilí Miss Black Flag (i.e. me) for overtaking him out of Eau Rouge!
The trip back early the following morning was uneventful or at least it would have been if Alan Headís car hadnít decided to wave goodbye to itís water pump! Every ten minutes we were stopping for water as his MK1 whistled like a kettle. Eventually our friend Geoff pulled onto the hard shoulder to lend us his tow-rope. I was a bit naughty here as towing Alan along, in the full knowledge that he couldnít do much about it, I accelerated to nearly 80mph for the last few miles en-route to the hover port. Alan remarked that he spent more times going sideways behind me than he did all day at Spa! Still he got back safely and after twelve hours travelling so did we.
There are some things in life that really are a Ďmust doí and driving Spa Franchorchamps is certainly one of them. It is a very well suited track for MR2s at least in the wet. It was pretty surprising that all day I only got overtaken by the winner of the Caterham Graduate series and I even got past the works Lotus Elise!
The Nurburgring beckons!
For the 2003 Spa trip see: Spa
Additional: the car was a MK1 MR2 with supercharger conversion
with extensive Ďtrackí modifications. Power @195Bhp.