F1’s five-week summer break comes to an end and Lotus heads to the Ardennes, intent on cashing in on its potential and driving away with its first victory of the year. Kimi Räikkönen has won here four times before, and is out to make it five.
Spa Francorchamps is everything a grand prix track should be – fast, fearsome and full of atmosphere. History can be felt everywhere here, and the circuit retains close links with a road-racing past – although the 14.9km lap has been pruned to 7km. Nevertheless, the terrain is the same, and it’s that undulating asphalt, ploughing through dense forest, that defines its character.
Driving through the grey-stone village down to the circuit, the place seems filled with the ghosts of racers past. While other circuits of similar vintage have sprouted technology parks, themed shopping malls and corporate hotels, Francorchamps looks just as it did when John Frankenheimer arrived with his film crew in 1966.
For the drivers, Spa-Francorchamps is a test, and for the strategists, it’s a nightmare - the weather in the Ardennes is wildly unpredictable. It can be bone dry at the far side of the circuit, and flooded in the pits.
For petrolheads, Spa is as big a draw as Le Mans and Indianapolis, and thousands of caravans from every corner of Europe descend on this fabulous circuit.
Local start time: 14:00
Number of laps: 44
Circuit length: 7.004 km
Race distance: 308.052 km
Lap record: Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren, 2004), 1m45.108
Kimi Räikkönen: “I bet every driver likes Spa. For me it is the greatest racing circuit in the world. It is my favourite place. I’ve liked it since my first ever visit there in 2000 with Formula Renault. Spa offers very challenging high-speed corners and you need to get the right set-up for the car. As we’ve seen so many times this year, a good grid position is extremely important and it could be decisive at Spa too. Everybody knows it. It’s crucial to have a strong car aerodynamically to tackle those fast corners. It’s a long lap and to get a fast time you really need to maintain good rhythm.
Romain Grosjean: “What a track; it’s fantastic! A superb rollercoaster of a circuit, then there’s the added bonus that they speak French meaning it’s another home race for me after Monaco and Canada. It’s going to be good. I hope the upgrades to the car are going to make the difference. If we’d had the pace we displayed at Budapest on a more normal track with better places to overtake we could have taken the win. Spa is a more regular circuit with good passing opportunities, so let’s see what happens.”
The Casino de Spa was built in 1763 and is the oldest in the world. Roulette, black-jack, slot machines and Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments are all played here, amidst esteemed company and sumptuous surroundings. Agatha Christie’s famed detective, Hercule Poirot, was said to have been born in Spa, and that he learned to play the tables here in his youth, and pick out the bluffers.
It would be wrong to leave Spa without actually visiting one. Known as the ‘Café of Europe’ because of its springs, Spa’s most famous baths can be found at the Thermes de Spa complex, which has traditional pools and a range of massage treatments.
Le Roannay in Francorchamps is the accommodation of choice for many team principals, and if you book ahead you can join them in the hostellerie’s restaurant, which serves up a gastronomic feast of traditionally French flavours. The wine list is extensive and there are 10,000 bottles in the cellar.
If you don’t get in there, or if the pricey bring tears to your eyes, try the Café Lequet in Liege, the most happening place close to Spa. The boulet-frites – meatballs and chips – are an institution, and the folksy ambience rewards the trip. If the owner likes the look of you, he will pull up a chair and drink beers with you. If he doesn’t, you probably won’t get your meatballs. Things are pretty straightforward here.
Afterwards, check out Au Jardin des Olivettes. Among the tree-lined streets of Liège’s Outremeuse district you’ll find this café chantant – literally a ‘singing café’. The bar is famed for musicians playing Belgian and French classics on an old piano. There’s a traditional wooden bar and a small selection of premium Belgian beers. The place doesn’t close until dawn.
When you think Belgium, you think beer. But Liège has its own local spirit, peket, which is similar to gin. The Maison du Peket is the best place to try it – it’s largely a student bar but it’s also frequented by the rich and famous. There is a range of peket here, which may be mixed with fruit juice or set alight on the bar. The owner warns that many who enter his house never escape – one for post race celebrations.
Thirty minutes from Spa, the Cistercian abbey Val-Dieu has been making beer since 1216. There are three main beers – blonde, brune and triple. Tours can be made of the brewery, and you always get a little tipple (and tipsy) at the end of the visit.