In 1964, the (then) 14.1km Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps hosted its first touring car endurance event after a hiatus of 11 years, and would continue to do so until 2000. Nearly two decades later, and 95 years after the circuit’s first endurance race was held, history is about to be written once again.
Our first question to CREVENTIC’s Ole Dörlemann seems a bit redundant, but is one that requires an answer nonetheless: in planning the first TCR SPA 500 – a 500-lap endurance event dedicated exclusively to TCR-spec touring cars, why choose the 7.004km Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps?
“You could even turn it around and ask, ‘why NOT Spa-Francorchamps?’” explains Ole with an explosive grin. “We felt that, if we were going to re-ignite this tradition, it had to be done right, and where better than Spa-Francorchamps?
“Spa has a long history of touring car endurance races, and it’s a history that stretches back over decades and various different track layouts. Plus, the circuit is an outstanding venue and is a favourite for many drivers simply because of the history and its unique character. Quite honestly, we couldn’t think of a better host venue for this project.”
No arguments here. Even as cars pulled onto the grid for the very first touring car-exclusive 24-hour race at Spa-Francorchamps in 1964, endurance racing in the Ardennes was already 40 years old at that point. Spa’s now infamous 24-hour motor race was first held in 1924, only three years after the public roads connecting Spa-Francorchamps, Malmédy and Stavelot were united in a near-15km triangle for racing purposes, and, just one year after the first official 24 Hours of Le Mans (the event really fell off the map after that … [cough]).
Encouraged by higher than expected interest in a comparable endurance event on their own door step, and even in spite of the Ardennes’ typically changeable weather, the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium continued to organize Spa’s 24-hour race throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Alfa Romeo firmly making its mark on the event with seven wins from the first 13 races (second only to BMW on the all time records list, just FYI).
Worldwide recession after the Wall Street Crash though, plus dark clouds looming across Europe as 1939 approached, meant that, save three one-off showings in ’48, ’49 and ‘53, the event disappeared almost completely between 1938 and 1964.
“Even as cars pulled onto the grid for the very first touring car-exclusive 24-hour race at Spa-Francorchamps in 1964, endurance racing in the Ardennes was already 40 years old at that point.”
Enter Paul Frère, a talented Belgian scribe similarly handy enough behind the wheel to win Le Mans in 1960 for Scuderia Ferrari. Buoyed by his recent 3rd place at the Nürburgring 12 Hours in 1963, Frère, together with Hubert de Harlez of the RACB, set to work reviving Spa’s long-dormant Le Mans ‘doppelganger’. A 50+ car grid for the inaugural event was their reward in 1964, bolstered by everything from factory-entered Mercedes 300s, BMW 1800 TIs and Ford Lotus Cortinas to privately-entered Morris Mini Coopers and Alfa Romeo Giulias – dicing on-track at breath-taking speeds whilst threading the needle between telegraph poles, ditches and curbsides.
Such was the success that a second race was organised for the following year. Then a third in 1966. In total, touring cars monopolised Spa’s 24-hour race until financial and political pressures forced a re-focus to GT machinery for 2001 onwards. Still, this unbroken 36-year era produced a titanic battle for supremacy between BMW and Ford, a flagship event on the European Touring Car Championship calendar on 15 occasions, and a winning record that went unbeaten for 16 years. Nothing to scoff at. Nor were the efforts – both on-track and off it – of Paul Frère, for whom ‘Stavelot’ corner was renamed upon the Belgian’s death in 2008.
So, absolutely, Spa-Francorchamps has stamped its endurance racing card with aplomb. Still, why now, given that GT machinery has very much represented endurance racing at Spa-Francorchamps for the better part of two decades? Why bring back the tradition of touring car endurance racing to the Ardennes after a hiatus of 19 years?
“55 years after Spa’s first ever 24-hour touring car event seemed a nice way to pay tribute to the region’s history of competition,” Ole continues. “60 would have been better, but this project was so exciting, we just couldn’t wait that long!
“This unbroken 36-year era produced a titanic battle for supremacy between BMW and Ford, a flagship event on the European Touring Car Championship calendar on 15 occasions, and a winning record that went unbeaten for 16 years.”
“We actually started discussing the idea back in October 2017, shortly after we held the first Hankook 12H SPA.” – With three editions of the event already under its belt, CREVENTIC is now no stranger to endurance racing at Spa either. “That was a TCE-only event at the time, and it wasn’t long before the significance of the category and the need for a major endurance race exclusively for TCR cars started to build momentum. Soon Marcello Lotti, founder of WSC [World Sporting Consulting] and the TCR program, proposed this perfect match of circuit and category to us, and we couldn’t wait to get involved. It’s been a lot of work to get to this stage, but we know our teams will produce a great, competitive race and makes these efforts really worthwhile.
“I should make this clear though, it’s important for us that the TCR SPA 500 should not be seen as just a revival of the ‘old’ 24-hour race. We want this event to truly become a flagship event for touring cars, in the same way we think of the Mille Miglia, the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans today. That’s going to take time of course, but the TCR category has very quickly evolved into the ‘king’s’ class of touring cars, and we truly believe the TCR SPA 500 can be THE representative event the category, its competitors and its affiliated brands deserves.”
The strength of provisional grid numbers would certainly suggest so. Up to half a year ahead of the inaugural TCR SPA 500, interest was already being filed from teams regularly competing in TCR Europe, TCR Germany, TCR Asia, and even the World Touring Car Cup, with yet more teams adding their names to the proverbial dotted line as 2019 has progressed. Just goes to show how significant a solid relationship twixt CREVENTIC and WSC has proven hitherto.
“It was crucial that CREVENTIC, as experts of endurance racing, and WSC, the creator of TCRs, had the same goal from the very beginning. And we really have. It’s quite extraordinary how closely our two visions for a stand-alone endurance event for touring cars have gelled, and clearly the expertise and experience of both parties has had a tremendous, positive impact during the planning and preparation stages.
“I should make this clear though, it’s important for us that the TCR SPA 500 should not be seen as just a revival of the ‘old’ 24-hour race.”
“We’re also very excited just how much interest this event has received, not just from competitors and race winners in the 24H SERIES powered by Hankook, but also the myriad TCR programs around the world. Teams from more than 15 different nations will be racing cars representing five different manufacturers, and between them, they regularly compete in more than a dozen different racing series from around the world. That is a massive vote of confidence in not only WSC and CREVENTIC but the TCR SPA 500 as well, and we’re confident this race will do justice to Spa’s illustrious endurance racing heritage.”
Hopefully Paul Frère would have felt so too.
*Images courtesy of Petr Frýba Photographer and 24H SERIES