This weekend’s FIA WEC 6 Hours of Spa is set to be an especially significant event. As well as the first ACO-organized race in Europe with full fan access since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, it will mark the first time that a major international championship will be competing on the new-look Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
Circuit organizers have been hard at work over the winter and through the beginning of spring delivering on the ambitious revamp plans for the historic Belgian venue. To improve safety and attract the return of endurance motorcycle racing, the circuit has undergone a number of changes.
For starters the Eau Rouge-Raidillon sequence has a fresh look, with more runoff and a newly installed grandstand on the footpath overlooking the track (pictured above). While the characteristics of the incline itself remain the same — as daunting as ever — this should reduce the number of major incidents that have occurred here over the years. The only real casualty here is the chalet which stood at the top of the hill for decades — this has been demolished to make way for the new grandstand which will provide spectacular views over one of motorsport’s most iconic panoramas.
The grandstands that lined the circuit on the run down the hill from La Source to Eau Rouge are also in the process of being replaced, but this has yet to be completed — it will look rather bare over the FIA WEC weekend.
These changes, plus the return of gravel traps at several corners including Speakers Corner and La Source, will ensure that the drivers returning to the circuit for the first time in 2022 will need to make the most of the practice sessions to get acclimated to the tweaks ahead of the race.
While debates are sure to ensue among fans and racers alike over the validity of this makeover to Spa, one driver who is entirely in favor of the work is Harry Tincknell, who is back in the WEC this season in the GTE Am class competing with fellow Multimatic driver Seb Priaulx and Christian Ried in the No. 77 Dempsey Proton Porsche. Tincknell told RACER it will change everyone’s approach to each tour of the circuit over the weekend.
“It’s going to be really interesting to see the circuit, and in particular the new gravel traps,” he explained. “Before, if you locked up in the wet, you might just lose a second; now it’s a red flag for the session in practice or a caution period in the race. It’ll be interesting at Speakers Corner, for instance, where it’s always tough on track limits. People may not get beached in the gravel there but they may spread a load of it onto the track and cause punctures.
“There’s been a lot of chat over the years about putting gravel in to force drivers into obeying track limits — now they’ve done it! It’s a rare example of a track that’s gone back to the old-school approach of putting gravel in. We are the guinea pigs, and we will have to see how it goes.
“I do think, though, that the buildup to the race is going to be interesting, as you’ll tackle the circuit differently. If you’re at somewhere like COTA or Paul Ricard you can go to 101 percent and row back with no consequences. Whereas if you do that at Road America or Sebring or Road Atlanta or Spa now, there are serious consequences. You need to start at 90 and build up, then maybe by qualifying you’ll be at 99.8 percent. It’s going to be a much greater challenge from the driver’s side of things.”
As for improving safety, Tincknell is encouraged that the circuit owners opted for a solution which doesn’t involve reducing its challenge. He is one of many drivers who have had a sizeable off at Spa — WEC fans will remember back in 2018 when he endured a frightening head-on collision with the barriers at Raidillon in his Ganassi Ford GT. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that he is in favor of the extended runoff…
“I think Spa found a middle ground with these changes,” he said. “Time will tell but I think it will be positive. There is always a debate, especially with old-school tracks where there is no room for error sometimes, you can argue it’s what you sign up for. But, when you have a corner that repeatedly causes massive accidents, causing deaths, you have to do something about it — there’s a moral responsibility.
“I wince every year at the Spa 24 (Hours) when you see these massive accidents, and in the WEC, and what happened with Anthoine (Hubert). It’s very easy to say,‘It’s the history, it’s the allure’ but until you go into that corner and have a failure at 150+mph or get to the top of the hill and have a split second to avoid a collision with a stranded car, it’s hard to appreciate. People who have been in that position are the ones who want to see changes.
“I am definitely not in favor of it becoming a straight line there — I am not saying that at all, but I think there are improvements to be made. Let’s hope this is the first step in the right direction.”
In addition to the challenge of recalibrating himself on track, Tincknell tells RACER that he is excited at the prospect of seeing the WEC’s fanbase out in force once again at a race in Europe, with full circuit and paddock access. Last year fans were in the grandstand at events like Le Mans, but the paddock didn’t have its usual pre-2020 buzz due to team personnel, the media, circuit staff and race officials being the only ones permitted in the areas surrounding the garages.
“Spa, I would say, is on par with Silverstone, maybe even ahead in terms of fan engagement,” said Tincknell. “Obviously in the WEC Le Mans is the standout but in Europe, Spa and Silverstone are equal second. The fans that come to Spa are so knowledgeable, there are lots of photos and autographs in the paddock. It’s great to have that back. At the ELMS race last year we had fans in the grandstand but not in the paddock, so the atmosphere wasn’t quite right. Petit Le Mans last year was the first one with full fan access being back and it made such a difference.
“If it wasn’t for the fans we wouldn’t be racing so we’re all very glad to see them back.”