The Terrifying and Enduring Appeal of Spa-Francorchamps

Originally carved from local forest roads, Spa has thrilled and terrified generations of riders.

Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
The beauty, character, and danger that is the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.Staff

Even as purpose-built tracks gained prominence in the 1920s, speed-hungry Belgians simply connected a 9-mile triangle of fast, rural roads in the Ardennes Forest and called it a racecourse. The result, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, has been one of the most challenging tracks in the world ever since.

Once home to two-wheel Grand Prix and endurance events, premier-class motorcycle racing has been on hiatus at Spa since 1990, despite modernization efforts. Its absence has left the spectacular dip and rise of Spa's famous Eau Rouge corner to the European Classic Series, which races historic machines into the night.

A safety review this year left Spa with a firm "no" from MotoGP, but the track is still courting, and it has fans in high places. Motorcyclist publisher Andy Leisner raced Spa on 250cc GP machines. Asked what he thought of the circuit, he replied succinctly: "My favorite track." then sent a photo of his highlight-reel high-side in the La Source hairpin.

Naturally, we pressed for more, and Leisner revealed that he raced the 250cc Grand Prix World Championship event at Spa in 1989. And, despite that epic highside while battling with Alex Barros and Gary Cowan, it remains his favorite track—and his favorite race weekend.

"It's fast–so fast that even by running the lowest first gear available, the tall final-drive gearing needed forced us to slip the clutch out of La Source, the slowest corner of the track." Leisner says.

"It's never flat and almost never straight. The famous Eau Rouge left-right-left is the most dramatic example of this. You approach on a steep downhill—in top gear on a 250. A brief moment on the brakes and a downshift to fourth happens as the bike nearly bottoms out in the middle of the left-to-right flick. The previous downhill has instantly become a wall of an uphill climb. A hard uphill left takes you to the exit–one of the most important parts of the track, as the drive there determines the speed on the long uphill Kemmel Straight. A fortuitous qualifying draft there behind my boyhood hero, Loris Reggiani's factory Honda NSR put my standard Honda RS 15th on the grid–a season best for a 'customer" bike.'"

"The weather is famously awful. It is almost always raining there and sometimes on one part of the circuit but not another. We lined up for the GP on a dry grid but with reports of steady rain down on the lower sections of the course. I had never seen so many different selections of tires on a grid. We went with an intermediate front and a soft slick rear with a few strategic, Dunlop-cut grooves which the dry part of the course tore at... Until my highside."

"It's a shame that MotoGP no longer races at Spa, but the course was horrendously dangerous for motorcycles, with flat-out and armco lined corners that we took in the wet more often than in the dry. It was second only to my other favorite circuit, the Salzburgring in the ability to injure riders. Even though I left Spa with my collarbone in pieces, the beauty, character and danger of the circuit combined to make it the most enjoyable race experience of my life."