When Formula 1 last aborted a race at Spa
The controversial decision to award points for last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix washout after two safety car laps drew inevitable comparisons with Formula 1’s infamous visit to Spa in 1985.
As in 2021, the cars did at least take to the track, and a qualifying session took place. But whereas F1 last weekend tied itself in knots and pressed on in the forlorn hope of getting some running in before taking the unpopular decision to call a result – prompting Lewis Hamilton to call for fans to get their money back – in 1985, the decision was taken to abandon the race on the Saturday evening.
The reason for the postponement was a spectacular own goal by the Spa management. The track was resurfaced at such a late stage that once the cars ran it quickly broke up, making a race untenable.
It remains unclear whether F1 will return to have a proper ‘race’ at Spa later this year, but in 1985 everyone returned for a second attempt a little over three months later, and the weekend passed without drama.
What happened at Spa in June, 1985
After 13 years away, the Belgian GP had returned to a revamped and shorter Spa in 1983. After a one-off trip to Zolder in 1984, the race was back in the Ardennes for 1985 with a 2 June date.
Everyone had been impressed by the venue in 1983, and apart from a few bumps at the Bus Stop chicane, there had been no complaints. And yet prior to its 1985 return the organisers made the decision to resurface the track with a new material that would in theory offer better grip in the rain.
Belgian company Hydrocar had come up with a special mix that they called SAMI, or Stress Absorbing Membrane Interlayer, which had a high rubber content.
Governing body FISA was aware that new track surfaces need time to time to cure, and the 1984 regulations contained a proviso that no work could take place less than 60 days before an event.
Indeed FISA was asked about possible resurfacing at Spa in October 1984, and replied that it would be fine as long as the 60-day rule was respected. However, some local red tape had to be overcome before the work could start, and then a particularly hard winter, with snow on the track as late as 1 May, caused further delay.
The race was cancelled after practice when the newly-laid track broke up due to the heat
Photo by: Motorsport Images
The work thus continued into May, with the clock ticking towards the Grand Prix weekend. When a planned pre-race F1 test session was cancelled the organisers cited “modifications” to the track as the reason, but FISA didn’t realise that this excuse related to resurfacing.
The work was reportedly finished just 10 days before Belgian GP track action was due to kick off on Friday 31 May. FISA track inspector Derek Ongaro knew nothing of what had transpired until he arrived for the race weekend. Had it rained, the organisers might have got away with it, and indeed been praised for coming up with a grippy, well-drained surface.
But in fact it was to be hot and sunny throughout. Added to that, the turbo F1 cars of 1985 were the most powerful yet seen, especially with the boost turned up in qualifying. Inevitably, their grippy tyres put a lot of load into the track.
Lap times in the opening session were stunning, even allowing for car development during F1’s two-year absence – in topping the times on Friday, Ferrari’s Michele Alboreto beat Alain Prost’s 1983 pole time by some eight seconds. The new surface had incredible grip when it held together.
Alas, it didn’t. The hot weather and powerful cars combined to damage the surface, and by the end of Friday it was apparent that there was a problem, particularly at three corners in the ‘new’ section that linked the public roads.
The previous July’s race in Dallas, when the surface broke up and many drivers crashed, was still fresh in everyone’s minds. And on this much faster track the situation was potentially much more serious. It wasn’t just about lap time on the loose stones – Nelson Piquet suffered a cracked visor, and Nigel Mansell had a puncture.
All of this caused a major headache for Bernie Ecclestone, then still also running the Brabham team. Belgium was one of ‘his’ races, so he was the promoter, even if he wasn’t responsible for the actual running of the venue and the decision to resurface.
Urgent repair work was conducted overnight, and for some reason corners that had shown no signs of damage were also addressed.
Ayrton Senna, Lotus 97T Renault
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Some 25 minutes into the Saturday morning practice session the track fell silent, as everyone realised there was no point in running. Elio de Angelis was fastest for Lotus – but he was 23 seconds off the best time he’d done the day before. The consensus among the drivers was that conditions were now impossible, and a series of meetings began.
