Spa Reflections - by Steven Griffin
“A1 closed” read the illuminated sign on the M20 as we pulled up the hill out of Dover. The prospect of an extra 50 miles to add to the long tow to Beverley made me wonder if the trip had been worth it. Several nanoseconds later the decision was an emphatic ‘yes’.
The circuit of Spa-Francorchamps was in a pretty shambolic state by the time we did our second race of the weekend on Sunday afternoon. The flat out run up the Kemel Straight and the balls-to-the wall approach to Blanchimont had taken a severe toll on some of the elderly racing cars running at the Spa Summer Classic. Many of the vehicles partcipating were over forty years old, some even older. The long full throttle runs had finished off a few motors, the evidence was all around the circuit in the form of very slippery oil. It is said that during the boom years that Spain imported more than half of the cement produced in Europe, well in 2013 the other half was down on the track at Francorchamps. The only moment of racing anxiety I had during the meeting was a blind approach through a wall of brown, acrid dust on the first lap run down to the chicane. I don’t like blind driving. I had no idea who or what was in that ball of dust, fortunately it cleared and there was nobody. The scene was very different during our first practice session, I arrived at the same point to be greeted by a gearbox and rear suspension lying in the road, the remainder of the car sitting against the wall, tyres and wheels not where they should have been. Grass and mud were everywhere as my eyes searched for the driver. I had already reached to remove my straps, for some silly reason I thought if the driver was hurt I might be able to help, the tale of Jackie Stewart’s crash at Spa and how he was tended to by a pair of nuns came to my head. There were no nuns visible and I saw a rather wobbly Kevin Mason stagger from the car. He looked like he would race another day, we were all relieved.
I had decided to spare Mrs Griffin the thrill of spending three days and nights living in the paddock. For logistic reasons we borrowed a trailer and came via Rotterdam, dropped the car in the paddock and checked into a hotel in Malmedy. The Hotel Laforge is run by an impressively eccentric lady who is sober most of the time. The room was new and perfect, judging by the UK cars outside it is a favourite with les pilotes anglais. Terry Clark was in the room next to us ( I hope we weren’t too noisy Terry). I suggested that Mrs Griffin should check out the shops and restaurants whilst I unpacked the car in torrential Ardennes rain. En route back to the circuit along the old track I marvelled at what it must have been like to take the Masta Kink flat in top driving a Porsche 917 in the rain. The speed limit is currently 70 kph which seemed quite fast enough in the tempest we suffered on Thursday. I think the average speed for the Grand Prix circuit in the 60s was over 160mph. I suppose they must have had a different attitude to death in those days. I remember speaking to an elderly racer who pointed out to me that driving a racing car was no more dangerous than flying a Lancaster bomber and the benefit of the racing car was that nobody was shooting at you. Different times, great men.
A major innovation of at least discovery for us was the Paddock Brasserie. Situated on the top of the pit complex this modern, clean and well situated palace of convenience was a revelation, the view afforded to its clients must be one of the best in modern motor racing. The only part of the circuit not visible from the balcony is the run up Kemmel Straight. A ticket there for the Grand Prix would be marvellous for anyone who could afford it.
Malmedy is a lovely town. We thought that the buildings looked suspiciously new. A visit to the town museum explained this anomaly. We viewed photographs of the town in 1944. Our well-travelled friends (as my French colleagues call the Germans) had comprehensively modified the area during the second war. Only the cathedral and a small monument in the town square were standing at the end of hostilities. Unlike the city of Hull which still has gaps between building care of the Luftwaffe the people of Malmedy have rebuilt their town in the most pleasing and interesting manner. Beautiful houses abound.
Malmedy managed to be on both sides in the two great European conflicts of the last century. In 1914 it found itself part of Prussia, hence was allied to the Kaiser, by 1939 it was Belgium and on ‘our’ side. Not that any of this mattered much as it was annexed immediately by the Axis powers soon after the Herr Hitler decide to go walkabout in Central Europe.
The proximity to the Fatherland meant that German voices were heard everywhere but I guess they must need a thick skin. We were surprised to see how many lists and monuments were devoted to the past. The most alarming being a plaque which not only detailed the names of those murdered by the Nazis but how and where they had met their grisly end. The inscriptions went along the lines of ‘M Alain Villeneuve decapitated at Berlin, January 1942’ . We were quite surprised that further details such as ‘…at the hands of Herr Adolf Grubber of 49 Acacia Avenue, Hanover-by-the-Sea.’ It is often said that the EU is designed to make the Germans look a little less strong (and the French a little less weak). It was good to see that in spite of endless reminders Malmedy seems at ease with its past.
We managed to find two art galleries, one was particularly good, I did nearly get into trouble though. I managed to find a very comfortable place to sit and watch an ‘installation’-one of those videos that pretend to be art. I had enjoyed a couple of pints of Belgian beer at lunch and was soon snoozing happily. The curator had spied me taking a little nap on his CCTV. He was round in a flash- I think he was worried that I had died. The books and clothes shops of Malmedy meant that Mrs Griffin was content. When I returned to the circuit to check over the car I was waved off with a “don’t rush back”, always a sign of a contented wife.
We ate like Kings for less than 60 Euros every night, the local wine and provender lived up to its reputation. It was a pity to leave. Can we come back next year please?
ps If you click on the lived up to its reputation. link, go to 50 seconds in and onwards.
917s at Eau Rouge, Rodriguez and Siffert, 1970. Rodriguez qualifued 14 sec faster than the F1 record. Look at the 917 driver protection next historic race you watch. If you can find it.
When men had big balls and wide tyres
Don't cross the road during a race.
"driving a racing car was no more dangerous than flying a Lancaster bomber"
"Jackie Stewart was tended to by nuns"
Stavelot also had public art; this was on show in 2008, and may still be there.Spa Brasserie. Very civilised.