Sounds relaxing, doesn't it? Maybe it would be if you visit Les Thermes, but just go ahead and forget about relaxation if you plan on spending a day (or more) at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, the famous Formula One course nestled in the Ardennes Forest region of southern Belgium. One of the fastest, most challenging, and most dangerous of the F1 circuits, it's an iconic track that has been at the heart of motorsports racing (in one form or another) since its inception in the 1920s, along with courses such as Le Mans and the Nurburgring.
So it's no stretch of the imagination to believe that low clouds, fog, and rain didn't do much increase this Californian's confidence as we approached the pits for our first day of driving with the RSR Premium Track Days group. It's not that rain was any great surprise in a place like Spa, with its reputation for changeable weather, but for a desert girl like me who hadn't driven a new track in over a year...yeah, I'll admit I was shaking in my boots. Or my Sparcos, as it were. In an effort to give us a sense about the realities of the day ahead, RSR owner Ron Simons had us all pile into our cars to take a quick tour of the track. First stop, Eau Rouge/Raidillon (pictured to the left).
"Whatever you do, stay off the paint when it's wet," was the first thing he told us. "In fact, stay off the asphalt next to the paint - it's very polished and slippery as well."
This wasn't exactly a revelation, but it was still a great warning, and immediately every person in the group starts scooting around, scuffing their driving shoes along the pavement and the painted concrete curbs, seeking out the slipperier spots and the grippier spots.
Then Ron continued with this fun tidbit: "Except you must drive on the painted curb at the bottom of Eau Rouge, see where the standing water is down there? You have to use all of that curb, and actually it can be your braking zone too, but if you brake there please make sure your wheels are perfectly straight in the rain (especially if you're renting one of my cars!)."
Silence. This just got real.
So he began to elaborate: "If you don't use that curb you won't make the correct line up the hill to Raidillon. You really want to be on line because there is a small crest where we're standing and and it's in the middle of turning from right to left, so you must be precise to have your wheels straight when you go across this crest. The last apex is blind over the large crest, as you can see, and if you cut the corner in Eau Rouge you will be early into Raidillon, which will send you towards these many large speed bumps they installed to deter racers from cutting the corner. That would be a rough ride. And then there is this wall to my left, and that other wall at the exit, and you see they have many marks already!"
Cue the titter of nervous laughter.
Well, by the time we wrapped up the track "walk" and finally put our helmets on (which in true European fashion was around 10am) it was raining in earnest. The downhill hairpin La Source had a number of interesting rivers to navigate (that's me on the right, trying to avoid the worst of the water). Then we were on the gas downhill from La Source into Eau Rouge and flicking the car onto that wet paint, which was one of the more pucker-inducing moments I've logged to-date (bottom right). But oh boy, the compression resulting from the sudden right-hand turn uphill was just immediately addicting! Another pucker moment came mid-hill at the small crest as the suspension was unloading from the right-hand turn, then a slight feeling of weightlessness before hitting a smidge more compression on the last bit of uphill to help turn in left towards the larger crest, hunting for that blind apex over the hill. Finally we came flying over the top of Raidillon, where there was just one more brief kink to negotiate through the forest before opening up the throttle onto the Kemmel straight. A flutter-inducing combination of turns, totally daunting on each and every lap, and absolutely thrilling at the same time.
From that point on the circuit still kept us on our toes and sure didn't disappoint - following the Kemmel straight there is a quick right-left-right combination (Les Combes) to finish the uphill section, and the remainder of the course from Bruxelles onward descends back down through the valley towards La Source. Perhaps owing to the fact that the current F1 track used to be public roads, most of the turns are quite flat and lack any positive camber to help a gal out when cornering. Combine that with the descent downhill and many of the turns effectively seem to be negative in camber, which makes the track a real hoot to drive (!!).
Now, a few words of wisdom to future drivers of the circuit: 1) If you rent a low-horsepower car (like we did), be prepared to look up in your mirror under braking and see a blur coming out of the corner a quarter-mile back, knowing that it means yet another chance to negotiate that turn 2 or 3 wide with guys who didn't have to fly halfway across the globe and thus rented or brought their own supercars, race cars, prototypes, and Radicals; 2) If you do rent a car with some performance ability, be very aware that a) it's quite likely that it could rain on at least some portion of the course, b) the circuit is challenging anyway, and c) only about half the Lotuses at our event made it home in one piece, and a few Ferraris may have gotten munched too. Spa is a fast track and very wide, and folks drive it accordingly.
Ultimately, if there's one thing to be said for Spa it's that the track and the facility are both truly superb - first class, in fact. From the fresh, smooth asphalt, to the experienced corner marshals and lighted flagging system, to the top-notch garages and gourmet restaurant, the experience was equal parts elegant and electrifying (check out the enthusiasm, even on the rainy day!). We were lucky enough to get some sunshine on our second day, so during one outting in the afternoon I was finally feeling confident with the Eau Rouge/Raidillon combination, really getting some dynamics in the car and just dancing through the left-right-left down into the river bottom and up over the hill with the most. satisfying. rhythm. I let out a whoop as we launched over the crest for the umpteenth time, careening onto the straightaway, then turned to my father in the right seat and with a huge grin on my face exclaimed, "I can't believe we get to do this together, this is the coolest!!"
So my advice is to grab your closest friends and get yourselves over to Belgium, stat. There's a lot of great tarmac there just waiting for you to lay down some rubber. If you're not convinced, watch some videos...starting with my lap below (so you're not too underwhelmed). ;)