The odds of Grand Prix motorcycle racing returning to the magnificent Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium increased last week. On Thursday, the government of Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, announced that the circuit had been granted a €29.5 million loan for upgrades to make the track safe enough to eventually host motorcycle racing at the circuit.
The loan, from the Walloon development agency SOGEPA, is part of a larger financial package of €80 million aimed at updating and modernizing the Belgian circuit. €51 million of that total is targeted at bringing back international motorcycle racing to the track. The objective, according to Belgian website 7sur7, is to have the FIM WEC World Endurance Championship return to the circuit in 2022, with a possible return for MotoGP planned for 2024.
Making the circuit safe enough for motorcycle racing is no easy task. The track winds its way through the Belgian Ardennes, a closely wooded area composed of steep hills. There is little room to create added runoff, at what would undoubtedly be one of the fastest tracks on the calendar. Corners such as Eau Rouge/Radillon and Blanchimont would be candidates for the fastest corners on the calendar, with little room for error. The circuit still holds the record for the highest average speed in Grand Prix racing, when Barry Sheene lapped the then 14.1 kilometer circuit at an average speed of 220.721 km/h. Even on the shorter 6.9 km circuit which Grand Prix racing used on their last visit in 1990, Kevin Schwantz set pole at an average speed of over 174 km/h. With 30 years of progress since then, MotoGP bikes should go much more quickly.
The layout is not the only challenge to racing at Spa. The Belgian Ardennes is a beautiful location, but the dense woods and steep hills mean it is highly susceptible to wet weather. On average, it rains approximately 12 days of every month in the area, giving a very high chance of rain.
Scheduling a race in Belgium would also be tricky. Spa-Francorchamps is 375 km or three-and-a-half hours from Assen, and roughly 600km from both Le Mans in France and the Sachsenring in Germany. If the calendar threatened to cannibalize spectators from one of the other races, serious objections could be raised.
The dangerous nature of the circuit has saw international motorcycle racing withdraw from the track many years ago, the track focusing instead on the F1 race held there. A motorcycle Grand Prix race was held at Spa-Francorchamps 40 times, between 1949 and 1990, only missing out in 1980 (when the Belgian Grand Prix was held at Zolder) and in 1987, when the race at Spa was canceled due to safety measures demanded by the FIM not having been taken. The last 24-hour endurance race backed by the FIM was held at Spa in 2003, the 2004 24 Heures de Liege (as the race was known) being canceled again because promised work to improve safety had not been done.