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Racing without frontiers



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May 7, 2006


There are few small countries whose motorsport pedigree is bigger than could be expected from their modest size. Meet Austria or Finland – each have produced more World Champions than other nations with far larger populations. Or take Belgium, and especially its Walloon region – its motor racing heritage includes more than a few classic race tracks. Forget Nivelles or Zolder and instead track back to the times when Belgium contributed significantly to mainland Europe’s blossoming car racing scene. It gave the world its first closed-circuit event of note when Baron de Crawhez initiated the Circuit des Ardennes in 1902. And of course, the Spa-Francorchamps track is a jewel in the sport’s crown and remains so in its modern version.

In its own way, the Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay is a deserving part of those glorious pre-war years of Belgium adding a sizeable chunk to Europe’s blooming motor racing landscape while neighbouring Holland was still a white spot on the map. And like Spa, it managed to survive well beyond the age when most circuits consisted of closed-off road sections, before their original lay-out finally fell foul of the seventies’ nascent safety consciousness.

Chimay is situated in the most southern part of Belgium’s Hainaut province. The small town, reigned for many centuries by the princes of Croÿ, is well known for its princely castle and its abbey beers, and used to hold a pivotal position between France and its nearby enclaves Philippeville and Mariembourg, the many German states, the prince-bishopric of Liège and the other Low Countries in its various Burgundian, Spanish, Austrian and independent guises. It makes the plural ‘Frontières’ all the more logical. So it is perhaps fitting that this event used to be a no-holds-barred dash to the finish, a top-speed thriller that kept its spectators on their toes for a finite, restricted amount of laps. No chance to get bored, it was over before you could take another breath. At Chimay drivers were indeed racing without frontiers.

Although the Grand Prix des Frontières remained a relatively minor event, the Chimay venue far outgrew its grass roots as a local event in the region south of Charleroi, and remarkably, it did so by keeping a low profile all through its colourful history, which went on to span near to half a century. It was the practicality of its organizers, the Auto Moto Club Beaumont, led for many years by track founder Jules Buisseret, that allowed the self-pronounced Grand Prix to survive for such a lengthy period. From the inaugural race on May 9, 1926 to the swansong event in 1972 this Border GP led a chameleon-like existence, catering to whatever category best fitted the bill at that particular junction in time – from sportscars to F2, from pukka Grand Prix cars to the cigar-shaped F3 machines that raced the track in its final eight years of use for racing cars before the motorbike races that traditionally shared the bill took over in full from 1973 on.

Buisseret’s business acumen led to the race being run to the premier category four years after its inception, Zehender winning for Alfa Romeo, but it never overstretched to attract the big stars. After George de Marotte and his Salmson GP won in 1930, the winner’s rostrum became the domain of privateer Bugatti runners such as Legat, Longueville (twice), Steinweg and Trintignant (also twice), interloped by Dutchman Eddie Hertzberger and his MG Magnette. An over-2000cc race was run in 1937, which was won by Hans Rüesch, whose 8C-35 had also been victorious in Helsinki the week before and would take another win at Bucharest two weeks after, the German enjoying a wonderful month-of-May minor-event winning spell.

After the war the event was run to Grand Prix regulations on three occasions. In 1946 Leslie Brooke won in his ERA while in 1949 local hero Guy Mairesse raced his T26C to home glory, the event preceding the Belgian GP by two weeks. The Grand Prix des Frontières became a Formula 2 event thereafter, returning to the Grand Prix calendar when the World Championship ran to F2 regs in 1952 and ’53. Frère (HWM) and Trintignant (Gordini) took the honours. Prince Bira and his Maserati A6CGM won the last F1 race at Chimay in 1954, before the event became sportscar and F Junior territory. From 1965 to 1973 the event was a classic on the international F3 calendar, with David Purley proving himself as a Chimay specialist of sorts, coming out on top of the slipstreaming battles on no less than three occasions.

It’s no wonder that those with a talent for high-speed circuits and a big heart to match would excel at Chimay. The circuit bears a striking resemblance to Reims-Gueux, some 60 miles dead South on the old Roman road into the Champagne region. Both circuits are basically triangular. Both, starting from a town-square base, headed far into the open country. Both also featured a collection of fast corners and hairpins connected by extremely long and fast straights. And both had their village sections eventually cut off in the interest of safety. But while Gueux was quickly bypassed to form the Grand Prix circuit shape that was used in the fifties and sixties heydays of Reims-Gueux, the Bouchère neighbourhood was only left in peace from 1985 on, when the original circuit was shortened to include the new start-and-finish straight and three chicanes at after Spikins, before Beauchamps and before Vidal. This caused a brief return of cars to the track when Belgian Group N paid a visit to Chimay. In 1996, the track that once was a 6.75-mile cannonball run finally morphed into a boring, rectangular 2.8-mile track blighted by yet more chicanes. This hosted a Belgian Procar race only once, before it resigned itself to welcoming an annual historic event in mid-July.

