1.417 Miles / 2.280 km Circuit Jules Tacheny (cars)2010-11
1.435 Miles / 2.310 km Circuit Jules Tacheny East (bikes)2010-11
Unknown Circuit Jules Tacheny East (cars)2010-11
Unknown Circuit Jules Tacheny West2010-11
Unknown G.old Trophy course2010-11
3.418 Miles / 5.500 km
The short and twisty Circuit Jules Tacheny at Mettet is the modern expression of a racing history which stretches right back to the beginning days of the sport in Belgium. Like its contemporaries at Spa and Chimay, the Mettet circuit began with racing organised on public roads and soon became a popular venue for motorcycle racing.
Right through to the 2000s racing continued on roads to the south of the town before safety concerns finally led to the construction of a permanent circuit.
Today, the permanent track hosts of range of different categories on both two and four wheels, with facilities for Super Moto and Rallycross alongside circuit racing.
According to local legend, the origins of racing at Mettet began in the early 1920s with a group of bike enthusiasts who decided to try out the roads in the local area. One of them, Auguste Galloy, decided to impress his friends by riding a loop on roads surrounding the town but after completing his first loop discovered he was unable to turn off his motorcycle. To save face, August carried on for another lap, then another and another, finally running out fuel on his sixth tour. The seed for racing had, however, firmly been planted...
The Union Motor de l'Entre Sambre Et Meuse (UMESM) was set up under the guidance of Jules Tacheny in January 1927, with the aim of organising the first races proper. On September 11 that year the first speed event took place, with victors in various classes awarded with an eclectic range of prizes from local sponsors, including a stone bust, works of art and even a rifle! The race was held out on the small loop of St-Donat, forming a 2.8km circuit which was run in an anti-clockwise direction.
Newspaper accounts of the race reported an incident of particular note in which rider Jacques Rops (one of the founders of UMESM) suffered a fall, hit a bridge parapet and was catapulted some 18 metres over the bridge. Coincidentally his trajectory took him over his mother and sister, who were both watching the race from the bridge. Remarkably, he was reported to have suffered nothing worse than cuts and bruises...
The following year saw the first organisation of the Grand Prix de l'Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse, which quickly became Mettet's signature event. On August 8, Belgian rider Albert Breslau took the main 500cc race on an AJS, to be awarded the first overall prize.
The diablo route makes its debut
Racing continued on this short loop until 1932, when a southern extension was utilised for the first time, creating the classic 'diablo' layout. This used roads to the south of the St Donat intersection, which was turned into a pair of sharp opposing corners, stretching down towards Florennes before heading back in a triangular configuration to rejoin the original course.
The new course was much more spacious than the original - stretching out over 5.282 miles / 8.500 km - but was also much faster and boasted elevation changes of around 70 metres. While that first year saw the course run anti-clockwise, in common with the St-Donat course previously used, by 1933 it had been reversed to a now-familiar clockwise direction.
The following year saw improvements to the course, when the descent to Florennes was widened and the x-shaped Double Virage corners were eased slightly, allowing for greater separation between each leg of the course and slightly higher speeds. Not that Mettet was slow by any means - its long straights were allowing the bikes of the day hit top speeds of 170 kph, leading to some thrilling racing as well as some fearsome accidents.
International racing arrives
In 1935, the circuit was granted permission to hold international races for the first time, elevating the status of the Grand Prix de l'Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse further. Another innovation came in 1936 and 1937, when the St. Donat northern loop was revived for the Prix de l'Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse, a set of races in August each year intended for novice racers only.
The 1938 event had been scheduled for May of that year but was cancelled due to a date clash with another major local event. The following year the outbreak of war across Europe brought an inevitable pause to activities, but following the cessation of World War Two, organisers were keen to revive racing once more.
In 1946 the event was revived once again - a curious anomaly being its titling as the "X. Grand Prix of the Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse", despite 10 editions already having been run. Evidently, the circuit archives always incorrectly regarded the 1929 event as the first Grand Prix, leading to the odd numbering sequence and much confusion down the years. In something of a celebratory atmosphere, the main seniors 500cc class and overall victory was finally taken by home hero Jules Tacheny.
A ruling by the FIM that the Grand Prix title could only be used for a country's national event (in this case the Belgian Grand Prix) lead to a renaming of Mettet's main race the following year. Between 1947 and 1950 the event became the "Circuit de l'Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse", thereafter being further retitled with the adoption of the "Grand Trophy" moniker.
Major improvements bring better facilities
The UMESM was determined to continue the progress and improve the circuit to keep pace with developments elsewhere and completed a major improvement programme in 1949. Under the guidance of Tacheny, who had been elected the club's president three years earlier, Mettet's road course received extensive renovations. At the start/finish area a brand new permanent grandstand was built, catering for up to 1,200 people and massively improving the amenities for spectators.
For the competitors, major changes were also made to the course, which was widened to seven metres along its entire length and given a uniform macadam surface. At the Cloquettes, Biesmerée, Florennes and Oret curves, new banked corners were also built, speeding up the course considerably. The lap length, despite officially remaining 8.500 km, was variously estimated at being between 8.3-8.4 km until it was finally remeasured definitively at 8.05 km in 1957.
During this period the circuit also briefly hosted car racing events, with two non-championship Formula 2 events attracting a varied field of international drivers. In the first, held in September 1950, only 10 out of the 24 drivers made it to the finish, with Robert Manzon winning the final race in his factory-entered Simca Gordini Type 15. Stirling Moss and Lance Macklin finished second and third in for HW Motors. The next year saw the second "Grandee Trophée Entre Sambre et Meuse" held in July, with Manzon winning again, with Gordini completing the podium with factory drivers André Simon and Maurice Trintignant.
