Spa-Francorchamps in the rolling hills of Belgium’s Ardennes Forest is not an exclusive mind-and-body wellness resort. It is not populated by beautiful people in Egyptian cotton robes. It does not offer a hot stone Moroccan spice massage or a sweet ginger body bake. It’ll rejuvenate your senses all right, but for completely different reasons.
Spa-Francorchamps is among the most revered racetracks in the world. It has claimed the lives of over 40 professional racers, including two during the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix. At the bottom of the infamous Eau-Rouge corner is where Stefan Bellof — a man possessed of superhuman talent — died in 1985. His Porsche prototype speared off the course at full speed, going left as Eau-Rouge goes right and sharply uphill.
If this place claimed Bellof, what chance do the rest of us have?
The car is Nissan’s 2017 GT-R, a perfect marriage of sledgehammer and smartphone. The rain is just beginning to drizzle. The important numbers: 565 horsepower (20 more than last year’s GT-R) from the 3.8-litre twin-turbo V6. There’s a fatter torque curve, too, with more of the 467 pounds per foot being available through more of the rev range. That’s the sledgehammer. The smart bit is the all-wheel drive system that can send power to individual wheels to keep the GT-R going where you point it. It grips like gum to the sidewalk.
Eau-Rouge lives up to its reputation. From the bottom, this backwards S-bend looks like a vertical wall. It’s not smooth, either, with bumps on the racing line to throw your car into a spin. You’re just as likely to crash at the top, where the track drops away and the car goes light, as you are trying to put the power down for the long straight that follows.
At least the cabin of the GT-R is reassuring. It’s been upgraded for 2017 with lots more cowhide so now it feels like the $110,000 car it is.
The first laps are slow. There’s precious little warning when the front or rear tires lose grip. The steering feels numb at first, but the GT-R’s all-wheel drive system steps in instantly to avert disaster. It’s a comfortable car, too, happy to settle into a steady 140 km/h.
But Spa is relentlessly high speed: 210, 220, 230 km/h. The numbers flash across the dash. The view out the rear- view mirror is a wall of spray.
Charging harder, leaning on the grip, the steering wakes up. The GT-R suffers fools kindly, even at Spa, even in the rain. It’s a heavy car, so brake early. You feel the front tires settle, and then use the power liberally. The computers turn that into a perfect tiny powerslide, and you feel like a hero rocketing down the next straight. The GT-R is best driven fast, which suits the track just fine.
It’s an all-encompassing experience to drive a sports car at Spa; it’s a solitary, selfish pursuit. It doesn’t clear your head so much as overwhelm it. It’s all you can think about. In fact, Spa may be the ultimate mind-and-body wellness retreat after all.