Circuit Overview

Nivelles-Baulers is something of a footnote in Belgium’s racing history; largely unloved in its heyday and virtually forgotten today, it was among the first of the modern-style of motorsport venues.

Host to the Belgian Grand Prix in 1972 and 1972, it ultimately lost out to both Zolder and the circuit it was designed to replace, Spa-Francorchamps, as political winds shifted and financial problems mounted.

The track was demolished and redeveloped in the early 2000s to make way for a modern business and industrial park, which incorporated some of the track layout into its connecting roads.

Circuit History

Interest in motorsport in the Nivelles area first arose in the 1960s, when a group of enthusiasts known as the Nivelles Automobile Club (NAC) organised an annual rally-type event called the "12 Hours of Nivelles," which took place on public roads. During this time, there was growing concern about the safety of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, the primary venue for the Belgian Grand Prix. Spa was considered too dangerous by many, and there was a desire for a modern alternative.

One local enthusiast, Yvan Dauriac of Uccle, began to pursue the idea of creating a circuit in Wallonia more seriously. He first proposed building a Laguna Seca-style racetrack at Elouges in the Dour region, repurposing industrial land and incorporating the track over two slag heaps. However, the mayor refused permission, fearing it would be a bad influence on young people.

A new plan emerges

Undeterred, Dauriac learned that the Commission d'Assistance Publique (CAP) owned land in Nivelles that might be suitable. This time, an approach to the mayors of both Nivelles and Baulers was more productive. Dauriac perceptively pitched the track as part of a recreation zone north of the city, counterbalancing the industrial zone to the south. The mayors, aware of a forthcoming major motorway project connecting the region to Paris, sensed that an international-standard circuit could put the area on the map.

With their backing, in 1969 Dauriac submitted the project to CAP. Recognising the potential for increased revenue, the C.A.P. agreed to lease their land for the construction of the Nivelles-Baulers circuit. A new company, Circuit Automobile Permanent Européen de Nivelles-Baulers (Capenib), was established with 10 shareholders, comprising local businessmen and Viscount de Jonghe d'Ardoye as the largest shareholder. The mayors were among the supervising board.

Dauriac then sought advice on the best way to build the track. He consulted the Belgian Quarryworkers Union, whose principal engineer recommended Robert Benoit, a paving and construction contractor. Benoit's company had been involved in major road building projects, and he was also a member of the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium and managed a Brussels kart circuit. Benoit was immediately impressed and was invited to join as a shareholder and project advisor. His company would win the public tender to build the track, and he would ultimately become the managing director.

Next, Dauriac secured the services of two engineers to design the track: Roger Caignie and John Hugenholtz. While many histories overlook one or the other, it's unclear who had the biggest influence on the design. Who had the biggest influence over the track design is now unclear, though Hugenholtz had made a name for himself in the preceding years as the designer of courses such as Suzuka, Jarama and the remodelling of Zolder. Nivelles-Baulers didn’t follow exactly in the mould of these, but what was finally created was not exactly as originally envisaged.

Grand plans are scaled back

Initially, a longer, more intricate track was planned. This would have featured an extended layout reminiscent of the later Goiânia circuit in Brazil, featuring an outer, 'oval-esque' course and shorter variants. These initial proposals were met with mixed reactions from Grand Prix drivers. Some, like Jackie Stewart, welcomed the focus on safety, while others, like Jacky Ickx, criticised the potential loss of challenge.

Map of the Next Gen in California circuit
The original plans for Nivelles-Baulers.

However, financial limitations meant the grander vision was never realised. Instead, a shorter, revolver-shaped circuit was built, with the hope of expansion a few years down the line. The landowners, however, realising the potential profits, demanded exorbitant prices for the necessary land and so the expansion never came.

The revised design certainly met the brief of being safe. Run-off areas were massive by the standards of the day and even the pit lane was separated from the track by grass strip as wide as a football pitch. Across the other side of the straight lay a similar verge, with an even greater distance beyond it to the grandstands. It left the spectators a long way from the action and lead to accusations that the track was soulless.

Comparisons with Spa-Francorchamps were inevitably going to be unfavourable, though it wasn’t a slow course; if anything the track was perhaps too fast with open corners that did little to challenge the driver.

