“It doesn’t get any better than this.” How many times have we heard those words? Sometimes used in the literal context; more often, with a hint of sarcasm. This time around, though, it sums up things oh-so succinctly and sweetly.
We’re gathered at Radillon, the iconic high point of what is the rollercoaster ride out Eau Rouge. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and the great race circuit that is Spa-Francorchamps fairly sparkles below us. Surely, this is a day when all the planets are aligned.
The orator of the afore-said one liner is Ron Simons, professional driver and the name behind the name of RSR Nurburg, Euro race car hire and track day specialists. And he couldn’t have picked a better place to deliver his sermon from the mount – make that driver briefing – to our small group that is about to have the exclusive use of this charismatic circuit for a whole two hours.
“Here we have the best corner of the best racing circuit in the world,” Ron says in his native Dutch accent. “Eau Rouge.” He’s not alone in his reverence; I’ve heard it said that if there’s a track somewhere in Heaven, then one of the corners will surely be a clone of this flat chat, dipping, then climbing piece of real estate.
It’s late on a Monday, the day after the Total 24 Hours of Spa, and rubbish contractors are still busily cleaning up the Kilimanjaros of empty beer cans and food wrappers from the spectator areas. In the expansive pit area, some of the world’s best FIA GT teams are still sweating away as they wearily stow their Aston Martin DBRS 9 and Mercedes SLS AMG racers and gear into huge, flashily-liveried Pantechs and prepare to move on.
We had passed a number of these mega-buck wagon trains going the other way, making our run earlier in the day into Belgium from the RSR HQ outside that other coliseum of speed, Nurburgring. Our small convoy of four Lotus Exige Ss and Renault Megane R26.R led by a Clio 200 Cup turned many a head as it wound its way along the picturesque B258, skirting the towns of Blankenheim, Schleiden, the chocolate box lid Monschau with its 13th century castle in Germany, then through Malmedy to an outdoor, fine dining experience at Stavelot.
Despite the (sensible) absence of any alcohol, this long lunch, in the formal gardens of a very traditional hotel, proved an ideal setting for our group to get know each other. The bulk of the brethren comprised a couple of the senior management of UK Classic and Sports Car magazine and their enthusiast-minded associates. The odd ones out were my wife and I and a Canadian working in Angola in major construction.
The plan is to hit the track right on 1800 hours, once the chequered flag falls on the regular trackday activity. Suitably watered and fed, we file on up to the circuit and take up a vantage point overlooking Rivage. From there, we can make out a fair bit of the track. The sight of a veritable smorgasbord of delicious machinery (911 GT3 RS, Aston Martin GT4 racer – take your pick, they’re all there) running around at full noise only serves to fire us up even more for what lies ahead.
Then it’s down to fuel up the cars in the paddock and stream our way into the garages pitside. We’re in a pretty special place – in less than three weeks this very same space is going to be jumping with Formula One teams fettling their charges for the Belgian Grand Prix.
Craig, our tour leader and RSR Nurburg instructor, then takes us up to race control for a look around. It’s an eye opener, revealing the hi-tech automation behind conducting a trackday at Spa. Inside is a bank of nearly 30 CCTV screens, showing what is going on at all points of the track at all times. This makes for a near total absence of marshals on flag points and other duties. Very Orwell-ian.
By now, it’s nearly time to pull on helmet and take up our places on the dummy grid. We have exclusive track time from 1800-2000 hours, and there’s not a minute to lose. I’m behind the wheel of one of two Spa Blue Exiges, with our Canadian friend (let’s call him Dave) steering the other, and the plan is for Craig to lead us around in the Clio Cup while Luca – with the look of the quintessential Italian racing driver – leads the Classic and Sports Car contingent in the other two (white) Exiges and R26.R.
Ron? He’s, going to be taking various guests on some hot laps in his Lotus 2-Eleven. There’s to be a fair split between the two groups, so that we don’t trip over each other and everyone can really max out on all that this great track offers.
At last, race control throws the switch and the track goes green. We trickle down pit lane – me following Craig – and exit onto the track on the old start/finish straight (until 1981) on the downhill run to Eau Rouge. The first lap is basically a siter, just finding out the lay of the land (at Spa, this varies dramatically) and the sheer proportions of the track. But even at this speed, it’s Blind Freddie obvious that here, horsepower rules.
