Europe has had a long history of war – which is why the European Union was eventually invented. Wars result in countries winning and losing territory and so there are today all kinds of strange anomalies when it comes to frontiers.
The country known today as Belgium was often involved in the fighting as it had the misfortune to be a place where the French, German and Dutch borders meet. Not far from Antwerp, for example, one can find a complicated district consisting of Baarle-Hertog (which is Belgian) and Baarle-Nassau (which is Dutch). There are 22 Belgian exclaves inside Dutch territory and six Dutch exclaves inside the largest of the Belgian exclaves. You can cross the border several times simply by walking down the main street.
On the other side of Belgium, near Eupen, one can find several strips of Belgian land, just a few metres wide, that meander through Germany along the path of a railway line. These remained Belgian when the borders changed, in some places the tracks have been torn up, but the land remains Belgian…
Still, there is one good thing about all of this for motor racing fans, because without borders moving around, we would probably not have the Spa Francorchamps circuit.
The region to the east of Spa has long been a messy part of Europe. Parts of it belonged to Luxembourg, other bits to the Archbishop of Trier and some districts to the Holy Roman Empire. The whole region became French in 1795 but then, after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, most of it was ceded to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, although the East Cantons (Eupen, Malmedy and St Vith ) were given to Prussia. The Belgian Revolution in 1830 led to the southern part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands breaking away to become Belgium.
Spa developed as a resort, where people visited to take the iron-rich waters. Eventually it became a little too popular for some and so a new hotel was built opposite the first station on the railway line towards Luxembourg. It was quiet but allowed easy access to Spa. The village was called Francorchamps and the new establishment was named the Hotel des Bruyères, which literally translates as the Hotel of the Heather. The land around Francorchamps was either marshy heathland or thick forest. It was the last village before the German border, which was at the top of the hill after the road to Malmedy rose up after crossing the Eau Rouge stream.
World War I and the Treaty of Versailles which followed altered the borders once again and gave the East Cantons to Belgium, in reparation for some of the damage the Germans had done. The new frontier meant that Francorchamps was no longer the last village before the border and had free access to Malmedy, which had become Belgian. The town was also linked to Stavelot by another road which passed through the hamlet of Masta. So there was a triangle of road in Belgian territory – which almost no-one used.
This fact was noticed by Jules de Thiers, the managing director of the La Meuse newspaper, and he proposed using it as a racing circuit, taking Henri Langlois Van Ophem, a gentleman sportsman who was chairman of the sporting commission of the Royal Automobile Club Belgium, to lunch at the Hotel des Bruyères to discuss the idea.
The club was looking for a racing circuit that would be fast, cause minimal disruption and be easily accessible for spectators by railway. The concluded that the Francorchamps-Malmedy-Stavelot triangle would be perfect, as it was fast, had a station in each town and the population was sparse. The Mayor of Spa, Baron Joseph de Crawhez, liked the idea. He was an automobilist and with his brother Baron Pierre had had some interesting adventures with automobiles in the early years, driving Panhards into the Sahara Desert, to see if they could get through to Sub-Saharan Africa.
Thus it was all agreed and the first race was planned for a few weeks after the Automobile Club de France revived its Grand Prix at Le Mans, in the summer of 1921. The problem was that the Belgians received only one entry for their race. De Thiers was unperturbed and held the race for motorcycles instead. The riders were excited about the circuit – and the word got out to the car racing people…
And that is why the original Eau Rouge corner was known as the Virage de Ancienne Douane – the Old Custom House Bend.