A frenzied weekend of classic motorsport in the heart of the Ardennes.
Sunset at the Spa Classic at La Source
From afar, the rolling hills of East Belgium look innocuous enough, dense forested undulations which rise and fall as far as the eye can see. With the fleeting glances of Liege and Verviers in the rear-view mirror, it feels that the road ahead takes you far from civilization. But with one deliberate, eagerly anticipated autoroute junction, the road plunges down towards the valley, where the first traces of motorsport history become visible to the keenly-trained eye. A small road cuts through the centrer of the sleepy village of Francorchamps, descending through yet more trees, before the imposing sight of Raidillon, even more striking these days with the disarming red and yellow run-off, appears in the distance. Spa never fails to command a sense of nostalgia, as those who flock here in the current day, have memories etched into their consciousness of the great circuit in years gone by.
The Spa Classic, run yearly by the meticulous guys at Peter Auto, celebrates the racing history of this great circuit, forever intertwined with the glory days of endurance racing. From 50s and 60s icons, such as the Aston Martin DB3S, Austin-Healey 3000, Jaguar E-Type, and Shelby Daytona, through the innovative, raw and fascinating days of the late ’60s and ’70s prototypes, to the halcyon days of the Group C sportscars, culminating in the more modern Endurance racing legends. Over three heavily packed days, the sports cars of yesteryear were let loose from morning until nightfall to tackle the seven-kilometer-long strip of tarmac, sharply rising and falling through the forested landscape, machines which thrived under the challenges presented by the notoriously demanding track, driven furiously in period, and no less heroically or emphatically in the modern-day celebrations of times past.
Peter Auto, under the stewardship of Patrick Peter, continues to dominate the historic racing landscape on the continent. Organizers of Le Mans Classic, Dix Mille Tours and Tour Auto, amongst others, we see here an organization dedicated to not just participating in putting on historic racing events, but ensuring the progression, through innovation, and a canny knack for attracting huge grids and a pedigree of machinery which is second to none. It’s quite remarkable to attend an event, where a Bentley Speed 8 will sit in the pits, alongside a Porsche 911 GT1 Evo and a Peugeot 905 Evo 1 Bis, whilst temporary paddocks are set up to house countless Shelby Cobras, Porsche 935s, BMW 3.0 CSLs and Lister Jaguars. What is more remarkable, is that the ticket prices for the spectator defy the usual inflation. A three-day ticket for the event costing a mere 41 Euros, a staggering achievement, one which certainly seemed appreciated by the large number of multinational fans around the circuit for all three days of the event.
New to the Peter Auto series, was the debut run out for the Formula Legends 3.5l. With the Cosworth DFV era well represented by the Masters Historic series, the next generation of Formula One cars to be revived in a historic capacity, are the naturally aspirated 3.5 liter engined models, which competed between 1987 and 1994. Bringing a more dynamic, and sensory thrill to the spectator, these high revving engines would excel at a circuit such as Spa. The first presentation of this plateau saw limited entries, but still, spirited performances from Nick Padmore in the Arrows A11 and Christian Perrier in the Rial ARC2 gave a tantalising glimpse of the potential of this category. In the first year of Formula Legends 3.5, the cars will run again at the Dix Mille tours de Castellet, with hopefully an uptick in entrants, and the resurrection of these sublime single seaters for many years to come.
…and so to the racing. Spa, as is well documented, and cemented in the mind of anyone with more than a passing interest in motorsport, contemporary or historic, is a legendary track, not made famous by a single remarkable corner, but a culmination of the numerous challenges presented by the circuit. Whether the tight pinch point at La Source, the testing Eau Rouge through Raidillon section, the battle with the kerbs at Les Combes or the high speed balancing act through Blanchimont, the challenge is real and unrelenting, with the unpredictable Ardennes weather ever ready to throw a spanner in the works at any given moment.
Indeed, what was predominantly a dry and favorable weekend, still produced a couple of heavy downpours, adding to the excitement towards the end of the Group C race, as Philip Kadoorie negotiated the treacherous conditions on a set of worn slicks to take the victory in his Porsche 962C. The Porsche 2 liter Cup started under torrential rain, proving challenging for the first portion of the race. Seb Perez and George Gamble, undeterred by the inclement conditions, continued their scintillating qualifying form to romp home to first place.
As night falls, an even more magical presence arises in the Ardennes, as the challenge that Spa presents is magnified by the fading light and cooling track temperatures. Impossibly atmospheric, and hard to adequately describe, the cacophony of screaming engines accompanies a visual treat of blazing headlights, glowing brake discs and occasional surges of fire from the overworked exhausts. Two races ran under the cover of darkness, adding some of the most exhilarating racing I’ve experienced in a long time. The Sixties Endurance race was dominated by Shelby Cobras, with Mr John of B and Soheil Ahara claiming victory, ahead of Richard Cook and Harvey Stanley. Deep into the night, the first race for the Heritage Touring Cup saw victory for Maxime Guenat, in a Ford Capri RS3100 Cologne, leading two more Capris to the finish line in close quarters, ahead of a distant trio of BMW 3.0 CSLs.
I fear there are no adequate descriptors for the experience that one has watching fields of this quality at a circuit as revered at Spa. Peter Auto must be congratulated on the manner in which they continue to deliver historic racing events across Europe with such pedigree and panache. Next up for Peter Auto is the Grand Prix de l’Age d’Or at Dijon Prenois in a couple of weeks, before anticipation of Le Mans Classic in the 100th year of the event at La Sarthe.