Circling Chimay today

While the new circuit is featureless and hardly offers any challenge, the old one isn’t very technical either. But it does require balls. It’s a typical old-school track of the ‘no guts, no glory’ kind, offering sinuating straights – only later sparsely lined with Armco – that lull their slipstreaming users into a false sense of security and simplicity, before cambered corners require their utmost concentration and precision. This is especially so with the La Bouchère hairpin, located on a junction in the western outskirts of Chimay. It comes unsighted at the end of an uphill run lined by houses before quickly dropping down into the off-camber corner that has remained virtually unchanged since the war years.

The old starting straight and its pit area on the right.

After the La Bouchère section was cut off, these modern centre shoulders were added for safety reasons.

One can still see the flow in this village section.

There’s a short crest before the plunge down to the hairpin.

The N593 – otherwise known as the Ligne Droite de Salles – is looming around the corner.

The road is named eponymously after its neighbourhood.

The road curls to the right before abruptly reaching the hairpin’s clipping point.

Seen here from where we were coming from, the Bouchère hairpin is a sharp righthander that confronts the drivers with a directional change of about 130 degrees.

Seen from the far end of the corner, the yellow Kangoo is about to navigate the hairpin from the right to the far left of our picture.

These signs weren’t there in the fifties but the building standing to the right of it was. Only the garage door has been replaced by a modern version.

Immediately following the hairpin the road rises steeply towards a short straight.

The short straight that leads to the arrow-straight blast towards a kink several miles ahead on the Ligne Droite de Salles.

As the cars headed out of town into a wide-open space that allowed the drivers to see all the way to the slopes of Salles, their slipstreaming bonanza could begin. Especially in its dying days, when the circuit was a throwback to an era in which safety wasn’t even an afterthought, the leading car punching a hole in the air for a gaggle of rivaling designs of F3 breed must have been a spectacle to behold for any farmer walking his yard lining the track. It will have been a quick flash, similar to watching a Tour de France stage from the side of the road, but at least you would have seen a similar flash for 12-odd laps.

The first part of the 2.5-mile straight.

The flow of which is now interrupted by a roundabout.

Once clear of those obstructions it’s a long and fast blast to the horizon.

Heading towards Salles, the straight first sees a kink to the right which doesn’t need lifting the throttle.

This is followed by a short run to Virage Spikins.

Virage Spikins is a slightly uphill lefthander that leads up the slope to Salles. Its church tower just clears the ridge that is keeping the village out of sight until the very last moment.

Salles is a tiny farmer village that is part of the Chimay municipality. It used to contain two of the most challenging corners of the circuit. Both are 90-degree righthanders, both are banked, and neither of them left any room for error. As a pair they formed the bottom left corner of the Chimay triangle – cars would negotiate them within a couple of seconds, only briefly straightlining on the connecting Rue de l’Etang before being slingshot towards the similarly small-sized village of Robéchies, which formed the top-hand corner of the triangle. The Rue Thierissart leading to Robéchies offered more profile compared to the huge Salles straight, as its modest slopes and curves are lined by the occasional line of trees and the Chimay circuit’s best-known landmark, the Chapelle de Nôtre-Dame de l’Arbrisseau.

The entry to this lovely chapel is lining the N593 into Salles, right at the top of the hill that is seen on the previous picture. It is located right before the parking area that once served as the Chicane Spikins.

The banked shape of the first righthander is an anomaly in the quiet village of Salles, a very apparent fossil left behind from a louder past.

Already outside of the tight bounds of Salles, the second righthander is cut out more naturally in the landscape.

Seen from the other side, the corner presents itself as a great photo opportunity, allowing for a magnificent head-on view of the cars coming round.

The Rue Thierissart starts as an arrow-straight uphill run towards the chapel.

As we are nearing the granite God house the road bends gently to the left.

Located at the highest point of the circuit, the Arbrisseau chapel formed an imposing sight for any driver going past it on a wing and a prayer.

The tourist user of the Rue Thierissart will be forced to pull off and admire the stern but elegant brick construction of this miniature church.

On the other side of the road a bunker increases the tunnel view that drivers must have had passing the chapel.

There is little subtlety in the rural architecture of this chapel, its crudeness emphasized by the grey colour of its building blocks, but its dimensions and choice of location betray an inane sense of taste in a region where the last creations of architectonic beauty were built centuries ago.

The Rue Thierissart, or N595, continued with a fast lefthander following right behind the chapel, after which the only corner of note on this part of the triangle loomed in the distance – the Virage Mairesse, named after the unfortunate Willy Mairesse who in 1957 overcooked it here and, Armco not yet present, ended up in the field that is sloping down right behind the corner’s aggressive banking.

The chapel is still very much in use today. Wait for five minutes and at least two or three locals in their Clios or Fiestas will have dropped by to burn a candle for their loved ones.