At that point one suggestion was to cancel all Saturday running, including qualifying and the supporting Formula 3000 race, and then skip the Sunday warm-up and go straight into the F1 race on Sunday afternoon.
Then unexpectedly at 4:40pm someone let the Renault Alpine support race contenders out for a practice session. After that some of the F1 drivers went on a track inspection in a minibus.
Meanwhile at 5:50pm the crowd were told that Sunday’s action would go ahead as planned. However, behind closed doors, discussions continued.
“Someone has to have the guts to take a decision, yes or no,” a spectating Jackie Stewart told Autosport. “And it must be someone from FISA. You cannot put the drivers in a position where they have to decide. That’s not on. But really the whole thing makes you despair, doesn’t it?”
Meanwhile the F3000 race, due to run on Saturday afternoon, did not start on time. Competitors had little information about what was going on until Ecclestone appeared in the support race paddock and gathered team bosses together.
He told them he now wanted their race to run on Sunday. It would either be held after the Grand Prix, or if that didn’t happen, it would be the main event. There was a promise of TV coverage, so the teams agreed to wait. Instead of heading home on Saturday evening they had to stay another night.
Up in the F1 paddock discussions continued, with Niki Lauda representing the drivers. Finally at around 7:30pm team bosses emerged from a meeting and said that there would be no F1 race. Shortly after that an official statement emerged from the FISA race stewards. They declared that the track was “unsuitable for F1 cars” and thus the race would be postponed “for safety reasons.”
This was a huge call. Over the decades, F1 had been through all sorts of dramas related to safety and politics – sometimes both on the same weekend – but in the end the drivers had always gone to the grid and raced.
Bernie Ecclestone and Alain Prost in coversation at the drivers meeting
Photo by: Motorsport Images
When Sunday rolled around it was clear that F3000 would be the main show for the spectators who had stayed on. In theory at least the event was now the Belgian GP.
A warm-up session on the hurriedly repaired track was held at 12.30pm, with the drivers reporting that it felt like it was wet. The race went ahead but, unfortunately, it was not a thriller. Mike Thackwell won by 50 seconds in the works Ralt, his fastest lap over 15 seconds shy of the pole position time, while many of his rivals spun off. Fans also got to see a processional Renault Alpine race.
FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre was not at Spa, but he kept in touch by phone, and was understandably livid. He summoned the organisers to a FISA Executive meeting in Paris on 24 June “to explain the serious fault committed,” and noted that they “will be liable to very heavy sanctions.”
In the end that amounted to just a $10,000 fine for the Belgian ASN “given the prejudice caused to the F1 world championship,” plus the proviso a $100,000 bond should be deposited with FISA by the organisers and only returned if a rescheduled weekend ran without problems.
Ecclestone meanwhile had to find an alternative date. At the time the F1 calendar was almost as fluid as during these current pandemic times – races in Rome and New York were scheduled for 1985, and then dropped, and a European GP at Brands Hatch was a late addition at the end of the year.
He eventually chose a slot on 15 September, a week after Monza and a week before Brands Hatch. Teams were angry that with Spa back they would face an unprecedented five races in six weekends – a double header, a gap, and a triple header. Eventually the Brands event was moved back to create some breathing space.
By September the track had been resurfaced. Prior to the return of F1 the motorcycle GP meeting ran on 7 July, and the 1000kms WEC race – in which Stefan Bellof was tragically killed – took place on 1 September.
The F1 weekend ran without drama, and a rainy Sunday yielded a second career win for Ayrton Senna.
Spa’s reputation was saved, and lessons were learned all round. Never again would a Grand Prix venue make the same mistake, while the governing body would tighten up its procedures for inspecting and approving tracks.
The race was cancelled after practice
Photo by: Motorsport Images