The Race That Was Three Months Late
In 1980s Formula 1, with commercial concerns in general growing and television to appease, it seemed nothing could stop a race once the cars had arrived. The Grand Prix series' first visits to Detroit and Dallas in 1982 and 1984 respectively showed that however poor facilities were, if the race meeting started, it finished. Then, in 1985, there was an exception.
It wasn't that outright cancellation was rare. FOCA's keen intent to exploit the newly-discovered commercial value of the sport led to all sorts of exotic races being devised. Street races in Rome, New York and the Spanish resort of Fuengirola were repeatedly mooted, but something always came up before circuits got beyond the planning stage - probably for the best. There were more mundane cancellations too, such as the mooted 1983 Swiss Grand Prix at Dijon which fell through when the organisers couldn't raise the money, again usually well in advance of the event. The closest call had been the 1982 Argentinean Grand Prix, forced off the calendar by the drivers' strike, but once again the transporters never arrived in Buenos Aires.
The 1985 season had already lost one race. A second edition of the Dallas Grand Prix had been planned, with the enthusiastic organisers even planning to use it as a plot line in the Dallas soap opera. However, FOCA were wary of the problems with the track surface which had turned the first race into a soap opera of its own, and asked for a large bond to be lodged as security against the smooth running of the event. The organisers, already paying through the nose for the race, pulled out - much to the relief of the teams and drivers.
The Belgian Grand Prix was another matter, to be held at Spa-Francorchamps on the 2nd of June. The circuit had been revised and returned to the calendar in 1983, proving to be a huge success in commercial terms, and had been universally popular with the Grand Prix community itself. In 1984, the race had alternated back to Zolder by previous agreement. The unpopular circuit suffered even more by comparison, and everyone was looking forward to the return of Spa in 1985.
The one complaint most had about the 1983 meeting was the amount of standing water during the wet practice session, and to this end the circuit organisers hired a company named Hydrocar. They had pioneered a new type of tarmac that helped with drainage and practically eliminated aquaplaning. FISA gave the go-ahead for these plans in the summer of 1984, but procrastination and poor planning from the organisers, not helped by a harsh winter delaying work. In the end, Hydrocar finished the resurfacing just 14 days before the race. FISA, for their part, had not carried out their mandatory track inspection 60 days ahead of the race, and made no attempt to investigate even when the Spa organisers cancelled a test session scheduled ahead of the race meeting. In short, it wasn't until the teams first ventured out for the Friday morning test session that it became clear how new the black surface was.
The weather was excellent, and the new surface offered excellent grip. Practice times soon tumbled well below the pole position time for the 1983 race, with Alboreto topping the times. Behind him came Senna, despite limited running on his first visit to the circuit. It was the same story in the timed afternoon session, though de Angelis split Alboreto and Senna, his Brazilian team-mate only completing a single flying lap after electrical trouble and being baulked by Stefan Bellof. 4th place went to Patrick Tambay in the latest lightweight Renault, followed by Johansson, Rosberg, Piquet, de Cesaris, Berger and Lauda. Struggling a little was Marc Surer, on his debut for Brabham and struggling down in 18th place. Alain Prost's car had been late getting ready, and when he set out 15 minutes from the end of the hour the TAG engine promptly failed, preventing him from setting a time.
However, it was clear the surface was giving problems. The ultra-sticky qualifying tyres were barely lasting a flying lap, while the track was breaking up and forming ruts - notably at the formidable Eau Rouge corner. The main problems were coming on the section which was only used for the race track; the majority of the course that doubled as public roads had matured under regular traffic. The drivers commented on surface after the session, and set out with various marshals, organisers and FISA to inspect it on foot. The surface was worse than it seemed from the cockpit, and drastic action was needed.
The organisers' solution was to call up Hydrocar, who worked through the night to repair the surface. Saturday morning's practice was delayed by 15 minutes, and when it did start it was clear something was wrong. Times were 25 seconds slower, and it became clear the repairs - unlikely to work at the best of times - had been botched. Hydrocar hadn't only repaired the areas that had been broken up, but the whole width of the track, plus three corners which hadn't been breaking up at all. The drivers had been running wide to avoid the damaged areas from the previous day, but were finding the circuit to be devoid of grip in most corners. After half an hour, all the cars were back in the pits. The 800bhp engines were tearing up the hasty repairs, and the drivers were up in arms. Alboreto called it undriveable, while Piquet's visor was cracked by a stone.
The afternoon session was promptly cancelled while the corners were swept by circuit staff. The drivers, united behind Lauda, were having none of it, and refused to race. The teams kept out of things, deciding to back the drivers' decision, while FISA head steward John Corsmit was faxing backwards and forwards with Jean-Marie Balestre. The spectators went home at 5pm with promises from the organisers that the race would be going ahead, but by then behind closed doors it was certain it wouldn't be.
After the Dallas Grand Prix fiasco, the drivers wanted the decision made on Saturday - they felt that the previous year they had been put under pressure by the full grandstands. An important difference for them was that the Fair Park circuit had a low average speed of 80mph, with slow corners. At Spa the average lap speed was some 55mph faster, while many of the corners were fast. In Dallas, Derek Warwick had slid off on the surface at around 110mph into a tyre wall, annoyed but unharmed. At Spa, the Lotus cars were touching 190mph going through Eau Rouge, and if one had flown off it would take a miracle for the driver to survive. By 6:45pm the cancellation of the race had been agreed, and at 7pm a statement had been put out: -
For once in the commercially-driven world of Formula 1, sanity had prevailed. Refunds were given out to spectators with tickets for Sunday, with the opportunity to watch the Formula 3000 race - postponed from Saturday afternoon - for a reduced price. The organisers felt that the 400bhp cars would be fine on the surface, and the F3000 series had a different set of stewards anyway. Many of the series' drivers came under the same pressure their Formula 1 counterparts had wanted to avoid. The race was won by Mike Thackwell and dominated by spins, consensus being that it was lucky no-one was hurt.
Nevertheless, FISA and FOCA worked with the organisers and managed to reschedule the race for September 15th. Then, with the surface properly repaired and matured, the race went ahead without problems, won by Ayrton Senna's Lotus. The three-month gap saw some changes, with Stefan Bellof and Jonathan Palmer both missing from the entry. Having made it through the abortive June practice sessions unharmed, a fortnight before both had competed in the WEC Spa 1000kms driving private Porsche 956 cars. Palmer broke his leg in a practice accident, while Bellof was killed trying to pass Jacky Ickx for the lead at Eau Rouge in the race. Despite a traumatic 1985, Spa-Francorchamps would return to the calendar unhindered in 1986, with the Zolder organisers unable to afford to alternate the race to the relief of many.