Belgium: a nation of racers
After a packed-out , hugely successful 2019 return to Zolder, venue of DTM’s very first race way back in 1984 and a calendar returnee after a lengthy 17-year absence, it’s easy to state the case that a round of the DTM belongs in Belgium.
But why is motorsport so popular – and so pervasive – in such a relatively tiny country?
With just 11.5 million inhabitants – only slightly more than the population of greater London – Belgium, like its closest neighbours France, Germany and the UK, has long been a major, and successful, player in international motorsport.
A lengthy winning tradition
Formula 1 races, Le Mans 24 Hours, World Championship rallies, Formula E races, the Paris-Dakar rally, touring car competitions: you name it, and Belgians have won it.
Curiously, Belgium was the last country in Europe to make driving tests mandatory – as recently as 1977. Prior to that, you could just go and buy a licence; and, until the end of 1968, anyone aged 21 or older was allowed to drive a car just like that.
Perhaps it inspired more young Belgians to pursue a career in motorsport.
“We never thought much of it, we just got into a car – any car – and drove,” Paul Frère, who won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1960 together with Belgian compatriot Olivier Gendebien, recalled in an interview some years before his death, aged 91, in 2008.
As well as being an excellent race driver, Frère was also an internationally acknowledged automotive journalist, writing in French, German and English.
The mighty Spa
Of course, Belgium is best known in motorsport circles for the fearsome and demanding Spa-Francorchamps circuit – cited by drivers worldwide as one of the greatest racetracks ever built.
Located in the lush Belgian Ardennes forest, Spa’s original lay-out was even more daunting: a 14.8-kilometre triangle of tree-lined public roads that linked the villages of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot.
The track was first used for competition as early as 1921, and has been the home of the Belgian Grand Prix since the start of the Formula 1 world championship in 1950.
As speeds increased, Spa’s initial configuration was deemed too dangerous, and it was skilfully reconfigured in 1979, still retaining many of the original roads and corners – such as the La Source hairpin and Eau Rouge/Raidillon uphill sweeper. Some parts of the circuit were still in use as public roads until as recently as 2001, when a new road from Francorchamps to Burnenville was completed, enabling the circuit to finally become a permanent facility.
While Formula 1 has visited several different venues in Belgium, it’s fair to say that Spa is the spiritual home of the Belgian Grand Prix, having hosted more than 50 F1 races.
The mighty, sweeping Spa-Francorchamps is widely regarded as one of the best circuits in the world
In 1924, just one year after the first race at Le Mans, Spa-Francorchamps also held its own 24-hour race. The event still exists, and includes former DTM champions Hans-Joachim Stuck, Eric van de Poele, Roberto Ravaglia, Bernd Schneider, Timo Scheider, Mattias Ekström and René Rast among its winners.
Austrian Philipp Eng, WRT team principal Vincent Vosse and ITR chairman Gerhard Berger have also won the famous enduro.
In addition, Spa also has a long sports car tradition, and has most recently added a world championship rallycross track to its long list of facilities.
The challenge of Spa is intensified in the daunting 24-hour race
A new home for Belgian motorsport
As frequently happens in a bi-lingual country (tri-lingual, if you count Belgium’s German-speaking community situated close to Francorchamps), once the French-speaking part of the country had established Spa as its own circuit, the Flemish-speaking community wanted one as well.
That’s how the Zolder circuit came to be. Designed by Dutch architect John Hugenholtz – – who also designed Suzuka, Jarama and Hockenheim’s stadium section – and opened in 1963, it hosted its first Formula 1 grand prix in 1973.
Belgium’s ‘other’ track first hosted a grand prix in 1973
A total of 10 grands prix were held there between ’73 and ’84, and it’s sadly remembered as the track at which Gilles Villeneuve lost in life, in a qualifying accident in 1982.
Zolder is also considered the birthplace of the DTM, the inaugural race of the series having taken place there in 1984. The German series regularly started its season at Zolder until 1994, made a one-off return in 2002, and returned to great plaudits in 2019.
Like Spa, Zolder also has an annual 24-hour race and regularly hosts cycling events, including the cyclocross world championship in 2016 and the BMX world championship in 2019.
The legend: Ickx
Without much debate, it is probably fair to name Jacky Ickx as Belgium’s most successful racing driver.
From 1966 until ’79, he competed in 116 Formula 1 races, for Cooper, Ferrari, Brabham, McLaren, Williams, Lotus, Wolf, Ensign and Ligier. In 1968, his first full season in Formula 1, having made his four-wheel debut with a Lotus Cortina touring car only three years earlier, Ickx became a works driver for Ferrari, scoring the first of his eight Grand Prix wins, at Rouen.
In 1969, he won the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time, driving a Gulf-liveried Ford GT40 to victory in a fierce last-lap battle with Porsche’s Hans Herrmann. It was one of the closest finishes in the race’s history.
Ickx then went on to score another five Le Mans wins, four of them with Porsche. His other noteworthy achievements include victory in the Bathurst 1000 (in 1977) and the Dakar Rally in 1983.
Jacky Ickx is revered as Belgium’s greatest ever racer
With three grand prix wins achieved between 1983 and 1993, Thierry Boutsen is the second-most successful Belgian Formula 1 racer to date.
In total, 24 Belgians have raced in Formula 1, other podium finishers being Olivier Gendebien, Paul Frère, Lucien Bianchi and Willy Mairesse.
The country’s most recent driver was Stoffel Vandoorne, who blitzed the GP2 championship in 2015 and raced for McLaren between 2017 and ’18. Together with Jerôme D’Ambrosio, he is now one of two Belgians competing in Formula E.
Stoffel Vandoorne remains Belgium’s most recent grand prix driver
The 24-hour habit
While Ickx remains the country’s most famous to have competed at Le Mans, another 100 Belgian drivers have contested the legendary French endure over the years.
Perhaps there’s something in the water that makes the nation such a hardy breed: Marc Duez is a four-time winner of the Nürburgring 24-hour race, an event also won by Laurens Vanthoor. And, naturally, the list of Belgians to win the Spa 24 Hours is too long to mention.
The nation has also succeeded on the World Rally stage: Thierry Neuville is the most successful Belgian export, having take 11 rally wins at world championship level. François Duval also has one victory to his name.
And DTM? Naturally. By a strange anomaly, no Belgian driver won in DTM for many years, until Maxime Martin took a sole victory at Moscow Raceway in 2014. Eric van de Poele did win the DTM championship title in 1987, but didn’t take a race win en route to the championship.
Today, Bart Mampaey’s RBM outfit and Vincent Vosse’s WRT squad represent Belgium in the series.
Maxime Martin remains the sole Belgian driver to win in DTM, here at Moscow Raceway in 2014