Capability Brown’s work can be seen all over the grand estates of England and his influence as a garden designer has never been in doubt. Less well-acknowledged is his influence on race-track design. One would have thought that few were the patrons asking the 18th Century master gardener to squeeze a racetrack between the ornamental lake and the ha-ha. However, if ever the hand of Capability Brown can be seen it is in the racetrack at Spa-Francorchamps.
This is no Hermann Tilke designed safety-first circuit. It is cut through the Ardennes forest with a verve that echoes the undulating landscapes and unexpected vistas of the classic Brownian garden.
When Capability Brown is mentioned thoughts turn first to Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle and Milton Abbey. It is not even recorded in official biographies that the master ever visited this part of Belgium. He is quoted as refusing work in Ireland as he had not yet finished England! Yet here is a racetrack with all the characteristics of a Capability landscape. The eye of a painter would be delighted with the vistas that appear as one wanders around the track.
I was at Spa-Francorchamps for the FIAWEC World Endurance Championship and was immediately struck by the similarities between the recognised designs of Brown and the track that twisted through the Ardennes countryside. There were the watercourses and trees, the carefully placed hillock to provide a perfect view, the disappearing carriageway. If Capability was not involved then someone has been very free with his ideas of perfecting nature to make something more beautiful, giving nature a helping hand, a tweak and a leg up to achieve something more special.
The official history of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit makes no mention of Capability Brown. It goes so far as to say that it was originally designed in 1920 as a 14km track using public roads. As Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown died in 1783 there is a large discrepancy here. Has he been deliberately erased from the record books? Is it a conspiracy? Are the Belgians unwilling to admit that this great circuit was laid out by Capability years before the official date? Or has Capability merely been an inspiration to the unnamed designer who originally laid out the circuit between the towns of Spa, Malmedy and Stavelot in the Belgian Ardennes? If this is the case then it would appear that the Alpine watercolours of Turner have also played a part in the design of the track.
Where else do spectators for a major sporting event lounge languorously on rocky slopes, hidden among the trees? But Turner also is missing from the approved history of the circuit. According to this, Spa-Francorchamps staged its first race in 1922 and two years later hosted its first 24 hour endurance race. The diagram below shows the original layout of the track, which was a high speed circuit popular with drivers and spectators.
Safety issues were not at the forefront of the circuit’s original design. The track used public roads and there were the usual trees, telegraph poles, walls and houses next to the circuit. Unlike the run-off areas of modern tracks, Spa was unforgiving and it became notorious for bad accidents. All but La Source were high-speed corners, and combined with the changeable weather in the Ardennes Forest and the lack of run-off areas accidents were often fatal. After multiple fatalities during the 1973 and 1975 24 Hours races the circuit was going to have to be altered to remain relevant in the modern era.
In 1979 the circuit was dramatically shortened to 7km. The relationship between the old and new tracks can be seen above. Clearly the new layout has a lower potential for absurdly high speed, lacking as it does the straights either side of the Masta kink. But the new circuit is still fast and hilly, and still heads off into the Ardennes forest. The weather can still be entirely different on different parts of the track and the ability of the driver is still tested to the limits, especially through the famous Eau Rouge/ Radillon combination.
Spa-Francorchamps is a classic of world racing and whilst it remains uncertain whether Capability Brown was the original creator of the track there is enough evidence to suggest that his influence has been heavily felt by those who did craft this magnificent circuit. However…circumstantial evidence that Capability was involved with race tracks does exist elsewhere. Capability worked at Stowe in England. Can it only be a coincidence that there is a corner called Stowe at Silverstone? I think not.