In 1971 the “Compexe Européen de Nivelles-Baulers” was opened not from the Belgium capital Brussels. This brand new circuit would host two Formula One races, both won by Emerson Fittipaldi. Sad enough, this circuit had to close the doors after only ten years…
Complex Européen de Nivelles-Baulers
In a time that the old Spa-Francorchamps circuit was criticized for its lack of safety, a group of businessmen decided to build a safe alternative for the Belgian Grand Prix. The brand new circuit in the French speaking part of Belgium was designed by Dutchman John Hugenholtz (Also known as Hans Hugenholtz while his official first name was Johannes) and had the shape of a revolver. For that reason it was nicknamed “Circuit de revolver”.
The official name of the circuit complex was “Complex Européen de Nivelles-Baulers”, usually called “Circuit de Nivelles”. In the Dutch speaking part of Belgium it was called “Het circuit van Nijvel”. Nijvel was the Dutch name of Nivelles which was the closest city to the circuit. Baulers was a small village, just a few Miles from the race track.
The revolver shape was actually a coincidence. The original design foresaw in a longer circuit of about 3.5 Miles, with a second loop on the other side of the circuit. But the circuit owners could not buy the required terrain at once. They decided to build a shorter circuit of 3.7 Km (2.3 Miles) first, with the idea to complete it after the other ground was purchased. This proved to be the first major miscalculation. Once the circuit was there the landowner increased the prize. The circuit owners could not afford it, so the circuit never got the full length.
The shortcut (grey on the map) of the clubcircuit.
The circuit of Nivelles was an ultra-modern motorsport venue on it’s time, with huge run-off areas and the public far from the track. The layout of the circuit was characterized by a mix of fast and slower corners through a rolling landscape. It contained two straights from which the longest had a length of 1.1 kilometers (0.7 Mile). More information about the layout of Nivelles in the article “A lap at Nivelles-Baulers“.
Was the Nivelles Circuit a boring race track?
The circuit of Nivelles is often depicted as a flat and boring circuit. To burst the first myth, Nivelles was not flat. Although it was not a mountain track like Spa-Francorchamps, there where elevations all around the track as you can see in the Photo below.
Actually, the circuit of Nivelles had three things against it:
First the fact that it was a replacement for Spa-Francorchamps which was, and still is, one of the most spectacular circuits in the world.
Second. The limited length in combination with the high-speed layout. This made the lap times (around 1 minute 10) very short. That was good for the spectators, but not for the drivers because they saw the all the nine corners again and again in a short time.
Third. The circuit was his time far ahead in terms of safety. Due to the large run-off areas it was less exciting for the drivers. And the public was, at that time used to be close on the track, far from the action. However, the same was said about the Nürburgring Grand Prix Strecke after its opening in 1984.
In a time that drivers were accustomed to exciting but also dangerous race tracks like old Spa-Francorchamps and the old Nürburgring, this safe circuit was perceived as boring. And in contrast to the Formula One drivers of today, the drivers of the seventies said what they thought. Also Hockenheim was very unpopular by the drivers of that time, because it replaced the old Nürburgring. And now Hockenheim has been modified into a modern circuit, the old one is missed by almost everyone. How things can change…
Despite the poor image, Nivelles certainly had a section that was very challenging. This section was called the “Big Loop”, two very fast right hand curves. These curves were reached over a short descending straight. Driving on the straight you saw the first bend appear in front. It was a long slightly uphill bend.
The second corner was longer and looked similar to a bend at Zandvoort, the Scheivlak, but faster! Like the Scheivlak this corner started on the top of a hill and descended first. At two-thirds of the corner the track went uphill again. On this section you could clearly recognize the hand of designer John Hugenholtz, who also designed the Suzuka circuit.
In a time most Formula One races are at “stop and go circuits”, a combination of corners as the “Big Loop” would be a welcome addition to the calendar. But unfortunately, despite these great corners, Nivelles went into history as a boring circuit…
The Kart Track of Nivelles-Baulers
At the circuit complex was also a kart track, which was located between Turn Four and Turn Five of the circuit. In 1973 and 1980, the World Championship Karting was held here. One of the spectators in 1980 was a young boy from Germany, called Michael Schumacher. He was impressed by a Brazilian driver who drove there for the first time with a yellow helmet which became very famous later. His name was Ayrton Senna. The 1980 World Karting Championship was won by Dutchman Peter de Bruijn, Ayrton Senna became second.
The abandoned kart track short before the demolition in 2003.
