Spa-Francorchamps is the scene for the next round of the 2014 calendar, and back in 1960, it was also the scene of two needless fatal accidents. Young English racers Alan Stacey & Chris Bristow were both killed at the same corner on the same day in unrelated accidents at the Burnenville Corner. 54 years later, these men are confined to the annals of F1 history as young promising drivers cut down in their prime.
It doesn’t look like much nowadays, but the below picture is of the Burnenville corner at the old Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Its location wasn’t even halfway around the old circuit, coming quickly after the Les Combes section. Travelling along the Kemmel Straight, drivers now brake for the right/left Les Combes combination, but back in 1960 the track continued straight on, diving downhill through a series of gradual and seemingly neverending lefthanders. The drivers would scarcely have had time to straighten their steering wheels before they would encounter Burnenville, a long, long sweeping right hander.
Image Credit Google Maps
While drivers today would be protected by acres of run-off area, tyre barriers, Armco guard-rails and all the life-saving wizardry of a modern F1 monocoque, there were no such luxuries in an era where drivers placed their faith in leather helmets and not much else. Even modern day rally drivers might draw their breath at the proximity of lamp-posts, electricity pylons, ditches, gaps and even civilian housing all lining the track. This video below shows the extent of the danger to which the drivers exposed themselves to. Although it’s not Formula 1 machinery, there is a link to today’s racing in the form of the driver Lucien Bianchi, grand-uncle of the late Jules Bianchi.
It’s hardly surprising then that Formula 1 & a dangerous circuit like Spa wouldn’t be the best bed partners, but the amazing thing was that the sport avoided tragedy at the circuit throughout the 1950s. Spa hosted the Belgian World Championship round every year from 1950, excluding 1957 & 1959 where the races weren’t held. While there were accidents and fatalities in other disciplines, F1 escaped. But this could be regarded as the calm before the storm. The 1960 event was to make up for all the tranquility of prior events, and to this day remains the only Grand Prix to claim two lives during one race.
This picture shows one of the main hazards of the Burnenville corner. On the outside of the corner, there was a drop of about 12 feet, which was there due to someone’s house and driveway having the audacity to be in the way. Picture is from the 1966 race, with Jo Bonnier’s Cooper dangling over the edge. He was uninjured.
Practice had gone badly enough even before the two young men were killed. It started with Stirling Moss losing control of his Lotus-Climax during practice, crashing heavily at Burnenville and resulting in several broken bones including both legs. According to Bruce McLaren, who was the first driver at the scene and at Moss’s side, several drivers stopped to aid the panicked Moss. With no sign of an ambulance, young driver Mike Taylor was sent back to the pits to get help for Stirling, but crashed at high speed when his steering column snapped. He was thrown from the car, and his resulting injuries left him paralysed.
While an awful sequence of events, this was almost par for the course for 1960, and the race took place as scheduled. Taking part were inexperienced Englishmen Bristow & Stacey, who only had 9 F1 races between them on the day they were to lose their lives. Bristow was a 22 year old Londoner, driving a Yeoman Credit Racing Cooper T51. Chris had shot up into Formula 1 with the help of Ken Gregory, the man who signed Bristow to his BRP-backed Yeoman Racing squad in 1959. Having raced privately from 1956, Bristow had attracted attention at the London Trophy event at Crystal Palace in an F2 Cooper. Ken was a firm believer that Bristow was ‘something special’ and could have gone all the way:
‘He was bloody quick. Another couple of years and people would have seen just how great he was. There were quite a few who didn’t get over that fearlessness threshold in time, and were killed. But Chris was so quick that even in his short time his talent was all too obvious. He was incredibly quick but relatively inexperienced, and for a such driver that was the most dangerous period of all. If he had survived, almost certainly he would have been a potential world champion. He was the early Schumacher of his day.’
The talented young rookie entered the Burnenville corner on Lap 19 of the race lying in 6th place battling with Wolfgang Von Trips & Willy Mareisse. He lost control of his car and crashed heavily, rolling several times. The Cooper struck an embankment and Bristow was thrown through barbed wire that fenced the meadow he was entering. He was decapitated. Due to the crash occuring on the inside of the turn, Bristow’s body ended up thrown back onto the track. Fellow rookie Jim Clark witnessed the horrific aftermath of the crash and forever disliked the Spa Francorchamps circuit for the remainder of his life.
The remains of Bristow’s car.
Astonishingly, it was to be mere minutes until Formula 1 had its next fatality. Alan Stacey was 26 years old, an Essex farmer who had a bad motorbike accident when he was just 17. Resulting in a partial amputation, Stacey had a prosthetic leg and had to use a hand control throttle in lower formulae, to great success. Having made his way into Formula 1 with Team Lotus as No. 2 to Innes Ireland, Stacey wasn’t about to allow the use of a foot throttle deter him. According to journalist Gerard Crombac, Stacey used deception to race on at least one occasion:
‘At Rouen one year, Alan had to pass a medical. Team Lotus was – like most British teams at that time – very scared of the bureaucracy of French organisers. So I was sent to go with him. Well, there is that test where the doctor touches your knee with a rubber hammer, to check the reflex. So Alan showed his proper leg for the first test, then I distracted the doctor’s attention and Alan quickly made sure that he tested the same leg again!’
While Stacey was immensely popular amongst those who knew him, his tenure within Formula 1 was probably not destined to be a long one anyway, due to his inability to use a foot throttle as well as needed. Crombac said that ‘Alan was a very nice bloke; cheerful, not complicated, A lovely bloke. A really nice chap, but when it came to Formula One he didn’t enjoy the proper throttle control which he needed. That was really his shortcoming. I think the cars were getting too much for him. When he wanted to put the throttle down, he had to shift his hips.”
Stacey was killed on Lap 24 of the race. Exiting the Burnenville corner (almost certainly while the wreckage of Bristow’s car remained), he was preparing to enter the fast Masta kink when he too lost control and crashed. The Lotus caught fire and Alan was dead by the time anyone could extricate him. While the cause of the crash was unclear, team-mate Innes Ireland said he had been told by spectators that a bird had struck Stacey’s visor, causing him to lose control of the car.
The exit of Burnenville today, heading up towards Masta. This is where Stacey was struck in the face by a bird and lost control of his Lotus.
Despite having to negotiate the debris of two fatal accidents within minutes and metres of each other, the race continued and was won by Sir Jack Brabham who passed away earlier this year. The circuit was used in the same configuration for another 8 years, and was the scene of Jackie Stewart’s infamous accident in 1966 which saw him receive the injuries that would cause him to press for the change in attitude to safety and accidents that the sport so desperately needed. The race was held in 1968 for the final time on this configuration, before Formula One left the sweeps of Burnenville, Masta and La Carriere behind. Unfortunately, too late for the two young men, who remain the only two men killed in Formula 1 at Spa-Francorchamps.
What may have come of Chris Bristow’s career, in particular? Ken Gregory said ‘I regarded him as a protegé and he knew that we were preparing him for what would have been great things.’