Now when I was sent an email titled ‘Spa weekend’, my mind wandered to hot tubs, hot towels and those little cucumber slices for your eyes. It’s not how I usually spend my weekends, granted, but it still sounded pretty appealing.
Onwards I read, and soon the terms ‘24 hours’ and ‘endurance’ cropped up. ‘Cripes’, I thought, ‘how am I going to be able to spend twenty-four solid hours in a steam room?’.
Before long, the dots connected, and it was clear that – weather permitting – far from sitting in a mud bath for the weekend, I would in fact be heading out to one of the key endurance motorsport races of the year – the Spa 24 Hours in Belgium.
Honda announced some time ago that it would be fielding a car in the uber-competitive, gruelling and demanding endurance race which is now entering its 70th edition. The event asks highly of both car and driver, and Honda believed that its NSX GT3 and team of racers would be more than capable of making an impact.
Rather than flying down to the event, we’d be driving – in two particularly special Honda cars. The first is a classic 2005 Honda NSX. Square, beautifully finished and – most importantly – featuring a manual gearbox, it’s the bedroom poster car known the world over.
Its road trip partner would be the modern day equivalent – the current NSX. Whereas the classic car feels decidedly old-school, the current one is as cutting-edge as can be; a hybrid powertrain and a futuristic interior combine to create a supercar unlike many others on the road today.
Things didn’t get off to a good start. The Friday prior to the race was one of the warmest on record, and was dubbed ‘Furnace Friday’. The Eurotunnel, which we’d be riding in to get to France, had suffered under the heat, and thousands of passengers had been left waiting for hours in stationary traffic while waiting to go on. Arriving with a certain amount of trepidation, it quickly became apparent that the issues had resolved themselves; we breezed through passport control and were quickly on the train.
Two passengers walked up to ogle the cars parked in the carriage, and quickly gravitated towards the orange, older NSX. “It’s the one I used to race in Gran Turismo”, one points out – indeed the classic has been around so long and featured in so many iconic places that it has gained close to legendary status. Seeing one out and about is a rare thing indeed, so it’s little wonder why it gained so much attention.
Gingerly, we roll off the train. The solid metal kerbs either side of the trains centre always feel perilously close to the alloys, and I found leaning out of the window while steering to be the best way to avoid crunching a rim.
The wiggle down to Belgium is hardly a match for the endurance race we’d be driving to see. It’s just a three-hour drive from Calais to the hotel in Liege and yes, I know, we’re not camping – a travesty in the eyes of many endurance race spectators.
You couldn’t ask for two better cars if you’re after attention on a road trip though. Behind the wheel, you’re acutely aware of the number of people taking pictures and waving as you pass; the pair making progress together feels like a genuine event.
What’s the old NSX like today? Still rather wonderful, actually. Despite its elongated styling, it’s actually a lot smaller than I expected – check out the pictures and you’ll notice it sits rather comfortably within the lane, rather than coming close to the extremities of it as the newer cars does. This compact size does equate to a rather cramped interior, but the steering wheel is wonderfully sized and the suspension is more composed than you may expect.
The newer car is quite the contrast. There’s power, that’s for sure; 573bhp means that the sprint to 60mph takes just a shade over three seconds and while it may not have the same character overall as the classic NSX, you cannot fault the way it hammers down a motorway. It’s comfortable too, though I’d argue that the suspension in the older car is just a little more compliant, which isn’t quite what you’d expect.
A few stops for coffee and fuel pepper the trip, but shortly we enter Liege. It’s a pretty, cobbled city, and its inhabitants stop to take pictures of the two Honda supercars driving through. A narrow multi story carpark awaits, and upon arrival meet the rest of the NSXs attending the event. It’s quite a sight. We leave them there for the night, and head to the hotel.
Up early the next morning, we get into the cars and head for the racetrack. Spa circuit is nestled away in its own little bowl that creates its own little microclimate; one end of the track could be bone dry, while the opposite section could be soaking wet. Fortunately, the rain clouds stayed away for our visit, though brutal heat did replace them.
When asked to take part in a parade lap of the circuit, that dry weather became even more welcome. Lining up against close to 50 other NSX cars – both old and new – was a special moment, and one I’ll not likely forget. The pace was considerably higher too; and when the allotted single lap transformed into three, I certainly wasn’t complaining.
The race kicks off in the early afternoon, and as the endurance cars storm up Eau Rouge for the first time, you can feel the overwhelming weight of time hanging over the whole thing. After several laps you remember, there’s still 24 hours left to go.
As the light slips away from the day and night falls over the track, it really does come alive. Sets of headlights come zinging past, and the noise – god, what a noise – echoes through the hills. It’s an electric place to be.
As a group we walk the perimeter of the circuit, before returning back to the hotel, leaving the die-hard fans sitting at the trackside in the darkness.
We arrive the next day to see the back end of the race, with the cars appearing somewhat more battle-weary than when we left them the previous night. The Hondas are still there, red and green Castrol livery standing out. In the end, they finished in 32nd place – a considerable feat considering the 63 cars on the grid.
Setting off from the circuit back towards the UK, it feels like leaving a festival behind. The Spa 24 Hours is a proper little community, of racers and fans alike all testing themselves to endure one solid of day of motoring. It’s an impressive thing.
Winding our way back north, the pair of NSXs pound the motorways and make speedy process towards Calais. We take a longer route back via the coastline, but heavy rain makes taking pictures less than pleasant – so we head for the tunnel, and home.
It may have started out as a normal Spa trip, but give me two sports cars, a long drive and an endurance race over kale smoothies, deep tissue massages and saunas any day.