Autocar’s favourite races: 1992 Belgian Grand Prix

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From F1 to kart racing, we all have that one race that will forever stick in the mind. These are our highlights

You know you’re working in a good (admittedly remote) office when an email for writers’ favourite races goes out and all the replies come flooding in within five minutes. 

Spanning the globe and a whole number of different eras, it’s amazing what memories stand out, be they individual driver performances or tiny details like the way one driver leant his head into a corner. There’s even a near-riot in NASCAR in our list. 

Let us know which was your favourite in the comments below.

1992 Belgian Grand Prix

In a season of domination for Nigel Mansell and his high-tech Williams FW14B, the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps was a rare treat in 1992: it was actually a good race. But a great one? That’s probably a stretch. So why, of all the thousands of motor races I’ve seen, have I picked this one? Because as favourites go, Belgium 1992 turned out to be a major landmark, for the world of Formula 1 but also for me.

I’d just turned 18 in August 1992 and was preparing to head off to university. So what did I decide to do? Instead of saving my hard-earned summer savings, I spanked a chunk on a Page & Moy coach trip to Spa for what would be my first experience of a motor race overseas. Sensible decision, as usual.

The experience added fuel to a smouldering idea I’d had for a few years, that writing about motor sport would be an ideal way to avoid getting a proper job when full-time employment could no longer be avoided.

So early one Thursday, I caught the first train up to Victoria, found the stop where the Page & Moy coach was waiting and headed for Brussels. Yes, Brussels. About an hour and half away from Spa. Quite why we were staying so far from the track, I have no idea – but then I had no idea about anything at that age.

Once I did get to the circuit, I wandered around shadowing another chap for a while, then plucked up the courage to strike out alone. It was wonderful. The Ardennes forest and the ribbon of famous track that winds its way up, around and through it was mesmerising, especially once the aural shriek of 3.5-litre V12s, 10s and 8s began to stab at my eardrums.

Key memories? Actually witnessing Perry McCarthy’s Andrea Moda coming past me under its own steam on Friday morning, just before his steering rack jammed at Eau Rouge… Quite proud to have seen Pel ‘in action’! Then choosing to watch the Formula 3000 support race on Saturday afternoon from the inside of the Kemmel Straight, just to experience flat-out speed from close range. No one else watched from there because at one of the greatest spectator circuits in the world I’d picked a spot that’s a bit rubbish as a vantage point… but I was happy as the field screamed past for lap after lap. My fellow coach travellers were less so because most of them wanted to hit the bars in Brussels and I’d kept them waiting. Hadn’t they all been thrilled to watch Andrea Montermini win for Forti Corse?

The Sunday was long, wet, uncomfortable and I recall feeling hungry for most of it. But it was also fantastic. The coach left Brussels at some god-forsaken hour and once at Spa, I strolled through the woods up the middle of the circuit to Pouhon, the mega-quick double left-hander. There I found a great vantage point, perched on a tuft of grass on the steep bank just on the corner’s entry point. First I watched Oliver Gavin win the Formula Opel race – an early landmark of his own, for a driver I’d come to know well in the years to come – then waited for the grand prix to start.

It was better than I could have hoped. Mansell started from pole position, but fell behind Ayrton Senna’s McLaren early on, before he and Riccardo Patrese reasserted their usual Williams dominance. Then characteristic Spa rainfall threw everything up in the air. While most pitted for treaded rubber Senna gambled on staying out and the conditions improving. They didn’t – and when he finally pitted the great Brazilian dropped out of contention.

Now Michael Schumacher came to the fore. A year earlier, the German had burst on to the F1 scene by qualifying seventh on his debut for Jordan. Now here he was exactly a year on, an established front-runner with Benetton.

It was a mistake that made his day. Schumacher ran off the road at Stavelot and team-mate Martin Brundle, who had gathered a head of steam after a difficult start to the season, moved ahead of him – but as he did so canny Michael spotted the state of the Englishman’s blistered rear tyres. In that moment he decided to stop for slicks – and it was a decision that won him the race. Brundle later admitted he should have dived in himself, but chose not to in his excitement to be ahead of Schumacher, while Mansell switched three laps too late. 

Nigel, already confirmed as world champion by this stage of the season, returned to the track five seconds behind the new leader, but a broken exhaust thwarted his chase. Schumacher, at the 18th time of asking, was a grand prix winner for the first time.

I knew I’d witnessed a significant moment and remember feeling a slight shiver that had nothing to do with being cold, wet and hungry. I had no way of knowing, of course, that the young German had another 90 wins and seven world titles still to come.

Back on the coach for the journey home, the glow soon wore off when we got to the port and found all the ferries in dock because of a gathering storm. I sat on the coach through the night, sleeping as best I could, before we caught the first ferry of Monday morning. I had just enough money for my return train home and the hunger pangs increased – until another traveller took pity and bought me breakfast.

I must have looked a state when I walked through the door that afternoon. Still, what an adventure. And now I was certain: I knew what I wanted to do with my life. What better way to avoid working for a living?

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