The original Spa-Francorchamps circuit was first used for car racing in 1922, and thus the legendary Belgian venue has logged nearly a century of history.
In fact the roots of motor sport in the local area stretch back as far as an event in the town of Spa itself in 1896. In 1902 the Ardennes area saw the first circuit race, as in laps of a continuous course rather than from point to point.
In 1920 the track that would become famous was first conceived. Essentially it was a triangle of public roads connecting the towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. A motorcycle race was held in August 1921, and the first car event the following year.
A 24 hour race for production cars was introduced in 1924, and the first proper Belgian GP took place in July 1925.
Spa soon established a reputation for extremely high speeds, and with that came danger, as trees and telegraph poles lined the track. Rain was frequent, and often parts of the track could be dry, and others wet. In 1939 top British driver Dick Seaman lost his life when he crashed his Mercedes. Sadly there were to be many more tragedies over the decades.
Spa joined the first World Championship in 1950, and the track was a regular part of the schedule for the next two decades. Juan Manuel Fangio triumphed three times, while Jim Clark hated the place, but was a four-time winner.
After the 1970 race the track was deemed too dangerous for contemporary F1 cars, although the equally fast Group 6 sportscars raced there as late as 1975. By then it was clear that it was time for change, and in 1979 a revised circuit emerged, essentially using a twisting new section of road that by-passed much of the original, halving its length from 14.0 to 6.9kms
Fortunately the new layout kept much of the character of the old version, and the run from Blanchimont, via La Source, Eau Rouge and the Kemmel Straight, remained intact.
F1 finally returned in 1983, and the track soon became a favourite with drivers and fans alike, and as in the past rain often added to the drama. Ayrton Senna won five times, while Michael Schumacher, who made his F1 debut at Spa in 1991, scored six victories at the track.
The history of women at Spa
The 1958 Belgian GP saw history made when Maria Teresa de Filippis became the first women to start a World Championship race – and it’s a measure of that remarkable achievement that in the 63 years since only one other woman, Lella Lombardi, has successfully followed in her footsteps.
De Fillipis made her first F1 start with her Maserati 250F in the non-championship race at Syracuse in April ‘58, finishing fifth in a race of high attrition. She then failed to qualify in Monaco, before making her third appearance at Spa in June. There was no pressure on qualifying times, and she duly lined up 19th and last. In the race she kept out of trouble, eventually finishing 10th.
Spa is also one of the few tracks where a woman started an FIA F3000 race, with France’s Cathy Muller taking to the grid in 1986.
Many women have competed in the Spa 24 Hours classic over the decades. One notable early achievement was that of the French pairing of Yvonne Simon and Germaine Rouault. In 1949 they finished 11th overall, winning not just the Coupe de Dames but also the 2.0-4.0-litre touring car class.
Almost half a century later in 1996 the trio of Yolanda Surer, Florence Duez and Kathy Rafanelli took their BMW M3 to fourth overall and victory in the Group N category.
Vanina Ickx was a regular 24 Hour contender, making her first appearance in 1996. Two years later she shared a Renault Megane with her legendary father Jacky, who came out of retirement for the occasion.
Another top Belgian racer who made multiple appearances in the 24 Hours was Christine Beckers. She was a regular competitor from 1967 until 1980, logging a best result of seventh in 1973 sharing an Opel with Patrick Neve, who would become an F1 driver just three years later.
Special mention must be made of another Belgian who raced extensively at Spa in the 1960s and 70s. Yvette Fontaine made her name in rallying before focussing on circuit racing. She was a regular frontrunner in the Belgian touring car championship, winning it outright in 1969 at the age of just 22.
In 1975 she finished second overall in the 24 Hours, sharing a BMW CSL with the mysterious “Pedro”. She retired from racing the following year, and remains largely forgotten today.
Given its busy role on the international schedule it’s perhaps no surprise that many current W Series drivers have raced at Spa. Beitske Visser’s appearances include the Renault 3.5 races in 2014, 1015 and 2016, which saw her achieve a best result of seventh in the latter year. In 2020 she finished sixth in the ELMS race, sharing with Tatiana Calderon, who knew the track well from GP3.
Alice Powell finished 10th in GP3 in 2012, a race that featured Vicky Piria. The Italian also raced at Spa in Abarth Euro in 2011, and Euroformula Open in 2013.
Jamie Chadwick raced an Aston Martin at Spa in British GTs in both 2015 and 2016, returning in BRDC F3 in 2017 (when she took sixth place) and 2018 (fifth).
Abbie Eaton raced a Maserati in the 2016 British GT event, while Sarah Moore took part in the LMP3 UK Cup in 2017, taking a second place. Fabienne Wohlwend has raced several times at Spa in the Ferrari Europe Challenge, winning a race outright in 2018.