The Classic Spa 6 Hours Captured on Medium Form Film Takes You Back 60 Years
Photography by Robin Wouters
If you’re looking to experience the drama of an actual historic endurance race, and movies like Le Mans by Steve McQueen or the more recent Ford v Ferrari simply don’t check all the boxes, the Classic Spa 6 Hours might do the trick. Each year during the last weekend of September, Spa-Francorchamps welcomes hundreds of drivers to race each other in 1960s fashion for 6 hours straight on Saturday afternoon. The event supports many other exciting races like CanAm and touring cars, but the endurance race is without a doubt the climax of the weekend and since the weather at Spa is quite unpredictable, completing the race with 60-year-old race cars is bound to be jam-packed full of action and drama. Visiting the event with a mid-1960s analog medium format camera, thus seemed like the best thing to do.
Come 1963, the World Sportscar Championship (now known as the FIA WEC) added a 500km endurance race to their calendar. That race was to be held at Spa, which back then, was a 14km long track that consisted of fast corners and straights, located in between the farmlands and forests of southern Belgium. Like many other racetracks at the time, Spa could almost entirely be driven full throttle, with only La Source requiring a significant amount of deceleration. The inaugural race of 1963 is a good reference to get a feel for how fast this stretch of public road really was. It was won by the Belgian Willy Mairesse driving a Ferrari 250 GTO, entered by the legendary Ecurie team. On his fastest lap, Mairesse clocked an average speed of 205.174kph. To put that into perspective, the top speed of a Ferrari 250 GTO is 280kph, meaning that for the majority of the lap, Mairesse was pushing the car to its absolute limit. On top of that, he, as well as all other participants, raced the 500km on his own, with no secondary driver. The Classic Spa 6 Hours aims to keep the legacy, emotions and atmosphere of that wonderful 1960s endurance race alive.
To make that atmosphere as time honored as possible, participants must comply with some regulations: the cars must race with their original lights, radio communication between the team and the driver is not allowed and all teams must choose between ‘60s style Dunlop or Avon tires. This 1960s-style automotive engineering is easily noticed when walking around the paddock. Meticulously cleaned and dialed-in carburetors are the standard, as are H-pattern gearboxes, straight pipe exhausts, and genuine leather steering wheels. The atmosphere follows the same trend. People gather around each other and drivers to have a friendly chat, others flock together next to a revving car that’s being prepared for the race. Sometimes, those revving cars are rare classics that are difficult to put a price tag on. Think about an original Shelby Cobra or Bizzarrini, cars that are capable of turning more than a few heads at the world’s most pristine automotive auctions. Yet at the Classic Spa 6 Hours, you’re in the 1960s, and every car is built with only one thing in mind: be victorious after 6 hours of relentless racing. And when the clock reaches 4pm, the madness begins.
As the cars exit La Source, they accelerate towards Eau-Rouge while rain is pouring down. The amount of skill needed to take a treacherous corner like the Eau-Rouge and Raidillon combination while driving a 60-year-old race car in the rain with cars left and right is remarkable to say the least. All spectators stand up straight as just over a hundred race past creating a thick mist due to the amount of water that is thrown up into the air from the wet surface. This marked the start of 6 nerve-wracking yet prodigious hours of racing. During the first few laps, the cars remain fairly close to each other, meaning that there a few minutes of silence between the last cars passing by and the first ones coming around again. During that time, accelerations and downshifts can be heard in the distance. The unmistakable sound of a GT40 becoming louder and louder is a sign that the leaders are about to emerge from La Source, ready to do it all over. An hour into the race, those moments of silence are entirely gone as the field is spread out over the entire track. At that point, the first wet-track-victims report to the pits while others come in for a regular pit stop. For some, it’s just a routine driver change, window wipe and engine-oil check-up, others get pushed into the garage for more extensive cosmetic or mechanical repairs. Cars that need fuel, must be driven to a petrol station at the end of the pitlane where the driver has to refuel the car by himself. This on its own, is a spectacular sight. There’s always some 50 people watching as drivers fill up their GT40 as if they were at a normal petrol station. When they’re done, they jump back into the car, fire up the engine and drive off to continue the race.
Four and a half hours in and a light drizzle still manages to keep the drivers on their toes. Luckily though, the wet track didn’t take many more victims. Cars are swiftly repaired, then sent back out. Clouds finally clear as the race enters its last hour, just in time for the sun to cast a beautiful blue sky before disappearing completely and letting nightfall upon the track. This is the moment when the paddock comes alive even more. The finish-line is near and as a result, tension rises. Many spectators make their way to the pitlane to watch the final driver changes take place in the dark. Meanwhile, on track, something is happening that leaves every fan of historic motorsport in sheer awe; the race continues in total darkness. Without a doubt, this is what differentiates this race from many others. With the drivers pushing themselves and the cars to the limit in the dark, it becomes clear that they aren’t here purely for fun, they’re here to race for a duration of 6 hours and go home victorious. At 10pm, the checkered flag drops and it’s a Ford GT40 followed by an Aston Martin DB4 GT and another Ford GT40, that take the top three spots. Tranquillity returns to the Belgian woods and cars start ticking away as they cool down. After a short celebration, everyone gets ready for a well-deserved night’s sleep. Spectators return home, still captivated about the race. A feeling that will probably last for a few days.
It’s no wonder that whether or not the sun shines, this event attracts an impressive number of visitors. Witnessing hundreds of drivers fight each other for 6 hours in 60-year-old race cars is truly spectacular in every sense of the word. And even though only three teams can stand on the podium, everyone who so much as attempts to finish this race, is a winner. That goes for the drivers, teams, and the cars. Even with modern machinery, finishing any endurance race is no easy task, so to do it with technology from the mid-20th century is simply staggering. Besides the racing, there’s also an incredible amount of respect and friendship amongst everyone present at the Classic Spa 6 Hours which makes being there an experience that’ll be difficult to get out of your head in the weeks after. In other words, if you’re looking to experience the drama of an actual historic endurance race, the Classic Spa 6 Hours might be the one to do it. Because in the end, it has all the right ingredients to rightfully be a 1960s endurance race.