A history of the Belgian Grand Prix 25 Aug 2004
A look back at Spa's long and eventful past
The Spa-Francorchamps circuit remains one of the best and most popular venues on the Formula One racing calendar. It is also one of the most historic, having hosted its first Grand Prix back in 1925, when the circuit stretched for over nine miles through the country roads of southern Belgium's Hautes-Fagnes region.
The track's use of unprotected public roads and the area's notoriously changeable weather meant Spa claimed its fair share of casualties. British driver Dick Seaman lost his life there in 1939 after crashing his Mercedes, which subsequently burst into flames.
Following that accident, Grand Prix cars did not return to Spa until after the war, on a slightly modified 14.3 kilometre (8.9 mile) version of the circuit. It went on to host a round of the first ever world championship in 1950, with the race being won by the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio.
Such was the difficulty of the track that the winners list from the following years reads like a who's who of Grand Prix greats. As well as Fangio, Guiseppe Farina, Alberto Ascari and Jack Brabham all claimed wins between 1951 and 1961.
In the 1960's it was Scotsman Jim Clark who became the master of Spa, despite his declared dislike of the circuit. The Lotus driver won four successive Belgian Grands Prix between 1962 and 1965.
However, danger was still never far away at Spa. In 1966 most of the field was eliminated after the heavens opened midway through the first lap. One of the heaviest accidents involved the BRM of Jackie Stewart, an experience which prompted the start of his committed campaign to improve safety in Formula One racing.
By 1970, rising speeds meant the risks at Spa seemed greater than ever. That year's winner, Mexican Pedro Rodriguez, averaged close to 150mph (240 kph) and the race was dropped for the following season.
The much shorter tracks of Nivelles and Zolder hosted the Belgian Grand Prix between them until 1983, when a heavily revised Spa circuit, cut to almost half its original distance, returned to the championship calendar.
Somehow the new track managed to retain much of the charisma of its longer predecessor. The key change was a new section linking the high-speed sector beyond Eau Rouge and the return leg of the old track at Blanchimont. The tight La Source hairpin which precedes the spectacular plunge down to Eau Rouge was also kept as part of the new 6.9 kilometre (4.3 mile) layout.
Despite the changes, Spa remained a hugely challenging circuit and only the very best have tended to win there. Alain Prost managed it twice, while the late Ayrton Senna triumphed on no less than five occasions, including four successive victories between 1988 and 1991. Ironically, it was partly Senna's death at Imola in 1994 that prompted the addition of a chicane to Spa's famous Eau Rouge corner for that year's race. It was subsequently removed after additional run-off areas were added for 1995.
Michael Schumacher scored his very first Grand Prix victory at Spa in 1992. He was also first past the flag in 1994, before disqualification handed a second successive Belgian win to Damon Hill, who went on to a third victory at the circuit with Jordan in 1998.
Heavy rain saw a 13-car pile-up at the start of that year's event, which prevented numerous drivers from competing. The poor conditions also led to Schumacher running into the rear of David Coulthard's McLaren in the heavy spray.
Schumacher has since racked up a total of six Spa successes. He lost out to the McLarens of Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen in 1999 and 2000 respectively, the latter race featuring Hakkinen's spectacular pass on Schumacher as both men lapped backmarker Ricardo Zonta.
However, Schumacher was back on top in 2001 with Ferrari after an incident-packed race, which had to be restarted over a reduced distance after a heavy accident involving the Prost of Luciano Burti.
Schumacher's 2001 Spa victory saw him surpass Alain Prost's all-time record for Grand Prix wins. A further triumph in 2002 then saw him become the first man to win ten races in a season and also the first driver to score six Belgian victories. The race was omitted from the calendar last year, but the German will have a chance to make it a magnificent seven (Belgian wins and drivers championships) at Spa when it returns this weekend.