Long before the great Spa-Francorchamps graced the Grand Prix calender, the Ardennes in the eastern region of Belgium played host the initial burst of motor racing at the beginning of the 20th century.
Of course motor racing began in Belgium just before the turn of the century, in 1896 to be precise when the Automobile Club de Belgique ran the first racing trials – the ‘Concours d’Automobiles’ – around the Spa region.
The First Races
However, beginning in 1902 and running until 1907, the Circuit des Ardennes Auto Race ran the very first ever closed course races at the Circuit de Bastogne.
The track was conceived by Baron Pierre de Crawhez and in its earliest form, the track ran to 53-and-a-half miles, before being lengthened to just over 73 miles two years later – all the while maintaining a vaguely rectangular shape.
On its travels, the route would begin some 65 kilometres south of Spa at Bastogne, prior to shifting to Longlier and then Habay-la-Neuve, before returning to the starting point at Bastogne.
On the 31st of July 1902 in his Panhard 70, Englishman Charles Jarrott became the winner of the inaugural Circuit des Ardennes in a six-lap affair.
After trailing the similarly machined Pierre de Crawhez for the opening two tours, Jarrott claimed the lead and the eventual victory when de Crawhez crashed at the one-third distance. Jarrott completed the gruelling 512 kilometre distance in 5 hours 53 minutes, leading home the Mors Z car of Fernand Gabriel home by nine minutes.
That opening race was run under Formula Libre rules; however when the race returned the following June, the cars ran to “Heavy Car rules”, under which de Crawhez would claim the victory he lost the previous year.
The third running of the great Belgian race would be the first on the extended circuit and even in these early days of motor racing, it would see cars pass the 100 kph mark.
The race – now run to five laps – came in at a mammoth 591 kilometres – a distance that race winner, George Heath covered in 5-and-a-half hours, while his nearest rival George Teste trailed by a full hour.
The final year the race ran under Heavy Car rules would see a disappointing turn out for the event. Whereas around fifty machines contested the first running of the race, the 1905 Circuit des Ardennes would receive only fourteen entrants – eight of whom went the distance.
Final Outing as Grand Prix débuts
With the first official Grand Prix taking place at Le Mans in 1906, the Circuit des Ardennes would claim this status for its final two outings and that years event was a fascinating affair.
As cars generally began to pick up huge amounts of speed during motorsports younger years, it was decided to add a further two laps to the length of the race.
That year’s Circuit des Ardennes would clock in at 961 kilometres and amazingly, the event was completed in virtually the same time as in previous runs.
It would mark the first ‘home win’ for the race as Belgian Arthur Duray took the honours in his Lorraine-Dietrich machine, less than two minutes ahead of the Darracq driven by Frenchman Rene Hanriot.
Henri Rougier finished in third place in the next of the Lorraine-Dietrich cars only a few minutes behind the leading pair; however what is incredible about this race is that speeds of approximately 100 mph were being achieved by these early automobiles.
When the Grand Prix arrived at Bastogne for the final time in 1907, the course reverted to its original 1902 layout and the race was split into two categories to be run on two separate days – the Kaiserpreis Formula (or Emperor’s Prize) was a version of the great Belgian event run to German motoring regulations; that event ran on July 25th with the Grand Prix itself coming two days later.
With the Kaiserpreis returning to its homeland from the following year (itself running until only 1911) and only six cars entering the 6th Circuit des Ardennes, the race was doomed. Pierre de Caters won ahead of the severely depleted field in his Mercedes, with a pace much slower than the speed set in previous events.
The result mattered little – at this stage no one was paying attention.
The Wider Picture
For several years thereafter, racing continued to run regularly in Italy, France and the United States, with occasional events in Russia, although during the years of the First World War, motor racing was excised.
It was not until some years after the great war that motor racing would eventually return to Belgium at the now famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit at a site within the boundaries of Bastogne.
Unlike the shortlived Circuit des Ardennes Auto Race, the Belgian Grand Prix remains a regular fixture to this day and will have its 66th running in eleven days time.
Indeed, the circuit at Spa-Francorchamps has an incredible history that has seen some wonderful racing – mores the shame that the Circuit de Bastogne rings the home of the current Belgian Grand Prix, and no one even knows about it.