Legendary is an over used word, but for some racetracks it is very apt. If you polled 100 international racing drivers as to their favourite circuit, there is always a clear winner and that is the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. The circuit is one of the good old boys of the Formula One circuit and, despite a brief absence, has been on the calendar since 1950, the dawn of the modern F1 era.
There are many reasons that drivers love Spa but mostly because it is fast, hilly, twisty and notoriously difficult to master. So when Mercedes-Benz called and offered me the chance to drive their AMG fleet at Spa as part of their Peak Performance Advanced driving school, my racing boots didn't touch the ground. Many sports car manufacturers offer some form of training academy for their clients to learn how to drive their products at speed in a controlled environment. Not only does this mean that they are likely to be safer on public roads, but also they can fully experience what their high performance machines can do.
AMG's driving school offers many different ways to experience the cars which range from road tours to the Masters programme for advanced race training. At Spa, I was signed up for the Advanced Driver training programme in a range of AMG products. As we arrived at the hotel near Spa, in the beautiful Ardennes forest, there was no sign of the somewhat tempestuous Spa weather. The course started with a technical briefing from Reinhold Renger, the chief instructor. He explained to the eager participants that they were about to experience two days intense training in the full range of AMG machines including the SL63, C63 SLK55 and the CLK63. We were then introduced to our instructors, our team had been graced with the presence of five-times DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen-Meisterschaft, the German touring car championship) champion Bernd Schneider, if we could learn just a fraction of his Spa knowledge in the next two days we would be well on our way to getting around the famous circuit.
Renger went on to describe the basics of circuit driving including oversteer and understeer as well as the on-track fundamentals we would be covering over the next two days. The next morning dawned bright and sunny, still no sign of the unpredictable weather for which Spa is famous. There was no time to lose as we headed to the final chicane in the SLK's to practice cornering. After a few convoy runs with Schneider in the lead, we lined up to have individual turns under the champion's watchful eye. Hug the turns, brake later, try and turn later, the second part of the chicane is more important for your exit speed. The commands kept coming and we were trying to absorb them.
Soon it was time to move onto the next exercise and experience the incredible acceleration and braking powers of the SLKs. The task seemed simple: accelerate down a straight section of track and then brake as hard as you can and stop in the box. Easier said than done as car after car sailed through the designated zone or braked too early and were left short of the target. To drive a challenging circuit like Spa you need perfect car control so it was time to swap into the C63 AMG and head to the slalom. Again another seemingly simple task - keep as close to the cones without knocking them down, always with the helpful voice of Schneider echoing forth from the in walkie-talkies.
Before lunch, we did a brake-and-swerve challenge to teach us high-speed car control. The teams then adjourned for a very nice lunch, tales of heroics and disasters were swapped and discussions were had as to what the afternoon would bring. One thing was agreed on: Spa was more than living up to its reputation. In the afternoon we underwent training on the corners of the actual circuit, in a way I have never seen it done before. The track was divided into sectors and we ran in convoy along two or three corners at a time practising lines with the expert tuition of our instructor, and let's face it, if he didn't know how to do it by now, no one does. Before long we came to the fastest section of the track, Blancemont. "In the DTM car, we go through here flat out," quipped Schneider. "We won't be trying that today."
Soon we were to face the most daunting and famous corner on the track, the truly legendary Eau Rouge. What a staggering corner - you plunge down towards the bottom of the corner, turn your head skywards and aim toward the apex at the top of the hill, leaving your stomach behind. Running the kerbs and clipping the apexes, it is a huge challenge. You can't help thinking of all the greats that have driven this corner before you.
However all of those top drivers have had to put up with Spa's weather over the years. The sky started to cloud over and a drop or two of rain began to fall. Would we get away without a true Spa downpour? No, of course not, and when it rains at Spa it really rains, so Renger called time and ordered all cars back to the pits. As we picked our way gently back to the pit with wipers going full whack, I could hardly see the car in front of me. Just imagine being in a single seater. I was happy I at least had a roof. As the storm passed we were confined to base for nearly an hour and left wondering whether there would there be time to get back out on track? Helmets were picked up and put down and numerous cups of coffee were consumed, Renger went out to do an inspection and announced it was dry enough for a few tentative practice laps. So, in less than ideal conditions, we headed back to the track to experience the full magic of Spa-Francorchamps. We couldn't wait for the following day.
The following day paid homage to the phrase "practice makes perfect". We did lap after lap of the track trying to perfect our lines. I was lucky enough to benefit from one-on-one instruction from Renger. He is not only a uniquely gifted instructor, who has the ability to draw ever last ounce of talent out of his pupil, but also a first-rate race driver in his own right with five class wins at the Nürburgring 24 hours.
As he honed my technique, my lap times picked up, Renger altered my line by just a few feet at Les Combes and it suddenly clicked. It's a unique experience when a racetrack opens up to you and you feel comfortable with its corners and lines. I was convinced that the legendary Eau Rouge was the hardest corner, when you get it right you feel it in the pit of your stomach. But when you get La Source right, you feel it in the middle of your central nervous system and that feels great. If you have the opportunity and the cash, it's an experience you won't forget. firstname.lastname@example.org