Responsibility for the upkeep of the roads transferred to a state department in the early 1950s and around the same time the club was recognised by the Belgian King, becoming the Royal Union Motor de l'Entre Sambre et Meuse. This meant that it could concentrate on developing the racing, with a particular focus on two wheels. It ushered a heyday through the 1950s and '60s, when famous names such as Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Bob McIntyre, Giacomo Agostini and Jarno Saarinen all graced the victory podiums. The international flavour was helped by the relatively early dates of the events, which tempted the works teams to use Mettet as a pre-season try-out.
Further works raise speeds and dangers
In 1961, further major works were carried out to the region's roads, with the upshot that all of the trees considered dangerous were cut down and the road width was increased to 9 metres. More obviously, the St Donat crossroads were completely redesigned, becoming a complex intersection with a central island when used by normal traffic; happily for the racers, broad sweeping curves now replaced the tighter corners of the previous crossroads (though increased speeds brought their own perils, particularly at race starts). Unhappily for the racers, the works necessitated the postponement and eventual cancellation of that year's races.
A Formula Junior car race, held as part of the revived 1962 Grand Trophy for motorcycles, would prove to be a one-off and was marred by the fatal crash of Heinz Starke. Later on, Mettet's inclusion as part of the Tour de Belgique rally in the early 1970s proved unpopular with drivers, who felt the course was too dangerous. Nevertheless, the Mettet stage was repeated in several subsequent years. Local club races (using the southern triangle only) continued into the 1980s and 1990s, spawning a series of endurance races, the last of which ran in 1996.
In 1963 bad weather again forced the cancellation of racing, while 1965 saw the event called off due to a perception that it would interfere with elections. Another fallow year fell in 1968 when the RUMESM opted to concentrate on making upgrades to the track safety, no doubt influenced by a truly horrific crash on the second lap of the previous year's race.
Approaching the first corner in a pack of bikes, an unsighted Claude Vigreux slammed into the machine of Belgian rider Robert Claeys, who was still trying to get his recalcitrant bike to start. Both men were killed instantly, while English rider John Denty crashed in avoidance, his bike hitting a house and bringing down cabling supposed to protect the spectators. One spectator died from leg injuries inflicted by the cable and Denty himself succumbed to his injuries some time later in a local hospital. It was probably the grimmest episode in Mettet's long history.
Speeds continue to rise
More substantial circuit changes came in 1972, when a new banked corner was built at the Mettet bend on the inside of previous banking, which was retained for use in a number of national events. The northern loop was also revived for a national event in 1977, although this was lapped in the same clockwise direction as the longer main course, rather than its historic reverse direction.
Speeds continued to rise throughout the decade, with more than 30 seconds being lopped off the lap record, with Johnny Cecotto turning a 220 km/h lap in qualifying for the 1976 event. Inevitably, this gave rise to increased safety concerns and in September 1977 a new variation was introduced, which diverted the course through an industrial estate, rejoining just before the start/finish area. This increased the lap distance to 8.288 km but was not universally popular, particularly due to the bumpy nature of the concrete-surfaced road.
In 1985 a better solution was found, with the installation of a permanent bus-stop chicane, which would eventually be named the Chicane Michaël Paquay after the late Superbike rider. A footbridge was also installed close to the finish line at the same time.
Club races had used the triangular southern portion of the circuit only from the late 1970s onwards and, with increasing concerns about the safety of the section towards Mettet, this course gradually began to find favour for the larger events as well. From 1987 to 1989, the south course was used for the Grand Trophy, before reverting to the full course in 1990 and 1991. For these races a temporary chicane was added at the Croix St Donat, while a second permanent chicane was added on the run to Virgae d'Oret. Known locally as the 'Chicane de la Baronne', this looked for all the world like a roadside layby and brought the lap length to 7.886 km.
Circuit contracts then replaced altogether
From 1992 onwards, the northern loop was abandoned altogether and the triangular southern course was permanently adopted for all racing, using both permanent chicanes. A third chicane was added in 2003 on the approach to Florennes, but in the end was never actually used. Somewhat ironically, concerns over the track surface at the 'Chicane de la Baronne' had led to its abandonment the same year, meaning the circuit was now a series of flat out blasts between the corners, save for the start/finish chicane.
In 2005, the exit of the Chicane Michaël Paquay was eased, necessitating a new entry route to the pitlane. However, the writing was on the wall for the road course, with 2006's event the last for contemporary machinery. Plans were already afoot for the construction of a new permanent course on the infield, with historic races the only ones now organised on public roads. The vintage races were titled the Gold Trophy and took place up to 2011.
Mettet's new circuit was announced in 2007 and officially opened as the Circuit Jules Tacheny in 2010. Short and twisty, the course was very different to the road course, but was of course able to meet modern safety standards and secured the future of the Grand Trophy and racing in the region, becoming only the fourth permanent circuit to be constructed in Belgium and one of only three still in operation.
Motorcycles still remain the mainstay of the racing events, though car races are also popular on the new course (and have had their own slightly revised course layout from the outset). The VW Fun Cup has been a regular visitor (with a 10 hour race in recent years), while in 2016 the TCR Benelux touring car championship also visited for the first time.
Thanks to Rob Semmeling (www.wegcircuits.nl) for many of the details of the circuit history.