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Race Day : August 24th 1997

44th Belgium Grand Prix

Ferrari should keep the wolves from the door.

Spa - Francorchamps August 24th 1997


"It’s a circuit that the drivers love because it enables them to demonstrate their abilities very effectively." Ken Tyrrell, Tyrrell Racing Organisation


"There is no other corner in the world like Eau Rouge ... no matter how many times you drive it, you always get that tingle of pleasure that is part of what motor racing is all about." Ferrari driver, Michael Schumacher


The circuit at Spa is thought by many drivers to be the finest in the F1 calendar. ‘A drivers circuit’ they say, a track to make you feel like a real racer. Consisting partly of public road and purpose built track, it was the inspiration of one Jules de Their who mapped out the original 14.08Km course on the country roads that run through the hills and thick woods of the Ardennes in 1924.

Stewart Technical director Alan Jenkins waxed lyrical about Spa recently. "You could call Spa the fastest street track in the world. Spa has an atmosphere, a feel all of its own: It’s one of those great motor racing places where the history is engraved on the tarmac and in the whole surroundings. In a sense, there would be even greater satisfaction to being competitive at Spa than anywhere else, precisely because of the stresses such a great circuit places not only on the aerodynamics and engineering of the car but on the skills of the driver."

Its History has been incident filled and not without tragedy. Stefan Bellof the World Sports car champion was killed in 1984 at the Spa 1000 after bottoming out at Eau Rouge, probably the most demanding piece of track anywhere on the current F1 calendar. Serious injuries for Stirling Moss and the deaths of two Drivers in the same Grand prix sounded the death knell for the old circuit and like the Nurburgring, it fell out of favour. The last Grand Prix on the old circuit was in 1970. Three further fatal casualties during the 24 Hr endurance race in 1973, have added to Spa’s awesome reputation as a circuit that does not suffer fools gladly.

After short stints at both Nivelles, near Brussels and Zolder, racing recommenced there in 1983 after extensive modernisation and the addition of a new section bridging the old course at Malmedy and Stavelot, drastically shortening the track to 6.96Km. Spa has been the regular home to F1 since 1985.

The Ardennes area is notorious for its fickle weather and as the clouds sweep through the valleys of these verdant hills, across the town of Spa to the north, the circuit can change to a lake in the time it takes to do a lap.

The race last year saw the championship gap narrow as Jacques Villeneuve took second place to Michael Schumacher and, Damon Hill driving the spar car, finish in 5th place after bungled radio communications forced him to abort his pit stop during a ‘yellow flag’ incident involving Jos Verstappen’s TWR Arrows. Hill was forced to weave his way back out onto the circuit through the bollards and pit a lap later forcing him down to 13th position behind the gaggle of cars following the pace car. Schumacher scraped past Villeneuve as the Canadian was exiting the pit-lane after his final stop and went on to take the all important ten points from Villeneuve so lessening the severity of Hill’s points deficit.

The McLarens did well also with David Coulthard making one of his usual quick getaways and briefly leading the race during the pit stops. He went off 5 laps from the end leaving his team mate Mika Hakinnen to take third place.

Ferrari has the best Belgium Grand Prix record, having won the race nine times and in the heady days of 1961 when more than two cars were permitted to compete, they took a definitive 1, 2, 3, 4, Phil Hill winning from pole position ahead of Wolfgang Von Trips. In recent years with the ‘Schumacher factor’, the statistics become even further entwined. 1991 saw the German drive his first ever Grand Prix, when Eddie Jordan called him in desperation at his home in Karpen, Germany, only 75 miles to the South. Jordan’s regular driver, Bertrand Gachot, had just been arrested for spraying mace into the face of a London cabby that he had taken a dislike to. The following year he took his first ever GP win in a Benetton-Ford. Amid all the knee jerk reactions and rulings that the FIA passed In 1994, the year that Ayrton Senna died, Schumacher won the race again but was disqualified for undue wear on the ‘plank’ that all cars were forced to wear beneath the chassis to reduce ‘ground effect’. With the reliability and turn of power that Ferrari have been exhibiting this year, fortune could fall to the Scuderia yet again.

After Hill’s fantastic showing at the Hungaroring recently, it will of necessity, be back to reality for the TWR team. With down force at a minimum and speed and perfect balance a priority, The underpowered Arrows Yamaha will be totally out of its depth, but no doubt the re-found experience of a podium finish and the recently announced pregnancy of wife Georgie, could spur Hill on to give us a great performance, if not a winning one.

The Jordan Peugeot’s always do well where there are long periods of time spent at full throttle and high engine speed. Current wunderkind Giancarlo Fisichella having only raced in the ITC championships at the circuit said. "I think Spa is possibly the best circuit in the world. It made a big impression on me when I raced for Peugeot earlier this year. Eau Rouge and Raidillon must be two of the most difficult corners made even harder by the very long straight which follows them." Team mate Ralf Schumacher said of Spa, "I hope not to be disappointed when I race at Spa in Formula 1, but I think I will feel more comfortable than I did in the GTI AMG Mercedes last year, because I will be driving levels of downforce and speed which I am more used to." Lets hope so too for Eddie Jordan’s sake.

If it rains - and there is statistically a fifty percent chance - then the race could be anybody’s. Jacques Villeneuve is now knocking on the door of Schumacher’s slender lead and bar any stupid pit errors, he could give the Ferrari a close run battle. However, with the second ‘light’ chassis prepared for the current leader, Ferrari seem to have the advantage. This is Schumacher’s ‘chosen’ circuit and ‘home’ race after all. "We should be competitive in our Ferraris." He said this week, "... and my brother Ralf, will gain a special experience on a great track."

There are more overtaking places than other circuits, so the bravehearts that take their bottle to the limit at Spa-Francorchamps, will surely get the glory. There is never a dull race at Spa but it is inevitable that with such a power circuit, the wolves that run at the head of the pack have the greatest chance of catching their prey.


Chris Richardson


1997 Championship Contents

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