The downfall of the Nivelles Circuit
In 1971 the Belgian Grand Prix was removed from the calendar because Spa-Francorchamps could not perform the new security requirements. The 1972 Grand Prix moved to Nivelles with the intension to alternate between the Walloon Nivelles and the Flemish Zolder. Nivelles should host the Grand Prix in the even years, Zolder in the uneven years.
But in 1974, the first operator of the Nivelles circuit went bankrupt. With much effort new sponsors where found to host the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix. Just like in 1972, the race was won by Emerson Fittipaldi. In 1975, the circuit couldn’t pay the bills anymore and went bankrupt. The curator leased the complex to a new temporary operator.
In 1976 it was Nivelles turn to organize the Belgian Grand Prix again. But sadly, the Belgian delegation of the FIA considered that the circuit was no longer suitable for Formula One because of the bad road surface. A new asphalt layer was nessesary, but no one could be found to invest in the circuit, which meant the end of Formula One at Nivelles. The following years the circuit fell into decay.
In 1980 the circuit was found unsuitable for every type of car racing but was still used for motorcycle races to the end of 1981. Those years the Royal Dutch Motorcycle Association (KNMV) used the circuit often, because races on street circuits were prohibited in the Netherlands. For the alternation they sometimes drove the circuit anti-clockwise (the usual direction was clockwise). When on June 30, 1981 the circuit license expired the circuit closed forever.
The abandoned circuit of Nivelles-Baulers…
After the circuit closed in 1981, the terrain was left fallow. On weekends, local youth took over the place to held illegal races. Some weekends there were hundreds of people around the circuit to see how others test their driving skills on the abandoned race track. It must have been a cozy atmosphere those days, sometimes even an ice cream vendor came along.
But motorsport is dangerous, even more when it is practiced illegal without safety measurements. That became apparent when one of the participants of an illegal race died after he crashed and was flung out of his car. As far as known, this was the second fatality at Nivelles. The first one was the Belgian driver Jean-Pierre Lembourg who crashed on September 21, 1975 during a regular motorcycle race.
Sometimes the police came to stop the illegal races. They did this by driving the police cars against the driving direction of the circuit. For that day it was all over, but the next weekend everybody just came back. Except illegal amateur races, also louche business took place on the abandoned race track. Sometimes stolen cars were found burnt out at the circuit. And also the circuit buildings fell prey to vandalism.
The vandalized Control Tower, above the exterior and below the interior.
Until the end of the nineties the neglected circuit remained. Meanwhile, several initiatives were taken to revive the old race track. Unfortunately, all these attempts failed. Some sources said it was because the government didn’t want to save Nivelles in favor of Spa-Francorchamps. In 1998, the final curtain falls for Circuit Nivelles-Baulers. That year the initial work start to rebuild the former race track into a business park.
The new connection to the old Start/Finish straight in the spring of 1999, with the pits still on the background…
The debris of the demolished pits and control tower later in 1999.
In the spring of 1999, a connection was built from the main road to the old Start/Finish straight. Pits and control tower were demolished later that year. The following years, new companies appeared at the former Nivelles circuit, which was renamed into ‘Les Portes de l’Europe ‘ Nivelles-Business Park. And ironically, it became also new asphalt!
The main road of the new business park follows more or less the layout of the old race track. The First bend is now rounded for traffic while the Big Loop has been preserved. Only Turn Four and the first chicane are dissapeared. In the article “Nivelles-Baulers circuit then and now” you can see exactly what has been changed.
About one third of the abandoned race track is still there. To prevent illegal races it is closed by fences and a part is covered with ground. There are plans to convert this part into a business park too, but in the meantime it is left fallow. In the video below you can see how the former racing circuit looks today, including the abandoned remains of the track.
Grand Prix Revival Nivelles-Baulers
In 2005 a newspaper reported that the business park should be converted back into a race track. The companies could stay, the buildings should get a special isolation against the noise… However, this was an April Fools prank. But nine years later, the sound of racing engines would roar again at Nivelles for one day.
Because it was 40 years ago that the last Grand Prix at the Nivelles-Baulers circuit was held, the Formula Club Belgium organized a revival. This took place on Sunday June 29, 2014 and was held on a course that made use of parts of the old circuit. To the start came historic racing cars and motorcycles of different areas. There were even a few old Formula One cars. More about the revival can be found in my blog post “Grand Prix Revival Nivelles-Baulers 2014”.
When the engines ceased to roar in the evening, and the next day all the fences were beïng removed, the Nivelles circuit turned back again into an ordinary business park. Although, ordinary? For many people it is a business park with a curious history. The history of a circuit of the past!
© Text, photos & video: Herman Liesemeijer Photo motorcycle race 1981: Cees Cornwall
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