Autosport writers’ favourite F1 Belgian Grands Prix
The future of the Belgian Grand Prix has been widely discussed in the run-up to this weekend’s race that resumes the 2022 Formula 1 season after the summer break.
With its contract up for renewal, and several glitzy new races set to join the calendar next year, the Belgian GP is currently hanging in the balance – prompting several leading drivers to speak out in support of keeping its current venue, Spa-Francorchamps, on the calendar.
That’s partly because the circuit is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, with its challenging blend of high-speed corners, but also because of the event’s rich history.
This weekend’s race will be the 67th edition of the race (54 have been held at Spa, 10 at Zolder and two at Nivelles), with Belgium missing from the calendar in only five of the world championship’s 72 seasons.
Although its most recent ‘race’ barely qualifies for the term, as heavy rain blighted the 2021 edition, Spa has produced many a classic down the years.
From Michael Schumacher’s opportunistic maiden win a year after his 1991 debut, to Jim Clark almost lapping the field amid heavy rain in 1963, Pedro Rodriguez defeating Chris Amon after a mammoth battle in 1970 and Dan Gurney’s sole win for his own Eagle outfit in 1967, our team of journalists were spoiled for choice when it came to singling out a favourite race.
1998, Chaos, carnage and celebrations for Jordan – Laura Leslie
Everyone remembers where they were when they first watched the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, a race filled with action from start to finish. It had everything – heavy rain, humongous crashes, pitlane fights, tears of joy and a landmark result for one of F1’s best-loved teams.
It started with that infamous 13-car pile-up on the opening lap, triggered by David Coulthard’s McLaren spearing off right and into the wall on the run down to Eau Rouge. A near-hour-long delay was needed to clear the ocean of broken carbon fibre, with four drivers missing the second start.
The Ferrari driver was nearly 40 seconds ahead of Hill when he closed in to lap Coulthard, who was recovering from an incident involving himself and Alexander Wurz’s Benetton on the opening lap of the restart. Unseen by Schumacher, Coulthard slowed down while on the racing line and the German ploughed into the back of him. Schumacher’s race over, he limped back to the pits on three wheels, Coulthard also trawling in without a rear wing for the second time that day. Schumacher’s uncontained fury became F1 legend as he stomped down the pitlane to confront Coulthard, accusing the Scot of “trying to kill” him.
When Wurz’s team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella then smashed into the back of Shinji Nakano’s Minardi, the safety car was deployed and Hill’s team-mate Ralf Schumacher began to loom large in his mirrors. The drama shifted to the Jordan pit wall in the final laps, as Schumacher was ordered to hold position despite his faster pace. He reluctantly heeded the order, and Jordan became the first team to score a debut win with a 1-2 finish led by Hill.
It was Hill’s 22nd and final F1 win, with Jean Alesi also bagging a surprise podium for Sauber – the last of his career.
2000, Hakkinen produces one of the all-time great passes on Schumacher – Charles Bradley
One of the greatest Formula 1 overtaking moves of all time highlighted a pulsating 2000 Belgian Grand Prix, as a fired-up Mika Hakkinen outduelled Michael Schumacher for the win.
The race started in wet conditions behind the safety car, with poleman Hakkinen (McLaren) leading Jordan’s Jarno Trulli, the Williams of Jenson Button and Schumacher’s Ferrari. Schumacher quickly picked off rookie Button on lap three and passed Trulli a couple of corners later, leaving Trulli and Button to collide in his wake at La Source.
Hakkinen pulled out a 10-second lead but, after the track dried and the field changed to dry tyres, he suffered a half-spin at Stavelot on lap 13 that allowed Schumacher in front. Hakkinen rejoined and charged after his nemesis, keen to atone for his error.
5Hakkinen possessed a straight-line speed advantage on the Kemmel Straight, but Schumacher defended fiercely on lap 40 – almost putting Hakkinen on the grass on the approach to Les Combes. Clearly unhappy, the Finn even taking the time to shake his left hand out of the cockpit between down-changes, Hakkinen charged after Michael once more.
A lap later, they caught Ricardo Zonta’s BAR-Honda to lap him. Years later, Hakkinen told this writer that he felt like his McLaren was “going to explode” as he crested Raidillon in pursuit of Schumacher’s slipstream. As they caught Zonta at over 200mph, Schumacher swerved around him to the left as Hakkinen darted to the right side. Unable to cut back across this time, such was Hakkinen’s overspeed, Schumacher had to concede the lead – and three laps later the victory – to his title rival.
After the race, Hakkinen said: “It was incredible. It’s an usual situation to overtake somebody on the straight line when the backmarker is between us. I knew there was no point in following Michael and then trying to overtake him, because obviously he’s not going to give me room…”
At this point he shot a look to Schumacher, sat to his right: “It’s correct?”
“So I took Plan B and I went completely inside, overtook the backmarker and at the same time overtook Michael,” continued Hakkinen. “I got the tow from the backmarker also and it was a great overtaking manoeuvre. I loved it, but I’m not sure if Michael did.”
Schumacher bemoaned his lack of straight-line speed but was big enough to admit: “Mika did a really outstanding manoeuvre to pass on the inside, because that was unexpected from my side.”
