Spa-Francorchamps has been an iconic part of motorsport since the circuit was first formed in 1920, and the Belgian track has been the scene of spectacular racing moments ever since.
Although the historic track has changed in many respects in the intervening century, Spa’s speed, micro-climate and picturesque backdrop has guaranteed its legendary status.
Spa has had its fair share of ups and downs – metaphorically and topographically – over the years and its rich history is what makes the track so special to drivers and fans alike.
After the First World War, La Meuse newspaper owner Jules de Their wanted to revive the La Meuse Cup and needed somewhere for the action to take place. An incredibly high-speed route was created by connecting the towns of Spa-Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot, forming a triangle.
The first race on the track was scheduled for 1921, but as only one car registered for the event it was replaced with a motorcycle race, which gained a more respectable 23 entrants. At this point the circuit was just under ten miles in length, the longest ever iteration of the track.
In 1924, the first running of the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps was held, won by Antonio Ascari, whose son, two-time Formula 1 champion Alberto, would also enjoy success as the track in later years. Ascari Snr. also took victory the next year at the first Belgian Grand Prix, proving himself to be a master at the high-speed circuit.
Across the decade Spa gained a timing booth, scoreboard and press stand as it began its journey towards becoming one of the most popular circuits in motorsport. In 1928 asphalt was laid down along the track, turning it from a dirt road to something resembling a modern street circuit.
In 1939 a road was built that bypassed the Virage de Ancienne Douare, which created the now infamous Eau Rouge/Radillon uphill corner sequence which is instantly recognisable to racing fans the world over. Beyond that, very little had changed in terms of the design of the circuit since its original route was plotted nearly twenty years earlier.
It took until 1947 for the area to recover from the damage inflicted by World War Two (the Ardennes was scene of the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, early 1945) and for racing to begin again at the circuit. The layout of the track changed slightly for the post-war races, with a sweeping corner created at Stavelot in order to avoid the town itself. This change did nothing to reduce the incredibly high speeds reached at the circuit and the danger the speed caused.
The inaugural F1 season visited Spa in 1950 and the race was won by Juan-Manuel Fangio in a works Alfa Romeo. It was the start of F1’s long love/hate relationship with the circuit. Spa went on to appear on the calendar eight times in 1950s, missing only 1957 and 1959.
During the 1960s there was a growing realisation that Spa was too dangerous to race on in its current layout. Ten drivers lost their lives around Spa in the 1960s and it was Jackie Stewart’s 1966 crash at the circuit that prompted his campaign for better driver safety. His BRM overturned at the notoriously dangerous Masta Kink, trapping Stewart in the car and soaking him in petrol. His team-mate Graham Hill had to pull him out and the van that eventually arrived to take him to hospital got lost on the way.
These terrible experiences led to the drivers boycotting the 1969 race when the circuit failed to make the safety improvements necessary for them to feel confident in tackling the race.
For 1970 F1 returned to Spa after a chicane was added at Malmedy and barriers were constructed around the circuit. But the improvements were not enough to convince F1 of the track’s safety and it did not return again until 1983. Pedro Rodriguez won the final race on the long track with an average speed of 150 miles an hour. Other series continued to visit Spa throughout the 1970s, despite the number of fatalities at the circuit growing every year.
It wasn’t until 1979 that decisive action was taken to make Spa a safe place to race, when a new portion of track was created between Les Combes and Blanchimont.
The circuit was now only four miles long, allowing for a better density of marshal coverage, and cut out many of the long straights that allowed drivers to reach such high speeds around the track.
The new section provided a technical challenge but was much safer to navigate than the old track layout.
This major overhaul of the circuit remains the biggest change in Spa’s history and allowed racing to continue at the track, which is beloved to fans and drivers to this day.
Further tweaks were made to the track over the next couple of years, with the bus stop chicane between Blanchimont and La Source making its first appearance in 1981 in order to further slow the cars down.
In 1983 F1 raced again at Spa, with Alain Prost taking victory on the triumphant return, while new F1-only pit facilities that had been built on the straight approaching La Source were used for the first time. Contractual obligations elsewhere meant that Spa again did not feature on the 1984 calendar, but from then until the end of the century it became a permanent F1 fixture.
As part of the raft of track changes that came about after the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, a slow chicane was installed at Eau Rouge where Alex Zanardi had crashed the previous year. It was removed again for 1995, with additional run-off areas put into place instead.
In 2000 the circuit finally became semi-permanent, with traffic forbidden between March and October, and became fully permanent soon after.
Just three years later, Spa was unable to host F1 due to a clash between Belgium’s tobacco advertising laws and many of F1’s key sponsors. After a return for 2004 and 2005, the circuit was once again off the F1 calendar in 2006 due to ongoing modifications and upgrades, amid the backdrop of the race organisers filing for bankruptcy.
For 2007, new pit facilities costing €15 million were built, bringing the circuit in line with the current FIA standards, along with further tweaks to the bus stop chicane to become a double hairpin.
The circuit has stayed very much the same over the last ten years. Although Spa has changed dramatically in the century since its inception, it remains a fast and technical circuit that attracts all manner of series to race on its hallowed ground.
It has reached a level of safety that was unthinkable in the 1950s and 1960s, although a number of serious incidents in recent years, most notably the collision that resulted in F2 driver Anthoine Hubert’s death in 2019, highlight the perils of racing at Spa.