If Le Mans is the straight-A student, and the 24 Hours of Nurburgring is the kid that ran away to join the circus, then the race at Spa Francorchamps is somewhere in the middle. But just like its Le Mans and Nurburgring counterparts, the 24 Hours of Spa is also a race where, behind the highlight reel glory of past triumphs and tales of derring-do, there lurks a scarred, darker history.
In 1924, the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium decided the 15-odd-kms of undulating public roads between the towns of Malmedy, Francorchamps and Stavelot, deep in the forests of the stunning Ardennes countryside, would be perfect for an endurance race.
It quickly proved popular with manufacturers like Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Mercedes-Benz. They ran their 6Cs, Type 44s and SSKs at the race right up until the glorious thunder of those cars' engines was replaced by the ominous thunder of World War Two, as the Battle of the Bulge scorched through the Ardennes.
In 1964, following an 11-year hiatus, the race was reborn with Touring Car machinery from companies like BMW and Ford, piloted by a mix of gentleman amateurs and the cream of the Formula One crop - most famously endurance racing legend and home favourite Jacky Ickx.
The formidable challenge of Spa had an undeniable allure, and it's not hard to see why. Even today on the shorter Spa Francorchamps circuit, scorching sun can give way to rain, sleet and thick, dense fog in a matter of minutes. Half a century ago, telegraph poles, ditches and razor wire awaited any mistake. In the 1964 race, just a few hours after a multiple accident, the hard-charging Italian ace Piero Frescobaldi died when his Lancia went into a deep ravine at the superfast Malmedy corner.
During the 1967 race, as midnight approached and fog enveloped the circuit, Belgian Eric De Keyn suffered a violent off in his Alfa Romeo GTV. Minutes later talented 21-year-old Dutch driver Wim Loos, also in an Alfa, swerved to avoid the ambulance attending to the fatally stricken De Keyn, and in the resulting impact was thrown through his windscreen and killed.
Despite the tragedy that stalked all forms of motor racing in the 1960s and 1970s, the 24 Hours of Spa managed to establish itself as a jewel in the crown of the racing calendar. "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" became the mantra for manufacturers like Citroen, Porsche, Opel, Mazda, Mercedes and BMW, as style, speed and reliability reputations were forged at Spa.
Future Formula One stars Jochen Mass and Hans Joachim-Stuck claimed victory in 1972 in their bulletproof Ford Capri, fending off the mighty Schnitzer BMWs to lead a Ford 1-2-3. But once again, in the darkness and thick fog lay tragedy. At around 5am, as Mass clambered aboard the Capri and was about to head out onto the circuit, Stuck leaned into the car and told his team-mate: "Look out for body parts at the Masta Kink." Assuming Stuck was referring to bits of cars' bodywork lying on the circuit, Mass was shocked to discover the true meaning of his team-mate's warning - the actual body of marshal Leon Grisard was still lying prostrate on the track, having just been hit by the Mazda of Walter Brun.
The following year, at around 11pm and some seven hours into the race, hotly-tipped German Hans-Peter Joisten collided with Roger Dubos' Alfa Romeo, resulting in the deaths of both men. Deeper into the darkness that year another Alfa driver, Massimo Larini - uncle of future F1 and Touring Car racer Nicola Larini - crashed, succumbing to his injuries several days later.
By the late-1970s, safety concerns and the growing commerciality of motorsport fused together and Spa, along with the Nurburgring, became an infamous posterboy for unacceptable risk in motorsport. So in 1979, the first 24-hour race took place on the 7km circuit that we have today, and welcomed a new generation of European Touring Cars. Despite essentially chopping the circuit in half, Spa's challenges remained the same; the weather remained a fickle mistress, the dark forest-lined track still a potential death trap.
The 1980s heralded the glorious symphony of Group A Touring Cars, with drivers like Steve Soper, Tom Walkinshaw, Gerhard Berger and Eric Van De Poele tasting glory and exchanging nocturnal battles in a riot of gaudy sponsorship liveries, noise and huge crowds. Despite a decade of classic duels and a 70-car entry for 1987, the World Touring Car Championship ended in 1988 and the race faced an uncertain future, flip-flopping between being a round of the FIA GT Championship and a stand-alone event.
In 2001, the Spa 24 Hours became a GT car-only affair, and since 2011 the race has been re-elevated to a key weekend in world motorsport as part of the Blancpain Endurance Series. Last year's race winner and GT3 Pro Champion Laurens Vanthoor jointly leads the series overall with Audi team-mate Robin Frijns, and they will scrap together through dusk, dawn and almost-certain rain against 60-plus cars featuring the likes of former Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and former DTM champ Mike Rockenfeller.
All will hope for a clean race. 2014's event witnessed a Spate of accidents and was red-flagged after a nasty crash at Stavelot between Vadim Kogay and Marcus Mahy. The race was stopped for over an hour as both drivers were airlifted to hospital.
It just goes to show that even in the modern era, Spa can still bite down hard on the slightest error.Information courtesy James Roberts (Redbull.com)