2009, Fisichella’s masterclass gets Force India off the mark – James Newbold
The 2009 Belgian Grand Prix sticks out in my mind for the way “quite the most bizarre dry qualifying anyone could remember,” as Autosport put it, set up a memorable chase between a driver considered on his way out in the year’s slowest car and a Ferrari that at no other point in the year had looked like a winner.
Before Spa, Giancarlo Fisichella’s average grid spot in 2009 had been 17th. But the Force India driver was on inspired form in the Ardennes to produce one of the performances of his career to take pole, finish second and begin a relationship with Ferrari that continues today. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Fisichella’s prowess at Spa-Francorchamps had been ably demonstrated on several times in the past – he’d qualified fourth and finished second for Jordan in 1997, hauled the largely terrible Benetton B201 onto the podium in 2001 and outqualified Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari to start fifth for Sauber in 2004.
It certainly helped that the Spa specialist was equipped with a Mercedes-powered Force India VJM02 that had come on leaps and bounds in low-downforce trim, with an upgrade introduced to the previous grand prix at Valencia reckoned to be worth 0.7 seconds. The 2009 season was, after all, the year with the smallest gap between the front and back of the grid in F1 history based on supertimes. That gave Fisichella a chance to not only score the team’s first points under the ownership of Vijay Mallya but to continue the Silverstone team’s history of magical moments at the scene of its first F1 pole in 1994 as Jordan and first win four years later.
Were it not for a first lap shunt that caused a safety car and played directly into the hands of Kimi Raikkonen’s KERS-equipped Ferrari, Fisichella probably would have run away with it.
Raikkonen had qualified sixth, moving up a place off the line at the expense of Barrichello’s Brawn. He then hung back and ran wide at La Source in perhaps the ultimate textbook case of why track limits should be properly enforced as he powered around the run-off (now replaced by gravel) to pass the squabbling Jarno Trulli (Toyota) and Nick Heidfeld (BMW-Sauber) on the run to Eau Rouge before using his extra momentum to zap Heidfeld’s team-mate Robert Kubica for second on the Kemmel Straight.
Kimi had surely gained an advantage by driving off the race track, just as he did (twice) last year,” considered Autosport’s report. “No one would mind that so much – it’s just part of the rough and tumble of racing – had it not been for Lewis Hamilton being penalised out of his win here last year for a much less clear-cut example of this. But let’s not get into that again…”
A midpack shunt at Les Combes also worked in Raikkonen’s favour. Renault rookie Romain Grosjean tapped Jenson Button’s Brawn into a rare retirement, with Toro Rosso newcomer Jamie Alguersuari clattering Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren as the reigning world champion checked up. Out came the safety car to bring Raikkonen onto Fisichella’s tail, and he duly blasted by on the restart. The Force India was arguably the quicker thereafter, but in this pre-DRS era simply couldn’t pass as the Finn cannily used his KERS to defend.
Still, second was a fine result for Fisichella. He earned himself a dream call up to Ferrari for the very next race at Monza in place of the injured Felipe Massa and still races for the Scuderia in sportscars.
2020, Hamilton showcases F1 performance at its peak – Alex Kalinauckas
A rather personal and subjective choice, this one. Because, let’s face it, the 2020 Belgian Grand Prix was not a classic. Far from it. But’s it’s still well worth remembering…
Lewis Hamilton took his fifth victory in seven events from the start of the pandemic-delayed season, winning from pole ahead of Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas. Hamilton had gone into the race concerned that starting there would leave him vulnerable running up the hill to Les Combes only the opening lap – as had been the case in previous years. But Hamilton’s small oversteer snap exiting La Source when the race started meant Bottas closed in so much shooting down the Endurance pit straight he had to lift before they arrived at Eau Rouge to avoid hitting Hamilton and that combined with a tailwind down the Kemmel Straight to ensure the Briton’s fears did not come to pass.
As Hamilton was edging away from Bottas and Max Verstappen, Antonio Giovinazzi’s solo crash in his Alfa Romeo would also eliminate quickly-arriving Williams driver George Russell and cause a safety car period. Verstappen was then just too far behind to take advantage of Mercedes’ subsequent double stack. Hamilton nailed the restart and from there the leaders were on a tyre management drive – the blowouts of the British GP three races earlier firmly in mind for their teams. Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo therefore closed on Verstappen’s third place late on, as all three leaders dropped pace losing tyre temperature under the building cloud cover (both Mercedes even had brief offs).
But this race stands out, stunningly, for other reasons. One was Hamilton’s emotional tribute to Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests gripping the world in the summer just gone – his superhero inspiration lost far too young. The other was less much important, but a significant part of F1 history nevertheless. And that was just how brilliantly the Mercedes W11 performed and looked running around Spa.
F1’s top and last ultra-high-downforce era car (the 2021 carryovers were shorn of performance on tyre safety grounds, of course) would go on set the championship’s fastest ever lap at Monza the following week. But the way Hamilton and Bottas were chucking their machines into every famous and fearsome Spa corner was just extraordinary.
Add to that the fact that Hamilton took pole by a massive 0.5s and F1 got a performance of driver/machine/speed harmony that will be hard to replicate or better, if it ever is