The quick demise of a modern F1 race track
The sad story of the Nivelles-Baulers circuit
By the early 70's, Formula 1 has started to shake the old habits it got into during the old days of the Grand Prix. Some of the greatest racers including Lorenzo Bandini, Jo Schlesser and Jochen Rindt died around the time, and the decision makers of the twenty-something year-old series and an there was an increasing pressure the organizers of the Grand Prix to increase safety. Although the introduction of the roll cage was a huge step forward, there was little else that could be done about the cars, so all that could be updated were the race tracks. The organizers and the race drivers started to accept that playing Russian roulette at the races having no runoff areas and guardrails couldn't go on forever. One of the biggest victims of the impending changes was the Belgian Grand Prix, which could only escape closure by an unfortunate change of track.
The Belgians organized 17 world championship Grands Prix until 1968, all of them at the Spa-Francorchamps, an exciting race track originally built in 1921 by connecting several public roads and rebuilt later. Its narrow asphalt was lined with hillsides, trees and the back wall of a house here and there, but hardly any runoff areas except for the odd strips of grass. The track wasn't particularly dangerous compared to the rest in its time, but it was problematic enough for the Belgian Grand Prix to be excluded from the race series in 1969. The similar Nürnburgring fell victim to the sudden safety issues, too: after the organizers failed to comply with the new rules, pressure from the DPDA made them move the German Grand Prix to the Hockenheimring the following year.
Guard rails had been installed all along the Spa race track in time for the 1970 race, but that wasn't enough; the quick fix made for a short comeback, but the Belgians had to build a whole new track the following year. They were thus excluded from the 1971 season, but in the same year managed to open the new Nivelles-Baulers circuit, which was built on the Walloon side just like the Spa. The new track was modern, almost futuristic in those days.
The Nivelles-Baulers track was everything the Spa was not. While the latter had been built on the steep slopes of the Ardennes, the Nivelles was built on a plain with merely a slight upgrade near the finishing line. There was no need for railing on this track, it had such massive runoff areas that the spectators often complained about having to stand too far away. It was sterile and modern, a pioneer of the new generation of race tracks, having a lot more common with the Tilke tracks of today than anything back then.
Safety was nothing to worry about at the Nivelles, but it still wasn't a hit with the contestants. Most pilots thought it was boring, way too flat, and even too short. The builders had wanted it to be longer, but as they couldn't buy enough land, all they could build was a 3.7 km long track. Although the financial background of the organizers was uncertain at the time, the Belgian Grand Prix was held at the Nivelles from 1972.
The Belgians planned to solve the problem of the missing Spa track by having the yearly races organized by the Walloon and the Flemish circuits taking turns. The Walloons went first by hosting the 1972 Grand Prix, the 5th race of the season at the Nivelles. Missing from the biggest racing stars of the day competing in the race was world champion title holder Jackie Stewart, who missed the event due to gastritis. Emerson Fittipaldi, leading in the points competition and going for his first world championship win did take part in the race which he eventually won.
In 1973 it was the turn of the Flemish track to host the event, so the series moved to the Zolder circuit in the northern part of Belgium. A year later it was the turn of the Walloons again but by then the organizers had gone bankrupt. They still managed to find enough sponsors to organize the event, though. Fittipaldi, a world champion by then, won once more, beating Lauda by a whisker.
Two years later they tried again but failed, partly because the condition of the tarmac at the Nivelles-Baulers had gotten worse, compromising safety. The track not only became unsuitable for Formula 1 racing, international race series stayed away, too. That was the beginning of the end for the Nivelles. It soon became clear that no Belgian Grand Prix would ever be held there again. By 1980 it was deemed too dangerous for car racing but motor bikes races could still be held there for another year. On 30 June, 1981 its licence expired and was closed for good. It remained a strip of asphalt winding in a meadow. The land was sold in 1985, the pits buildings and the track were abandoned until the late 90's. Occasionally it was used for driving laps illegally, but the fun came to an end in the early 2000s after some parts of the track had simply been worn off, while others got demolished being in the way of real estate developments.
Some parts of the track have survived and are currently being used as public roads. There are two roundabouts now where the finishing line used to be, and the most characteristic part of the track, the 300 degree Big Loop made up of the 2nd and 3rd curve has become a part of an industrial estate.