This weekend the Formula One travelling circus comes to Spa, and next week to Monza, the spiritual homes of the sport, and the best tracks on the current list of circuits. Spa is still a very challenging circuit, though a shadow of its former 8.7 mile scary glory.
It is now a little over 4 miles, with many challenging low and high speed corners, a long straight, and the classic Eau Rouge complex, still the same heart-pounding challenge it has always been.
Drivers have measured their skill and courage for generations, all assuring us that yes, “Of course I was flat through Eau Rouge,” whether they were driving a Lancia D50, Cooper-Climax, Lotus-Cosworth, or Ferrari 126C.
The view as a driver comes out of La Source, accelerating under full power down the hill, the view of Eau Rouge must be quite daunting. The compression at the bottom of the hill, getting the car onto the right line, blasting up the hill toward Radillon and Les Combes, must take an immense amount of skill and heart, and it is a track that has brought out the best in drivers of all kinds of cars, from sedans to GT cars to Prototypes, and of course, Formula One.
The changes to the track have made it safer, but it is still one of the best tests of skill and equipment. The ongoing points battle between Hamilton and Vettel, Mercedes and Ferrari, should keep things interesting through the weekend. And of course, it always rains at Spa.
Then it’s on to the sport’s true Cathedral, Monza, in a national park outside Milan. Never as long as Spa, even when the banking was included in the race, prior to the various chicanes being added, it was nearly as fast.
Coming out of the Parabolica heading toward the start/finish line under full acceleration, in the old days the cars approached the Curva Grande at top speed, and like Eau Rouge, major courage and skill were required to get through at maximum speed, as the next section was flat out, until the cars reached the Lesmos curves, which remain the same as they have always been. Two right-hand curves, the first 90 degrees, the second a bit less than 90, led onto what was, until the addition of the Ascari chicane, a flatout burn all the way to the Parabolica, as the original Ascari curve was a sweeping left-hander, and very wide, allowing even 60’s era Formula One cars to go through at top speed.
Braking for the Parabolica is still crucial today, as it has always been, and getting it right makes all the difference in lap time. It is tighter on entry, and opens up as it leads onto the front straight.
The circuit has changed over the years, with chicanes being added before and after the Curva Grande, rendering it just another corner, and the Ascari chicane has slowed the top speed cars can achieve on the back straight.
Like Spa, Monza was one of the most dangerous circuits in the 50’s and 60’s, with many fatalities, including spectators. The 1961 World Driver’s Championship was decided at Monza, with the death of Wolfgang Von Trips and the ascension to the title by American Phil Hill.
The chicane after the start/finish line has been the scene of many bad accidents, including at the start of the 1978 Grand Prix, as the cars rushed toward the narrow, one-line only chicane. Numerous cars came together, including Ronnie Petersen’s Lotus, who died in the hospital hours after the race, and after his condition had been reported as stable, this time clinching the Driver’s Championship for Mario Andretti.
Stephane Ortelli had quite an adventure at that chicane as well in 2008, which is still available on Youtube if you’ve forgotten.
With Ferrari’s home being just down the road in Maranello, Monza has always been the most important race for any Ferrari driver to win, and Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen are both keenly aware of this.
The postrace celebration is the most amazing of any circuit, with the podium extending out over the main straight, and tens of thousands of Tifosi will be there screaming, regardless of how the Ferrari team does, but if Vettel or Raikkonen win the race, the celebration in Northern Italy will go on for days.