Trees are lining the N595 when it turns to the left, heading towards the Robéchies corner that later became known as Virage Mairesse.

Still marked as a ‘virage dangereux’, the Virage Mairesse is an acute righthander that comes after a full-throttle blast of about a mile.

The top section of the track, bypassing the village of Robéchies, was probably the easiest part of the circuit. There are some left-and-right sweeps, like the one circling around the Saint-Rémy farm, but the undulation that gives the track an added attraction on most other sections is sorely missing here. In early times, a challenge of an entirely different kind would unsettle the drivers here – lining up in single file to cross Le Petit Pont, the narrow bridge heading over the Mons-Chimay railway. This would be widened in 1960, while the run-up to it was straightened out, shortening the circuit by 0.3 miles.

At Mairesse, the road suddenly rises mid-corner, adding to the challenge of this corner – the only one on this stretch of the circuit that definitely cannot be taken without lifting and changing back gears.

The farm of Saint Remy on the left is passed by an easy semi-circle.

Today’s ‘Petit Pont’ is hardly small and the railway it used to cross overhead is a thing of the past. An overgrown ditch is all that is left of it. Right behind the bridge, on the right, the new circuit can be seen exiting on the part of the old one that is reused, with the run-off area of Virage Grauls on the left. This is the place where a fatality in 1972 brought the end of car racing at Chimay. Following the run-off is the later addition of Chicane Pilette.

The Virage de Beauchamps would be the last corner before the plunge down to the finish line. It won’t have been a particularly difficult corner although it is hard find the correct apex at first. A few practice laps would have cured that. The following descent to Virage Vidal is spectacular, as it lined by trees and slowly leads us back into more habitated areas. From a driver’s point of view, however, it will have been fairly straightforward.

It is quite hard to see the actual corner coming up.

The Beauchamps corner itself is easy but a clear sight on the apex is taken away by the barn on the right.

The open views of the Salles and Robéchies sections are suddenly swapped in favour of a short forest section through the Parc de Beauchamps.

The descent to the finish straight, called Descente Vidal, starts with this moderate righthander that is still lined by the Armco of the seventies.

Drivers won’t have paid much attention to the lovely entry to Parc de Beauchamps.

On the left, competitors on the new chicane-festered track would be exiting the Chicane Bourgoignie, named after another previous winner, but the old-fashioned speed freak would simply continue through the ultra-fast Virage Vidal to barrel down to the finish.

After Vidal, there is only one simple right-hand kink to go.

The start-and-finish straight slowly drops towards the Bouchère neighbourhood, turning the start into an old-style Spa affair, with drivers having to stand on the brakes while waiting for the flag. But what’s that pile of rubble on the right?

It’s where the old control tower used to be!

Sadly, another act of sacrilege. The control tower built in 1955 that was still erect in its run-down glory when Motor Sport visited in 2001, has now been demolished. The building that used to give the place the same patina that Reims used to have before its restoration, was given the Rouen treatment in the spring of 2005.

But as opposed to Rouen-les-Essarts, this can’t be a question of simply deleting the motorsport heritage present. Chimay is still a place that revels in motor racing. Its present race track is lined by a Café du Circuit while the town centre square’s most prominent public house is called the Paddock Café. Moreover, the huge start-and-finish gantry of the new circuit can be seen clearly from the site of the demolished control tower and the old pitlane wall. So what happened? It appears that the building had become unsafe to the public, and so, instead of restoring it, it was decided to pull it down.

The intersection with the road to Virelles, at the Porte de Mons, was widened in 1985 to form a fast but safe righthander towards the new start-and-finish straight, the N594 aptly named the Rue du Grand Prix des Frontières…

The new circuit is hardly deserving a mention compared to the old one. But it can’t be denied either because it is still so evidently there. Its basically rectangular shape and its awful back-straight chicanes, however, make it too bland to feature here, even though it is hosting a pair of historic events each July, organized by folk with their hearts in the right place.

The new starting line is livened up with a huge gantry promoting the main sponsors of today’s historic events, both of which take place on two consecutive summer weekends. The first one, Motos Classiques, is celebrating Chimay’s rich two-wheeled history, while Historycar is a pre-66 event that mostly features GTs and touring cars, but also the Formula Fords and Juniors that used to race here.

The new pit and paddock area already looks historic by way of its apparent lack of attention.

Looking back from Virage Frère, the first 90-degree righthander of the new circuit. The run to the first corner is also used for drag racing events now. But let’s not go there…

The best memories of a track visit lie in the details. In the case of Chimay, it’s undoubted the Armco. Once erected as a pitiful and inadequate means to stop the circuit from becoming outdated, their current state are not just a reflection on Belgium’s breathtakingly poor standard of road maintenance but also on what was and will never be – racing without barriers or frontiers on road circuits designed by nature.