For reigning world champion Benoît Tréluyer and his team-mates the annual trip to the Ardennes is always of particular importance. Spa-Francorchamps’ iconic circuit and unique atmosphere, not to mention teams making their final preparations for Le Mans, mark it out as a special event.
Making the trip to Belgium’s round of the FIA World Endurance Championship is never a chore for Benoît, and not only because of the historic track that awaits him. The country is also the ‘back yard’ of friend and German co-driver André Lotterer whose childhood was spent in Belgium.
“It's always André who picks me up from the airport in Brussels before heading to his mother’s house, where he shows off his latest boys’ toy!” laughs Benoît. “It's always a special trip. In fact, it's a weekend spent with the family as my parents also often attend. They have a camper van behind the outer grandstand of Eau Rouge where I join them for a coffee and spend some time in watching, when my job allows. That’s not something I can do anywhere else. If I were a spectator I would stay there for hours because it’s one of the few places I know of where you can judge with the naked eye whether a guy is fast. You can also recognise some drivers just by the way they negotiate the corner.”
Eau Rouge is just one of many corners that have forged Spa’s fearsome reputation. Successive changes have not dampened its challenge either.
“This is a corner where you can’t go flat out on your first lap,” confirms Benoît. “Before doing that you need reference and turn-in points. There is a compression and the car must be well set-up to avoid hitting the ground violently. Ride height, downforce and all set-ups are focused on this corner, which places big constraints on the car in general. It is an area where you flirt with the limits, both human and mechanical. These are extraordinary sensations. We always approach this in a very focused manner because you can lose so much time along the straight that follows. The car’s basic set-up centres on Eau Rouge and defines whether you bottom out through there. This is the basis for discussions with the engineers. After that you set the car up for the rest of the circuit.
“It is also a track where we prepare for Le Mans because the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps is the final event before La Sarthe’s classic. But mainly its rapid nature offers a chance to conduct valuable work.
“Le Mans is also on our minds,” confesses the Frenchman. “Spa is a very fast circuit and we approach the set-up in a similar way to that at La Sarthe. In fact, we race with the Le Mans configuration, only with more downforce. It is no coincidence that Audi will be entering two different versions of the e-tron quattro there: the car we, along with Loïc Duval, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, raced at Silverstone that generates optimum downforce and a ‘long tail’ version with an extended rear section which has been entrusted to Marc Gené, Lucas di Grassi and Oliver Jarvis. The team will analyse and compare the two models sector by sector in order to obtain the most useful data.”
While the Belgian race will once again demand the utmost levels of concentration, Benoît concedes there’s still room for a little relaxation.
“Look, it’s a lot of fun and, even though this is no holiday, it's true that I'm always a little more relaxed at Spa because, even more so than at other circuits, I know I can rely on my team-mates. Marcel (Fässler) is completely at home in the Ardennes and André loves the layout. In short, they are both like fish in water!”
That’s just as well, for Spa’s notoriously fickle microclimate is not to be overlooked.
“The weather is always changing, always unpredictable and provides us with a real challenge,” smiles Benoît, who by his own admission is rarely left disappointed by the Ardennes circuit. “Last year we recorded our first podium for Audi outside of Le Mans. There have been one or two disappointments here but I always have fond memories when returning to Spa.”