Nivelles is usually recalled, if at all, as a blandly anonymous venue near Brussels that hosted just two Grands Prix in its short history, both won by Emerson Fittpaldi.
However the second event, held on May 12 1974, played an important but largely unheralded role in the history of F1, ultimately helping to shape the sport as we know it today.
Nivelles came into the equation as a potential grand prix venue as a result of the ongoing safety debate over the original Spa-Francorchamps. The Grand Prix Drivers' Association had long been concerned by dangers associated with the Ardennes circuit, especially in the rain, and in 1966 their frustrations were captured in a fictional meeting in John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix film.
The Belgian GP was cancelled in 1969, and subsequently re-instated after safety work for 1970. Spa’s future was then discussed in a meeting of the CSI (forerunner of the FIA) in Geneva in March 1971.
After input from both the GPDA and the teams the race was removed from that year's calendar. It was clear that there would be no reprieve unless major changes were made, and there was a quick response from the government via the Wallonian minister for culture, who backed plans to create a six-mile permanent road circuit, featuring two-and-a-half miles of new road. However, it was acknowledged that the project would take several years to complete.
There was no alternative venue for 1971, as Zolder – in business since 1963 but not yet equipped to deal with a large crowd – was deemed unsuitable. The problem the Royal Automobile Club de Belgique faced was that under CSI rules if it didn't run a Grand Prix for two years it would lose its right to automatically re-apply for a place on the calendar. Thus there was an extra incentive to have a race in 1972, rather than wait a few years for Spa to be rebuilt.
For a while there was serious talk of running the 1972 Belgian GP at Oulton Park, and eager promoter John Webb even said that given more notice he would have happily run the 1971 version at Brands Hatch as well! However, a more logical new venue was already under construction.
Dave Walker, Lotus 72D Ford and Emerson Fittipaldi, Lotus 72D Ford
Nivelles-Baulers was located between the towns of those names, some 40 minutes south of Brussels. It had been in the works for a several years – the council had agreed to it in principal in January 1969 – although progress was later slowed when the man who dreamed it up, Yvan Dauriac, was killed in a road accident.
In a portent of what was to come, Autosport reported in April 1971 that “the real estate company owning the site now seem to think that they would be better advised to build a housing estate on it.”
But work did proceed, under the management of construction entrepreneur Robert Benoit, who had signed a 63-year lease with the local authorities. On September 5 1971 the venue hosted its first meeting, with a round of the European Formula Ford 1600 championship the highlight.
Featuring a long pit straight, a series of fast curves and a trademark tight hairpin, the 2.3-mile track had been built with safety as a priority – which meant it was surrounded by the then unfamiliar sight of acres of run-off, backed by layers of catch-fencing. It should have been longer and a little more challenging, but a planned extra loop was never built after the price of the neighbouring land was hiked up.
The facilities were far from complete, but the track earned a grand prix date for June 1972.
By way of a build-up that April, Nivelles hosted its second meeting, a round of the European F5000 championship. The competitors were disappointed to find that the otherwise impressive pit buildings were still not finished, and had no doors. When it rained the run-off areas turned into a quagmire, and mud flowed onto the track. There were also major dramas with ticketing, paddock access and the organisation in general.
In addition, Autosport's Robert Fearnall reported that “not all the locals are happy with the circuit as when we visited a local pub a petition was being handed round, complaining about the noise”. Another portent of things to come...
A few lessons were learned, as the subsequent grand prix weekend ran without major dramas, and it saw a win for Fittipaldi and Lotus. However the lack of any atmosphere was all too apparent – it was no Spa.
The following month a local environmental group was formed with the specific aim of tackling the noise issue and making life difficult for the circuit developers.
By 1973 Zolder had been upgraded sufficiently to enable it to hold that year's Belgian GP as part of a politically expedient deal for the Flemish venue to alternate with its Wallonian counterpart. The race was notable for the way the poorly surfaced track broke up, precipitating a string of accidents.
Helmut Marko, BRM P153B leads Andrea de Adamich, Surtees TS9B Ford
As a result a return to Nivelles for 1974 didn't look like a bad idea.
However things were in a total mess, as the organisation had been declared bankrupt by the local commercial court, apparently after loans were called in early. Some local interests did not want to see the venture succeed, and had alternative uses in mind for the land, while the noise lobby was also exerting pressure.
In his role as head of the constructors' organisation – then known as F1CA – Brabham owner Ecclestone was keen to see the event go ahead. Ecclestone was by now increasing his power base as he battled over money with race organisers on behalf of the teams, although this was many years before he took full control of the schedule.
Marlboro and Texaco were already backers of the event, but more cash was required, and Bernie travelled to Brussels to meet the oil company's sponsorship boss, John Goossens. Also there were Marlboro's local man, Jean Celis, and RACB chief Hubert de Harlez.
Texaco and Marlboro both agreed to pump more money in, but there was still a shortfall. Anticipating that, Goossens had also invited Freddy de Dryver, boss of Bang & Olufsen Benelux, who had recently agreed an F1/F2 sponsorship deal with Team Surtees.
“My father said, ‘OK I'll put the money on the table,’” recalls de Dryver's son Bernard. “But I need it to be the Bang & Olufsen Belgian GP. I want to be the main sponsor.'
“There was a small battle between Texaco, Marlboro and the RACB, and my father said, ‘I won't pay if you don't agree with my position.’ He nearly left the meeting and Bernie said, ‘Freddy, sit down.’ So they agreed the deal. And the grand prix was on.”
