Project CARS 2 will be at Spa Francorchamps this weekend for the premier GT3 race of the year, the Total 24 Hours of Spa. The Belgian Audi Club Team WRT will run two-time Spa 24 Hour winner, and Project CARS handling consultant, René Rast in the Project CARS 2-bound Audi R8 LMS for this year’s race.
Rast has trained for the event using the Project CARS 2 Spa track and Audi, and he is one of the favourites to clinch his third win at the prestigious 24 Hour event that can trace its roots all the way back to 1924.
With over 40 teams, 60 cars, and almost 200 drivers running a host of Project CARS 2-bound GT3 machinery from Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, BMW, Porsche, Audi, and more, the Spa 24 Hours is without doubt the main event on the world GT3 calendar, with an unrivalled history and pedigree.
That rich and sometimes dark heritage was built on the back of the Old Spa, a track that was lost to posterity back in 1979. That track, too, will come to Project CARS 2 in all its terrifying glory, lovingly restored by a team of passionate specialists using reams of period-specific images and data to recreate what was, for many, the greatest challenge in motorsport history. It was also the track that gave birth to the safety movement that changed the very face of motorsport.
How Spa terrified the legends of motorsport
The Romans, in the first century, came to Spa to “take the waters”, and then everyone forgot about it until the 1700s when Spa would be rediscovered and gift the world both the word and the tradition. That was also the time when Spa legalised gambling—the first town in Europe to do so. No coincidence, then, that this was where the first horse races in Europe took place, and once the four-legged beasts were replaced by mechanical ones in the late 1800s, gambling took on a whole new, sinister face as drivers swapped horses for horsepower and mortality for fame and fortune.
Drivers have been terrified by this track ever since. It gained notoriety as a true test of Formula 1 drivers and machinery in the ’60s, but Spa’s true menace has always been stroked by the 24 Hour runners racing through nights thick with threat. The 1972 race, in particular, was so gruesome it remains the story old timers tell their kids to explain just how dangerous motor racing was ‘back in the day’.
The Old Spa was a nasty track that never gave an inch; it wasn’t like the ’Ring where a driver could hope, one day, to conquer its secrets. Spa had no secrets. The challenge was not to conquer the track—a triangle that headed into bucolic woods and rolling hills connecting three time-soaked villages—but to conquer the fear. The fear of 180mph turns, the fear of speed—unrelenting, remorseless, merciless speed at all-but-full-throttle in the certain knowledge that one mistake, one miscalculation, one mechanical breakage was all that stood between survival and whatever fate the gods had ordained.
The Old Spa was double the size of the current track, now generally regarded as the most challenging circuit on the current Formula 1 calendar: every year in the build-up to the grand prix, the legendary Spa is brought up, but that’s like comparing the flu to the bubonic plague. The Old Spa had not one, but two of the most terrifying corners ever conceived—Le Raidillon, and the Masta Kink. Two of the most dangerous, chilling corners in the history of motorsport, both separated by just five kilometres. In between them lay the right-hander at Burnenville, and only at a place like Spa would that infamous turn play second fiddle.
The legends hated this place. Stewart despised it. Serial winner Jim Clark was disgusted by it. John Surtees noted, “One lap was so long that you could have three types of weather … with the grid on the downhill, and with Eau Rouge the first turn which always made you focus.”
Stewart and Clark both had good reasons to loathe Spa. Clark, back in 1960, in his second-ever Formula 1 race, was involved in what remains the darkest day in the history of British motorsports. He would never forget that race; the fact that he would go on to become the most winning driver at the Old Spa— 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965—is what makes Clark, for many, the greatest driver of them all.
But Spa earnt its sinister reputation in the 24 Hour races more than F1. The 24 Hour race was always a disturbing event; blighted by mist, fog, rain, even sleet, and the ever-present spectre of tragedy, the challenge for drivers was immense; maximum speed broken up only by fast, sweeping turns, none of which were quite flat, all of which had no barriers, and as Jackie Oliver remembers, “If you went off, you just didn’t know what you were going to hit.”
In 1966, Jackie Stewart got a first-hand lesson in what you could hit when he went off at the Masta Kink: he hit a telegraph pole, then a gazebo, then a farmhouse. The movie Grand Prix was shot at Spa in 1966 when half the field failed to get through the first lap.
“We just drove in a wall of water, as it can only rain in southern Belgium,” Stewart recalled years later. His shunt saw him trapped in his BRM. “The gas tank was torn and the gasoline literally sloshed back and forth in the monocoque. The instrument board was later found 200 meters down the road, but the fuel pump was still working. I was trapped.”
Stewart, with a broken shoulder and cracked ribs, could do nothing but lie in a bath of toxic fuel and wait. With no marshals or track safety workers, it was fellow drivers Graham Hill and Bob Bobdurant who finally came to Stewart’s aid. Eventually Stewart was brought into the medical centre on the back of an old pickup truck and abandoned on the floor with cigarettes and litter all about him. When it became apparent the doctor could do little to help, he was thrown into the back of an ambulance which promptly got lost in the Ardennes.
“After Spa,” Stewart said, “I realized how dangerous it all was. That’s when I decided to do something to make the sport safer.”
That something would change the face of motorsport forever.
Spa was the catalyst—the advertisement for everything that was wrong with motorsport; too fast, too dangerous, and nothing preventing drivers from being flung off the road into barbed wire, poles, houses, ditches, ravines, all with inevitable and often deadly outcomes.
