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Spa remains a track for all the ages

By Alan Baldwin

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS Belgium (Reuters) - Eau Rouge, Pouhon, Blanchimont - for Formula One fans the names stand out as the jewels in the glittering crown that is the Spa circuit.

For those of an older generation, however, it is the memories of Burnenville, Malmedy and Masta - with its famous 'kink' - that still make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck.

Beyond the current 7 km Belgian grand prix circuit, the longest on the calendar, the fearsome remnants of the old 15km loop remain in daily use.

Those driving to Sunday's race can literally take a trip down memory lane, with the flow of traffic passing over the same public roads that once gave a cruel sport some of its deadliest thrills.

The current crop of drivers will discuss the challenge of taking the plunging, twisting, rising Eau Rouge flat out but the old, disused, layout had parts that were every bit as breathtaking.

"The Masta Kink was the famous one, Burnenville... virtually every corner here was pretty dangerous," recalls veteran reporter Mike Doodson, who covered his first grand prix at the old Spa in 1970 and is still coming back for more.

"You've only got to go out there now and see the obstacles that were there. I came a couple of days early that year and drove around the circuit and was completely horrified.

"At one place I remember, the only protection on the outside of the circuit was a single strand of barbed wire, just about neck height for a driver in a Formula One car."

Burnenville, a very fast right-hander sweeping down the hill past houses towards Malmedy on what is now the road out of the circuit past the campsites and before a modern motorway junction, was particularly deadly.

In the 1960 race, two drivers - Britons Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey - died there within the space of 15 minutes. Stirling Moss had broken his legs there on the previous afternoon.

Bristow, the son of a London garage owner, was decapitated when his car plunged off the embankment and ripped into a barbed wire fence.

Stacey, who raced with an artificial leg after a motorcycle accident, is believed to have been struck in the face by a bird before the car veered off the track and caught fire.

"Had I seen my team mate's accident right after Bristow's I am convinced that I would have stopped there and then, and retired from motor racing for good," the late double world champion Jim Clark said afterwards.

MASTA BLASTER

In 1966, it was on the Masta straight - where fans can stop at the local friterie for fries with mayonnaise and imagine the scene 50 years previously - where the future triple world champion Jackie Stewart almost 'had his chips'.

The kink, after the Malmedy corner on the main road to the historic abbey town of Stavelot and the point where the old circuit turned back towards Blanchimont and the start at La Source, was not for the faint-hearted.

The road threads its way between houses after a right-left-right swerve that was a test of flat-out commitment with drivers reluctant to scrub off any speed but wary of what the consequences might be.

Stewart, who had won the Monaco season-opener that year and started on the front row, aquaplaned off at speed and over a drop into a farmhouse yard.

He lay trapped by the steering wheel in the wreckage, leaking fuel dripping over him with the risk of fire at any time and fellow drivers Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant struggling to extract him.

It was only when Bondurant crossed the road and borrowed a spanner from some spectators that they succeeded.

The incident triggered Stewart's safety campaign in the sport. And the Scot always taped a spanner inside his cockpit from then on.

It also gave him an after-dinner anecdote for the ages, with a tale of how he woke up stripped naked and surrounded by nuns - who arrived at the barn after his friends had removed his stinging fuel-smothered clothes.

When drivers turned up for the 1970 race the old circuit - inaugurated in 1921 - was on borrowed time: too dangerous even in an era when - as old timers fondly reminisce - the sex was safe and motor racing distinctly deadly.

EAU ROUGE

Boycotted in 1969 for safety reasons, it was removed from the calendar after 1970 and only returned in its shorter form in 1983 to became a favorite of fans and drivers alike.

The talk now is of Eau Rouge, of powering through Pouhon, and modern drivers are happy with that.

In an age of modern purpose-built circuits in countries with little motorsports history, and desert tracks like Abu Dhabi or Bahrain, Spa is alive with history and a living link with the ghosts of the past.

"This is a great circuit and I think we all get excited about coming here," says 2009 world champion Jenson Button. "It's got a really nice flow about it.

"We love Formula One as a challenge and that's why we love Spa and Suzuka. Those sort of circuits because they still are a real challenge. The esses at Suzuka, if you make a mistake there you are punished for it.

"Eau Rouge is a little bit different because you are doing over 300kph when you lose control, if you do."

And the old circuit? The Briton - whose McLaren team took their first grand prix win at Spa in 1968 - shrugged.

"I don't even know where the old circuit goes," he smiled. "I've never actually looked.

"The circuit we drive on is pretty special. I don't feel the need to go and look at the old circuit. I don't see how you could do better than the circuit we have right now."

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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