Return to Home Page Click here to discover more about the MG EX264 The latest news from AD Motorsport and RML Race Reports and Galleries Team History and Personnel Driver Profiles Media Information and Log-in Useful Links Team sponsors and how to become one Merchandise and Downloads
Click here to view previous raceClick here to move on to next race

Le Mans Series 2008
Round 3. Spa 1000 Kilometres. May 9th - 11th 2008

Weekend Preview

A Weekend in the Ardennes

It was roughly this time of year – late Spring or early Summer in the Ardennes – some eighty-eight years ago. The mountains were a deep, rich green, flushed by the fresh new growth of thousands of pine trees. A light mist drifted through the valleys, and two men were having breakfast in what was then called the Hotel des Bruyeres. Known today, somewhat prosaically, as the Francorchamps Racing Hotel, the building stood at the heart of the village of Francorchamps, alongside the main road to the famous town of Spa. One of the men was Jules de Thier, a newspaper proprietor, and the other was Henri Langlois van Ophem, a senior member of the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium. Between them they were hatching a plan for an ambitious new motor racing circuit.

It was a time when all the world’s most successful circuits still followed public roads, and the route under discussion had the advantage of several very long straights, some challenging high-speed corners, and spectacular scenery. It was also within an area that had long demonstrated a ready enthusiasm for the concept of motorsport, and short-course road races and concours d’elegance had been staged in Spa as early as 1896. The first city-to-city race, between Spa and Brussels, had followed in 1898, and had given rise to the Circuit des Ardennes – a mammoth 53 mile round trip between the towns of Bastogne, Longlier and Habay-la-Neuve. The closest any of these had come to Francorchamps was a race in 1907, which ran between Spa and Luxembourg, and finished at Malchamps, just north of the current circuit. Now, in 1920, de Their and van Ophem were proposing a new 15 kilometre, 9.3 mile circuit that would link the three communities of Malmedy, Stavelot and Francorchamps.

The first event was scheduled for the following year, but things didn’t get off to a very auspicious beginning. There were so few entries that the inaugural car race was cancelled, but a motorcycle race went ahead as planned, and this proved sufficiently successful that the first car race was re-arranged for 1922.

The route was a triumph. A year after the Le Mans 24 Hours was first run, the Spa 24 Hours was introduced, and the Belgian Grand Prix followed in 1925. Even by the standards of the day, Francorchamps was a fast circuit, and it was soon to get faster still. The tortuous Virage de l’Ancienne Douane that had once straddled the national border and now curled through the valley just south of La Source was bypassed in 1939 by a new, faster and more challenging series of left-right-left bends. Called Eau Rouge after the rusty colour of the streamwater that trickled through the valley, a legend was created, and with it the future of the Francorchamps circuit was assured.

For more than fifty years the circuit remained largely unaltered, and some eighteen Grand Prix were held there between 1925 and 1970. (Click on the map for an enlargement.) In addition to the daunting prospect of Eau Rouge, the route also included the notorious Masta Kink – a blisteringly quick left-right chicane situated in the middle of two of the fastest straights in motorsport. It took nerves of steel to get it right, and an error either way could send the unwary into stone walls or the sides of houses. It was this, combined with an accident involving Jackie Stewart in 1966 (which saw him end up in the cellar of one of those houses) that led to a boycott of the Francorchamps circuit by Formula 1 in 1970.

This was a serious loss to the track’s prestige, and for some years the Belgian Grand Prix alternated between the circuits at Zolder and Nivelles, but in 1979 the revised Spa-Francorchamps circuit was unveiled. Halved in length to just 7 kilometres, the new circuit was purpose-built for racing. Several sections still followed public roads when the track wasn’t in use, including Eau Rouge and the run up to Les Combes, but the new stretch from there to Stavelo was out-and-out racetrack. Formula 1 returned in 1983, and apart from three years, the Belgian Grand Prix has been staged at Spa ever since.

The route of the old circuit can still be traced, although the Masta Kink is much altered – it was even considered too dangerous for road use! (see photo right by Mattijs Diepraam ) The lap record for the 14 kilometre route was set by Henri Pescarolo in an F1 Matra at an average speed of 160 miles an hour (262 kph) and will never be beaten.

