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Spa Francorchamps

My only foreign trackday in 2016 was at Spa and it was everything I’d expected it to be – fast, technical, thrilling, and epic.

Oh, and wet.

What is it then?

Spa is easily one of the most famous and historic circuits in the world. It’s one of the longest-running circuits on the F1 calendar (debut 1925) and is also home, obviously, to the Spa 24 hours race. The old layout had a fearsome reputation for being dangerous pre-1970 as it was the fastest road circuit in Europe with most corners being taken at over 180mph. There were 10 fatal accidents in the 1960s, including two deaths within 15 minutes in the 1960 Grand Prix. This led to the 1969 GP being boycotted and F1 didn’t return to Spa until 1983, by which time the layout had changed to the modern one.

Getting there

Obligatory entrance shot

Obligatory entrance shot

Spa is located in the Ardennes region of Belgium, near the town of Francorchamps. It’s also less than 70 miles away from the Nurburgring so next time will definitely include a detour there! I hired a van and took a fairly leisurely drive over there, taking about 4.5 hours from Calais (including a few loo, coffee & weird Belgian snacks stops).

How can I do it?

I booked with No Limits and paid around £360 for a 2-day event in June. The event was actually being run by Biker’s Days, part of DG Sports. They have loads of Spa dates on their site and it was very similar to a UK event, so all very familiar. It was run as a chrono event so you have to leave a deposit for your transponder (either €50 or your driving licence) and the groups are adjusted throughout the event to ensure everyone’s in the right group as best as possible.

They ran 4 groups – Novice/Inters, Fast, Very Fast, and Racer. Up until then, I’d been riding in Inters so I had booked myself in Fast, presuming that to be the equivalent. When I arrived, they had put me into Very Fast so I thought I’d be shuffled down when they reworked the groups but, as it happens, they left me there.

DG Sports also offers the Panigale Experience, where you can take out a brand new 1299 or 959 for a session for free. You have to agree to an excess payment of (I think) €1,000 if you crash it, but you don’t pay to hire the bike.

Where to stay

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My boutique room

Loads of people were staying in their vans at the circuit and there is a hotel pretty much on the track itself but this was really expensive when I looked at it (like, €400 a night expensive).

Francorchamps is the nearest town and there is a range of places to stay there but, having driven through it, it didn’t look like there was much going on there at all. There is, however, a large Ducati and Kawasaki showroom there and I stopped in on the return journey for a mooch around (hence the pictures of the purple retro Kwak in the gallery!).

Instead, I stayed in Malmedy, a really cute town about a 10 minute drive from the track. I booked a room at Maison Geron (€89pn for a double room and breakfast) which is a beautiful,

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Quail’s egg as part of breakfast

18th century country house split over 3 levels. The hostess was fantastic, really helpful, and the house itself was immaculate. It was incredibly well decorated in a period style, quite ornate but not over-the-top. My room was en-suite, really comfortable with good quality furnishings. I’d highly recommend it and will definitely stay there again next time. Oh, and the breakfast was amazing!

The area itself is stunning; lots of woodland and hills, and is right near a national park. The roads in the surrounding areas are fantastic and, as I’d taken my road bike (due to not having a trackbike yet), I unloaded it and took it out for a few hours the day before the trackday.

The circuit

Circuit map (credit: corseclienti.ferrari.com)

Circuit map (credit: corseclienti.ferrari.com)

There are so many reasons why this is such a great track. It’s an incredibly fast track, easily the fastest track I’ve ridden so far. There are 6 or 7 different parts of a lap where you’re well over 120mph. It’s also really long at 4.35 miles so it took quite a while to learn (especially as the first few sessions were soaking wet). It’s very grippy, even in the wet. I’m pretty sure I could have got my knee down in the rain on Supercorsas with no warmers but didn’t want to risk it, despite being very close for a few laps.

My track sessions

It was wet on the first morning and I went out on cold Supercorsas, not knowing the track at all and spent a few sessions wobbling around trying to get to grips with the long track. It stopped raining mid morning and the session before lunch was drying, damp in places, and with a pretty wide stream across the track on the exit of turn 15. Then we had a couple of sessions with a proper dry line and I was able to pick up the pace a little bit as I was getting used to where the track went.