We do three laps, then pit briefly, which becomes the modus operandi for the session. Most of the group are sharing the drive, but Dave and I have the seat time to ourselves and are determined to spend every possible moment behind the wheel.
Climb aboard for a ride … The lap starts on the short start/finish straight where we’re at full noise in fifth heading to La Source, where it’s back to second and try to avoid a bump right on the racing line on exit. Ahead lays the downhill run flat in fifth to Eau Rouge where we grab a fair chunk of the red-and-yellow striped kerb on the left and hold on for the ride of our life up the hill, drift across to the right and then explode over the blind apex at Radillon and power onto the long, fast Kemmel Straight.
It’s sixth for what seems an eternity all along here to Les Combes, then hard on the brakes and bang-bang-bang down to third, tacho needle spinning crazily, turn right, then left and change up to fourth for the run to Rivage. Hold third and defy the laws of gravity as the camber falls away and take the plunge downhill to Pouhon in fifth, then just a dab of brakes to get the nose to turn in and use the entire track to the right to line up a second apex on the left.
Keep building speed and take another late apex. As we make our way down to Stavelot, it’s back to third, turn in, short shift to fourth and get greedy with the kerb to the left as we hold full throttle on the run to Blanchimont in sixth. There’s a kink to the left but it’s no worries, just keep on keeping on with the throttle all the way down to the bus stop chicane, where it’s down through the Exige’s short-throw gate to second and flick the car right, then left, and enter onto the straight. Then, back up the gears to fifth and the start/finish line flashes past in a blur. Magic. Sheer bloody magic.
With each succession of three laps, Craig builds the pace and rotates the order, so that we both get the benefit of following his lines and matching his braking points. There’s grip that Tarzan would be proud of, due in no part to the massive amount of rubber laid down by a full field circulating for 24 hours the day before. We get to a point where, for newcomers to one of the world’s fastest race tracks in what are relatively unfamiliar cars (with a fairly hefty damage excess), ‘fast’ is ‘fast enough’.
It’s then, entering the ferociously quick double left hander Pouhon that Dave’s Exige’s rear end breaks loose and he’s sliding backwards off the track. For what seems a long time, but really just a split second, we’re about four car lengths apart and staring at one another through the windscreen. The big risk in this situation is for the second driver to follow the first. I make the instant and conscious input to avoid this and the little Lotus obediently holds its line.
Dave, in the meantime, has his car locked up, with bagfuls of blue smoke pouring off all tyres. It then descends into a series of lurid 360-degree spins, using up all of what is one of largest asphalt run off areas you will see on any circuit, before coming to a stop, still rearwards, within metres of the tyre wall. Craig pulls in to check on him, and I follow suit; in so doing, driving through a sea of marbles that litter the area from the weekend’s enduro.
Dave’s okay, and keen to go again, but from then it’s me leading him. For the next few laps, every time I pitch the Exige into a corner, the small, meaty steering wheel feels like it’s electrified thanks to the chronic vibration from the marbles adhered to my own sticky rubber. Bit by bit, I’m flinging them off, and it sounds like an AK-47 going off as the chunks and beads pepper the underside of the guards.
With an outside temperature of 28 degrees Celsius, wearing long sleeves and helmet with windows fully up, aircon off and heat from the little supercharged 1.8-litre Toyota four-pot soaking into the cabin, baby it’s hot inside. It matters not; I resist any suggestion of having a breather and, in fact, do nearly the full two hours behind the wheel until finally called in to park the car.
What a race circuit! What an experience!
But wait, there’s more … The run back to the Ring, with the red glow of the sun sinking over the horizon behind us, is at a pace nearly to match the track. Still, it’s after 10 by the time we pull into Nurburg.
Wisely, Craig has called ahead and reserved a table for us at Restaurant Pistenklause at the Hotel am Tiergarten, owned by Ring taxi pilot extraordinaire Sabine Schmidt’s family and legendary post-race party place of Formula One teams going back many a season. Cars tucked away, the beers flow freely as we chew the fat about the day that had been.
Ron Simons was right – it really doesn’t get any better than this. There endeth the sermon.
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