There have been some minor adjustments to the new circuit since 1979, with a subtle re-profiling of Eau Rouge in 2002 that some drivers suggest now makes the corner too easy, but most still find sufficiently awesome none the less. The famous Bus Stop, first introduced in 1981 to placate Formula 1, was altered in 2004, and the replaced completely in 2007, and the hairpin at La Source was resurfaced and given extended run-off at the same time. This is clearly visible from the aerial shot below, one of a series added recently to the official circuit website.

Although well known as home to the Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps has long been associated with endurance racing and sportscars. The Spa 24 Hours is only a year younger than the Le Mans 24 Hours, but events over shorter distances were a regular feature of the calendar from the 1930s onwards. The annual 500 kms was incorporated into the World Sportscar Championship from 1963, and then was lengthened to 1000 kilometres from 1966, matching the 1000 kilometre races staged at the Nurburgring and at Monza. The poster, left, is from the 1970 event.

The Spa race was shortened, and then dropped – once again for safety reasons - from 1975 onwards, but resumed in 1982 following the opening of the new circuit. With the decline of the WSC, the Spa 1000 kms disappeared again after 1990, but was resurrected in 2003 as one of the headline events of the Le Mans Endurance Series.

The LMES, and subsequently the Le Mans Series, has always been envisaged as representing a return to the true heritage of endurance motorsport. Everything about the series is intended to embody the best of sportscar and GT racing, with big grids, top manufacturers, the most talented drivers and, of course, the best circuits. All races are run over 1000 kilometres or six hours, and the three circuits most deeply associated with the history of 1000 kilometre events form the core of the series’ calendar. To those have been added races in the UK – at Silverstone and Donington Park, and in Spain – at Barcelona, Valencia and Jarama. Attempts to introduce races elsewhere, such as Turkey and Brazil, have so far proved less popular, but the highlight of the year remains, in many eyes, the 1000 Kilometres at Spa-Francorchamps.

In 2007 Mike Newton and Thomas Erdos drove the RML AD Group’s MG Lola EX264 to an historic third place overall at Spa. It was the first time that a second-category entry had finished on the overall podium in Europe. Much has changed in the 12 months since then, and while Mike and Tommy now have a revised version of the MG, designated the EX265, they also face far stiffer opposition from a whole raft of new entries. Not just new cars, in the form of the Porsche RS Spyder and the Embassy WF01 Zytek, but also new teams and very professional driver line-ups.

While a repeat of their 2007 performance is not impossible, the chances are far slimmer. Good runs in the first two rounds of the 2008 championship have netted RML’s drivers a brace of fourth-position finishes and a good points tally. The result in Monza last time out was purely on merit, but to run faultlessly from lights to flag and still only secure fourth does suggest that it may take an exceptional race from the RML-prepared machine to do better – either that or misfortune for the team’s rivals. The new XP-21 engine has yet to reveal its full potential, although the much-developed MG chassis has already demonstrated phenomenal road-holding and handling – vital for the Spa circuit. First practice on Friday will be the first chance to see what this year’s Spa 1000 Kilometres holds in store for RML.

In LMP1, of course, it will be a straight shoot-out between Peugeot and Audi. The gutsy diesel powered prototypes will relish the Spa inclines and high-speed corners, although the Lola Aston Martin has demonstrated an ability to set fast times.

The coupé aside, Audi has a serious point to prove, and with Peugeot crowing in the national press about the two-nil scoreline so far this season, expect the R10s to be resolute as they race so close to home. It should be, as always, a fascinating battle. A race at Spa could be nothing else.

Once again, the race will be broadcast live by Radio Le Mans - click the link below - and TV coverage will be live on Motors TV:

Motors TV
Sun 11:05 - 14:00 - Preview/start of the Spa 1000 kms
Sun 15:00 - Live coverage through to the finish.
Tues 13:05 & 18:55 - Highlights

Thurs 15:05 & 17:10 - Highlights


Click here for live feed to RLM
Live radio coverage from John Hindhaugh, Graham Tyler, Graham Goodwin and others.