“It doesn’t get any better than this.” How many times have we heard those words? This time around, though, they sum up things oh-so succinctly and sweetly.
We’re gathered at Raidillon, the iconic high point of what is the rollercoaster ride out of Eau Rouge. Blue sky, sun 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 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 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 opines, “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 soaring 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 Kronenbourg cans and fast-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 GT3 racers and gear into 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 R.S. 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, then into Belgium and through Malmedy to an outdoor, fine dining experience at Stavelot.
Despite the (obvious) absence of any alcohol, this leisurely, convivial lunch in the formal gardens of the Hotel Le Val d’Ambleve, proved an ideal setting for our group to get to know each other.
The bulk of the brethren comprised a couple of 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 track day activity. 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 is ahead.
Then it’s down to fuel up the cars at the on-site service station and stream our way into the garages pit side. In less than three weeks, this very same space is going to be jumping with Formula 1 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 track day 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 Orwellian.
By now, it’s nearly time to pull on a helmet and take our place on the dummy grid. We have exclusive track time until 2000 hours, but 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 Canuck) steering the other, and the plan is for Craig to lead us around in the Clio R.S. while Luca – he, with the look of 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 RSR’s 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.
I’m elated to be tackling Spa first time in something as track-focused as the Exige S. It might be powered by a 1.8-litre VVTL-i four-pot originally meant for a Toyota Celica, but supercharging, intercooling and other tweaks have blessed it with the wherewithal to soar to 0-100km/h in 4.3 secs.
Of course, all Lotii are about more than straight-line speed; Colin Chapman’s mantra of ‘Add lightness’ and optimum handling/balance ring true as always.
At last, race control throws the switch and the track goes green. We trickle down pit lane – me following Craig – and exit on to the track on the old start/finish straight (until 1981) on the downhill run to Eau Rouge.
The first lap around the 7.0km circuit of 19 turns 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 Freddy-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 Canuck 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 5th heading to La Source, where it’s back to 2nd and try to avoid a bump right on the racing line on exit.
Ahead lays the downhill run flat in 5th 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 Raidillon and power on to the long, fast Kemmel Straight.
It’s 6th for what seems an eternity all along here to Les Combes, then hard on the brakes (front Lotus/AP twin-piston front, Brembo single-piston rear) and bang-bang-bang down to 3rd, tacho needle twitching, turn right, then left and change up to 4th for the run to Rivage.
Hold 3rd and defy the law of gravity as the camber falls away and take the plunge downhill to Pouhon in 5th, then just a dab of brakes to get the nose tucked 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 3rd, turn in, short-shift to 4th and get greedy with the kerb to the left as we hold full throttle on the run to Blanchimont in 6th.
There’s a kink to the left but, no worries, just keep on keeping on with the throttle all the way to the Bus Stop chicane, where it’s down through the Exige’s short-throw gate to 2nd and flick the car right, then left, and enter the straight. Then, back up the gears to 5th 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 hefty damage excess), ‘fast’ is ‘fast enough’.
It’s then, entering the ferociously-quick, double left-hander Pouhon that the rear end of Canuck’s Exige 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 take avoiding action.
Canuck, 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 rubber ‘marbles’ that litter the area from the weekend’s enduro. Canuck’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 holding an electric charge thanks to the chronic vibration from the ‘marbles’ adhered to my own sticky rubber. Bit by bit, I’m managing to shed them, but it sounds like an AK-47 going off as the chunks and beads pepper inside the guards.
With an outside temperature of 28-degrees Celsius, wearing long sleeves/pants and helmet with windows fully up, no aircon and heat from the little, supercharged 1.8-litre Toyota four-pot soaking into the cabin, it’s damn hot. Still, I resist any suggestion of having a breather and do nearly the full two hours behind the wheel until finally called in.
What a race circuit! What an experience!
But wait, there’s more . . . The run back to RSR’s home base, 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 race teams going back many a season.
Cars tucked away, the beer flows freely as we chew the fat (actually, succulent steak cooked on the stone) about the cracking day that had been. Ron Simons was right – it really doesn’t get any better than this.