Later in the afternoon it started to drizzle a little bit just as I was heading out, but I decided to carry on and had a good few laps before it started to bucket down. By then, I had some decent heat in my tyres and I was feeling good so stayed out and had about 4 really good laps in the rain. I’m not racer fast or anything, but I was confident with the grip and my lines by then and was passing most people still out, going round the outside of quite a few other riders before it eventually got so wet that I could barely see, so I thought that would be a good time to come in.

The second day was drier although it had rained again overnight and so was still damp for a few sessions in the morning. It dried up fairly early and was then mostly dry for the rest of the day. Typically, as soon as the final session was over, the sky cleared, the clouds parted and the sun came out just as everyone was packing up…

Lap times

My first few sessions, not knowing the track and in the rain, were around 3:48; then, as it started to dry up a little bit I was doing 3.23 and then 3:13 by the end of the first day. The second morning, I was down to 3:08 and then dropped below 3 minutes in the afternoon, with a best lap of 2:58 according to the transponder. They stopped displaying the times for the final 2 sessions of the second day so I don’t know if I improved further; if so, I’d imagine it wouldn’t have been by a lot.

To put this into context, the HRC World Endurance Racing team was there and their rider was doing 2:30… a full 28 seconds a lap quicker than me. Although, if you take into account the fact that, during the two days I was there, I improved at an average rate of 25 seconds per day, I’d only have needed one more day to be within a couple of seconds of him… 🙂

The legendary Eau Rouge

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Looking down Eau Rouge

Eau Rouge is the first section after the start/finish straight and involves a left kink followed by a right hander going up a very steep (18%) incline with a blind turn-in to a left hander at the crest. It’s very technical and hard to get right – there was one lap on the afternoon of my second day where I thought I’d finally taken it pretty well and still knew I should have taken it much better. It’s also pretty daunting, and very fast. The F1 drivers take the whole section without lifting off the throttle, which is mental. I was dropping down a gear to third with a quick stab of front brake before the first left and I’m sure I was nowhere near as fast through there as I could have been. The camera flattens it out massively – it really is very steep when you’re looking up at it.

Best bits

My favourite part of the track is probably the section from turn 15 to 19. Coming out of Stavelot, a 2nd gear right, you accelerate hard, changing up to third for turn 16, another right but more open than 15. It’s then flat-out along Courbe Paul Frère which continues to curve round to the right and flat through the next left, Blanchimont, in 5th (which I was taking at over 120mph) and just dropping down into 4th for the next left. There’s a bit of a straight and then hard braking for the chicane (or, as they call it over there much to my amusement, le piff paff!).

I also really liked turn 12, the fast, slightly downhill double apex left. It’s one of those corners where, every time I took it, I knew I could go a bit faster through there. On one lap, I was overtaken going in by a guy who was clearly a lot faster than me so I thought I’d try and follow him through. Of course, I ended up going about 15% faster than I had done before and hadn’t adjusted my line so I ended up running off the track after the first apex like a complete muppet. No harm done though and I stuck to my own pace after that!

Summary

Aerial view of Spa (turn 16) credit: www.spa-francorchamps.be/

Aerial view of Spa (turn 16)
credit: www.spa-francorchamps.be/

Spa is a absolutely brilliant circuit, and with good reason. It definitely lives up to the hype – it’s incredibly fast, very long, with some great technical parts and some very fast corners. It’s challenging, flowing, and fantastic, a track that should be on everyone’s list, and I can’t wait to go again.

Onboard footage

I do have some footage of a couple of laps (starting from le piff paff!) courtesy of Alex, who I shared a garage with, on his GSXR600. As it happens, I massively cocked up an overtake into le piff paff, braking too late & ending up having to take a weird, far too slow line round the corner and thoroughly screwing it up for the second guy I passed on the brakes (sorry about that, if you’re reading this). So, ummm, yeah, I’m the dick in black & white leathers in the footage below who leads for the second lap…

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Portimao (Parc Algar), Portugal

I’ve been to Portimao twice – 2011 and 2012 – and it’s one of the best tracks I’ve ever ridden. I’ve recently heard that the ...