Welcome to Spa: Formula One's most feared track

There isn't a racing driver on the grid these days who doesn't love Spa-Francorchamps, the most challenging and majestic on the calendar.

But it was not always so. Back in the Sixties the place was feared as well as respected. Those great Scottish champions Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart hated it.

The modern Spa is a 7.004km masterpiece, a lesson in how to change something great to keep apace with safety developments, while retaining its inherent character and charisma. But back in the old days, it had a fearsome reputation as a widowmaker.

When Clark first raced there, in a sportscar in 1958, he came across the talented Archie Scott-Brown crashing fatally at La Source, close to the memorial which marked the passing of the great pre-war British hope, Dick Seaman. Two years later, in his first grand prix there, Clark drove by the body of promising young Briton, Chris Bristow. On the black weekend when Stirling Moss and Mike Taylor were injured in practice, Bristow and fellow rising star Alan Stacey died in the race that stood as the sport's nadir until Imola 1994.

Stewart crashed here in 1966. The race started in the dry but the drivers encountered torrential rain part-way round the 14km lap. He was deeply disquietened by the time it took ambulance services to reach him after BRM team-mates Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant had rescued him from his fuel-soaked car after it had finished up in a cellar by the side of the Masta Kink. That experience kick-started the Scot's safety campaign that would see Spa boycotted in 1969, and thence from 1971 until the shortened track came into service in 1983.

Their detestation of the place never stopped Clark or Stewart from giving their best here; Clark won the race four times between 1962 and 1965, and led before his Lotus let him down in 1967; Stewart was second to Clark on his debut in the rain in 1965, and was second again, on the historic day in 1967 when the unlucky American ace Dan Gurney won in the Eagle Weslake and Stewart steered his cumbersome BRM H16 one-handed while holding it in gear with the other. All three relished the pure challenge of a magnificent circuit, but were only too aware of its dangers.

Spa demanded so many things, above all that ability not to think what could go wrong. In that 1966 race Jochen Rindt spun, "eight or nine times," according to Gurney, on the Masta Straight, which is now no longer part of the current track, yet carried on as if nothing had happened. Jack Brabham readily admits to a very scary moment when, as the leader at Burnenville corner, he had been the first to encounter the rain.

Rindt could laugh it off. Brabham didn't. "I had several exciting moments. First I had this tremendous spin about 180 mph..." Rindt said.

"I was heading for a bloody house, because there was no way of stopping, no way of doing anything about it," Brabham said. "Luckily, at Spa they had a concrete strip round the outside, holding the road together, about half an inch higher than the road itself. Nothing was gonna stop me going straight into this bloody house, and suddenly I touched this strip of concrete and it was just enough to straighten me up."

Brabham confronted his own mortality that day.

Such things happen here, as they did in 1998 when David Coulthard triggered a 13-car shunt after spinning his McLaren exiting the La Source hairpin on the opening lap.

At one time Eau Rouge was the Everest of racing: a plunging, sweeping, climbing left, right, left corner that is approached downhill at close to 200 mph and compresses cars on to their suspension before they are hurled up a climb that, on foot, seems mountainous. Jacques Villeneuve crashed there twice in a BAR in 1999, trying to take it flat out. Nowadays it is less challenging, and there is regret about that.

"I have often called Spa my living room," said Michael Schumacher. "And there are lots of fantastic memories from the past." He has won the race six times, having made his debut here with Jordan in 1991. Then, after the first day of practice, Schumacher's team-mate Andrea de Cesaris said that his car felt nervous, on the limit in fifth gear in the Pouhon and Blanchimont corners.

"It's very stable if you take it flat in sixth," Schumacher volunteered, and that was the day when chief designer Gary Anderson and team manager Trevor Foster realised they had a superstar in the car for the first time.

"Obviously we always talk about Eau Rouge and indeed, starting here some years ago it was thrilling," Schumacher said, adding ruefully, "but in this generation of cars it's certainly a lot easier because the cars are so improved. But Spa is still a great excitement and it's not a single corner. It's the first sector all together, through La Source, down the hill, up Eau Rouge and then the climb all the way through Raidillion to Les Combes... This is the most loved place for me."

From Greek beaches to the London Triathlon: How drivers spent their summer holidays

Formula One is often thought of as a high-speed, high-octane sport filled with high-speed, high-octane people. But is it really? What, for example, did the drivers get up to in the four-week summer break between the Hungarian and Belgian grands prix? Offshore power-boating, perhaps? Paragliding? A N Other adrenalin-fuelled sport?

No. What they actually did was far more humdrum: go on holiday, do some charity fund-raising, spend time with the family, cycle or just train. Not quite the jet-set lifestyle you might have imagined.

Jenson Button

The world champion did the London Triathlon earlier this month before holidaying with girlfriend Jessica Michibata. Despite a bout of mild tonsillitis which hampered his run, he did well enough in the running and cycling sections to place fourth in his group as he finished in 2hr 14min and 15sec to raise money for the Make a Wish Foundation.

Lewis Hamilton

"I went straight from Hungary to the States and spent time out there with some friends and with the girlfriend," said the 2008 world champion. "It was a case of good training, good weather, lots of sun and good food." He spent most of his time in Miami and Hawaii "hanging out" with his girlfriend, the singer Nicole Scherzinger.

Sebastian Vettel

"I think like the majority of the drivers, I had a bit of holiday in the beginning and then as soon as I was back I tried to get back into the rhythm. Lots of training. The weather wasn't always fantastic in the centre of Europe, but the usual stuff I guess. Then I tried to prepare to come back here."

Robert Kubica

"I did a bit of cycling, in the hills of Monaco, and later in Tuscany when I had a little bit of a break," the Renault driver said. "Nothing much: 70km a day, maybe 1400km for the whole time I was not racing..."

Antonio Liuzzi

"I went for a holiday [in Greece with girlfriend Francesca]. We didn't do much, but it was a lot of fun, just a chance to have a break from racing, then back into training to get ready for Spa."

Michael Schumacher

"I was with the family [in Switzerland]," the Mercedes driver said. "I have been home with them and I just took it easy."

Sebastien Buemi

"I spent some days back home [in Switzerland], and then in Monaco, and then I was one week in Salzburg for some fitness tests, just to check out where we are in the middle of the season. It's been a good break and it was good to relax a bit."

Pedro de la Rosa

"It's been a very good break. I was always with the family. We went to Majorca, on holiday, where we normally go. Great time I must say, very good. I did a lot of cycling and realised how bad I am at that, but otherwise it was very good."

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