Back then, though, it was assumed motorsport was dangerous, and drivers were mostly blasé about it all. But the Old Spa was never a place to be trifled with. Drivers hated it because at Spa, there was no hiding—at that speed, a slight confidence lift, a moment’s hesitation, just a wheel-off at the exit of any of the turns didn’t cost a tenth or two—it cost a second and more down those endless straights where you’d carry whatever you lost at the exit for up to a full minute.
A driver either had the guts to keep the boot in through the Masta Kink, either had the courage to get all light and loose through Le Raidillon, or he came around seconds down on the opposition, and no-one would have any doubt about the cause of that.
Drivers were frightened of the Old Spa because here, like no other place, any off was always the ‘big one’. A driver was either on the limit of fear, or nowhere at all.
Nowhere to hide at the fastest open road circuit in the world
The Old Spa chronicles the history of motorsport. They were running races here through the Ardennes as early as 1896; in 1902, locals sealed off the roads and created the world’s first public-road race track. That changed year-on-year, with one configuration running over 100kms. A local Liège-based newspaper named Le Meuse was the first big sponsor and its owner, Jules de Their, along with driver Henri Langlpois van Ophem, and Baron Joseph de Crawhez (then mayor of the small town of Spa), conceived the final layout late one afternoon in 1919 in the bar to the Hotel des Bruyères in the village of Francorchamps, where the three men, settling on the idea of a motor race to bring tourism back to the war-ravaged area, traced a simple triangle using local roads that connected Francorchamps to Malmédy to Stavelot.
And so the most frightening track in world motorsport was born.
Racing started in 1922, and by 1924, a year after Le Mans, Spa hosted its own 24 Hour race. The 24 Hours at Spa went on to become synonymous with endurance cars and touring cars before becoming, today, one of the world’s most prestigious GT3 races.
The original layout was fast, and it would change little over the years. What changes there were, were designed to make Spa even faster. In 1939, the slow uphill bend at Ancienne Douane (the old customs office) that crossed over a small stream named Eau Rouge was replaced by a fearsome right-hand sweep that charged up the hill. Named Le Raidillon (literal translation meaning “steep path”), today it is better known as “Eau Rouge” (though historians and locals are always quick to point out the error of that).
Up the hill, the Kemmel straight, which is still used to this day, was also straightened. Then in 1947, after World War II had come to a close, the tight bend entering Stavelot was replaced by a banked sweeper, and the Malmedy Chicane was straightened. And that, until 1970—when safety fears meant Spa got Armco all the way around at the same time as Le Mans, this after the track was boycotted (led by Jackie Stewart) by Formula 1 the year before—is the track on which you will be bringing your vintage-era machinery to play.
A lap of the Old Spa
The Old Spa takes a short time to learn. The old start-finish line was down the hill from La Source (with the pits, sans a pit wall until the 1960s, on the right). From there you charged down into Eau Rouge, then up the hill through Le Raidillon, taking as much speed as you dared. Survive that, and you’re into the Kemmel and through the super-fast left at Haut de la Cote. You’re at the highest point of the track here as you go into the downhill Burnenville.
Just before the 4km mark, there is the right-hander past Malmedy, and then the track begins to flow beside the Eau Rouge river down the Masta Straight. Three kilometres long, the straight is broken up half-way—between kilometres five and six—by the Masta Kink.
“The most difficult corner in the world of motor racing that I have ever competed in,” is how Jackie Stewart described it on the The Flying Lap with Peter Windsor podcast. “Eau Rouge is the one everyone boasts about or are fearful about now, but compared to the old Masta—not in the same class. To thread the needle through there, whether in a 1.5 litre or 3-litre car … that was something … that was … you really knew you’d done it when you did that, it was the biggest challenge, to my mind.”
Thread the needle through the kink, and you’re headed toward the fast right-hand sweep through Stavelot. Now you’re headed uphill, still following the Eau Rouge through a series of fast kinks known as La Carriere before the insanely quick Blanchimont takes you onto the Seaman Straight and finally, for the first time, you’ll need to stand on the brakes at La Source.
In 1970, the track hosted one more Formula 1 race, but the safety changes were ruled inadequate by Stewart, and by the time the F1 circus came back, in 1983, Burnenville, Masta, and La Carriere had been lost to history. Stewart was right about the Old Spa, as events in 1972, 1973, and 1975 in the 24 Hour races would show—all those races suffered multiple fatalities. As a result, major series abandoned the track at the tail-end of the 1970s—cars were just too quick by then, with Henri Pescarolo in his Matra, at the 1973 Spa 1000 km World Sportscar Championship race, lapping at an average speed of 262kmh (163mph).
The 24 Hour race, meanwhile, no matter whether it was part of the European Touring Car Championship from the 1960s through the mid-1980s, or sportscars in the 1950s, or endurance cars in the early 1980s, no matter if it was the first race for the AMG “Red Pig” or another win for the legendary Ford Capris or the current blue riband event for GT3s, remains one of the world’s greatest events. And no matter whether you’re racing 24 Hours on the old or the new Spa, both will come with Project CARS 2, and both will feature LiveTrack 3.0. Weather has always been part of the challenge at Spa, and you will be challenged as you race up through Le Raidillon with the rain streaming down the hill and the apex hidden in a fog bank.
In 1979, the decision was made to consign the Old Spa to memory, and a new track was built. All that was left were the tales of horror-filled nights, and the legends who came here and triumphed.
Until now, that is, because come September 22, 2017, you will finally be able to discover the true glory of the track many consider the greatest motorsport challenge ever devised. And with the current Spa tested and used by René Rast in his preparation for the race he hopes to win yet again, you won’t find a more authentic track in which to test your skills.
Do you have what it takes to become a legend?