While in Belgium Ecclestone also dropped into Nivelles, where Firestone teams Hesketh, BRM and Surtees were busy testing. It was reported that he was asked to leave as the tyre technicians thought he was spying for Brabham’s partner Goodyear...
The combined budget of the three race backers was sufficient to pay for the hire of the circuit and the required personnel.
As Autosport's Paddy McNally later explained, Ecclestone, ostensibly working on F1CA’s behalf, “still had the constructors to pay, but he had the gate money plus the proceeds of any advertising and programme sales. It seems Bernie offered his fellow constructors a very acceptable deal – they split the profit and shared the risk.”
However the likes of Colin Chapman, Ken Tyrrell and Teddy Mayer were busy operating their respective teams, and were not interested in running races as well, and potentially losing money so doing.
As McNally noted: “It seems that some entrants, unlike their drivers, are men of straw and not prepared to gamble. So Bernie guaranteed the start and prize money personally.”
Jean-Pierre Beltoise, BRM P160B leads Mike Hailwood, Surtees TS9B Ford
Thus, more or less by accident, Ecclestone found himself the promoter of the 1974 Belgian GP.
“It was the last thing they wanted, so I had to do it personally,” he recalls. “Colin and most of them had the attitude, ‘We want to race, we don't want to be involved in selling tickets to the public or anything like that.’
“When I took things over I offered to do everything for the teams, and run everything, and also more or less support them and make sure they got paid properly. And I was going to take 30 percent of the risk, but they didn't want to do it.
“We got stuck with adopting the position of promoter, collecting what money we could and paying out the teams. We had to find the money to pay for the circuit and everything else, whatever money was floating around. At the time there wasn't much choice. I didn't think – if I thought, I wouldn't have done it...”
To help boost interest Bernie entered a third works Brabham for local hero Teddy Pilette, having secured extra funding from Hitachi.
The race weekend was not without its problems. The timekeepers lost the plot in qualifying, generating a grid that put Ferrari's Clay Regazzoni on pole with a lap that even his own team admitted was wildly optimistic, while there were huge issues with credentials and paddock/pitlane access, despite F1CA having recently tried to take control by introducing its own pass system.
An incredible 31 cars – an F1 record to this day – started the race, while the extensive Texaco, Marlboro and Bang & Olufsen signage around the track told its own story.
It was all too much for veteran Motor Sport magazine journalist Denis Jenkinson, who noted “the whole place seemed to have exploded with advertising drum beating and publicity gimmicks.”
The important aspect for Ecclestone was that some 70,000 people showed up to see Fittipaldi win for McLaren, and they all bought tickets and programmes: “The teams got paid what they should have got paid. I was committed to do that whatever happened – if we hadn't got any money in, I was committed to pay them.”
He also made a tidy personal profit. In McNally's words, Bernie had “scooped the jackpot.” Autosport’s man also wondered why the RACB had not promoted the race itself, noting, “some people would argue that faint-hearted organisers are playing right into the F1 constructors' hands.
“The constructors have already taken over certain areas of GP organisation, and there are scandalous stories (absolutely unfounded of course) suggesting that they wish to run the whole operation.”
Emerson Fittipaldi, McLaren
The journey would take a few years, but that is pretty much what happened – and seeing a race organisation from the inside out was a valuable lesson.
“We didn't know how it worked,” smiles Bernie. “We had to learn…”
One of the men who would eventually join Ecclestone for the ride was none other than McNally, who would eventually take charge of circuit signage, programmes and hospitality via the Allsport concern, earning himself millions in the process.
And it all started because, wearing his Autosport journalist’s hat, he had paid attention to what Ecclestone was up during that Nivelles weekend.
One man who missed out was Freddy de Dryver, as his son recalls: “After the race Bernie went to my father and said, ‘Freddy, I'll show you want I want to do with F1CA, I need a guy like you with me,’ My father said, ‘Sorry Bernie, I've got plenty of work, I can't accept.’ A few years later he thought, ‘Maybe I should have accepted that offer...’”
The grand prix returned to Zolder for 1975. Nivelles didn't attract any more international events, and it was rarely used even for domestic meetings. In 1978 the troubled venue came up for auction – and intriguingly one of those who showed an interest was Bernie Ecclestone.
The final nail in the coffin came in 1979, when the new and shorter Spa was finally opened, and with that went any momentum from the authorities to save Nivelles. The circuit held its last car race on November 17 1979, and on February 5 1980 the RACB announced that it was no longer homologated, although bikes would race on until ‘81.
The adjacent karting circuit also survived for a while, and in 1980 it hosted the world championship, where Ayrton Senna da Silva finished second. The Brazilian made a lasting impression on an 11-year-old spectator and karting prodigy by the name of Michael Schumacher.
Subsequently, the slowly deteriorating venue was mired in legal complexities involving the state and local governments. The site wasn't even properly secured, so for many years people could sneak in and blast around in road cars.
Finally, in the early 2000s, it began to morph into an industrial estate, while much of the track remained hidden behind fences, gradually being reclaimed by nature.
The outline of the first half of the lap was still visible in the layout of the access roads, and in June 2014 the site played host to a one-off 40th anniversary GP Revival event.
The day featured demonstrations by a mish-mash of historic cars of all types, including the Trojan raced by Tim Schenken in the 1974 Grand Prix, on what remained of the circuit. Surprisingly, a decent crowd turned out for what proved to be the unloved track’s final gasp – and its oddball history as motor sporting venue came to an end.
Track at Nivelles-Baulers