While often characterised as flat and featureless, it did in fact have some elevation changes, particularly leading up to the first turns, which came to be nicknamed as the ‘Big Loop’. Comprising in reality three separate turns across a 300 degree radius, the Big Loop led to the first left-hander, a ninety-degree turn that turned the racers back towards the pits and paddock.

The circuit continued with two very fluid medium-speed chicanes that led to the only slow spot, a 180-degree curve that led back onto finish straight.

Perhaps Nivelles-Baulers was too ahead of its time; even when compared with contemporaries such as Paul Ricard it looked somewhat sterile. Were it to be built today it may have received a better reception, but it was probably never destined to be considered a true design classic.

An aerial view of Nivelles-Baulers circuit
An aerial view of Circuit Nivelles-Baulers, shortly after completion. Picture by Tibo62081, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Circuit opens as financial chaos looms

While Capenib had been constituted in January 1969, it took some time for the project to truly get going, at least as far as construction on the ground was concerned. This was due in part to the shareholders being unfamiliar with each other and it took some time to organise themselves. The president of the new firm was not appointed until August 1969, with Benoit being appointed as one of two managing directors (the other being a Mr Deneheth).

By the end of the year, long term leases had been secured by the CAP who even went as far as to buy-out farmers who had objected to the lease arrangements.

In April 1970, Capenib increased its capital to 25 million Francs in order to compensate the farmers and to allow the initial works to begin, with Benoit Enterprises winning the tender to complete the first phase. There were still further delays in securing the funding from the authorities but Viscount De Jonghe d’Ardoye provided a bridging loan and ground works began in 1970.

Gradually the track began to emerge, such that its first event took place on September 5, 1971, with a European Formula Ford race from which Freddy Vaney emerged the track’s first victor, and a supporting Group 2 Touring Car event won by Brian Muir. Some 10,000 spectators turned out despite the fact that only the track was complete; pit buildings and grandstands were still under development with the complex being very much an active construction site. It was, however, a good test of the circuit’s organisation ahead of what was anticipated to be its international debut, the 1972 Belgian Formula One Grand Prix.

A second preparatory event, a F5000 race, took place in April 1972. Further progress had been made, with the pit building now finished but unfurnished, but the grandstands were still not fully open. The wide open run offs had yet to see the grass coverings emerge from the winter, so anyone suffering an off-track moment found themselves submerged in a muddy pool. Australian Graham McRae took the honours with a win and third place in the heat races to take the appropriately bleak-sounding North Sea Trophy. Belgian driver Teddy Pilette was a relatively distant second place overall.

If it was a relatively positive start on the ground, in the background the circumstances were becoming more fraught. A complex interplay of financial mismanagement, political manoeuvring and external pressures were to conspire in the downfall of Capenib. The company’s reliance on a bridging loan and anticipated credit from the SNCB (Belgian National Railway Company) left the company vulnerable to delays and bureaucratic obstacles.

These issues started to come to a head in November 1971, when an application to the Ministry of the Interior to secure the loans was rejected. Concerns over Capenib's financial viability and the inter-municipal company's insufficient capital led the Credit Communal (which was responsible for granting the loan that would unlock the SNCB credit) to request more information.

Political changes at the Ministry meant that the official in charge of the final decision-making was now from the Spa-Francorchamps area. He was perhaps understandably not keen on a second circuit in Wallonia, with concerns on the effect of competition and potential economic fallout for his home area. As a result, any final decisions on the financial backing had stalled, despite the circuit having already been built...

Formula One circus arrives without Stewart

Despite the looming financial uncertainty, Nivelles-Baulers nevertheless secured its place on the 1972 Formula One calendar, with the date set for June 4. It should have been a battle between emerging championship favourite Emerson Fittipaldi for Lotus and the Tyrrell of Jackie Stewart, alongside the likes of the Ferrari of home-favourite Jackie Ickx. However, the organisers suffered an early blow when Stewart - the flag bearer for safer circuits - had to withdraw from the event with a stomach ulcer. Without his presence, the naysayers voice’s became dominant.

Almost from the beginning of practice there were mutterings about the shortness of the circuit, its lack of challenge and general blandness of the facility. While the event was well-supported by spectators (some 100,000 turned out to watch) they too seemed disappointed by the facilities, which saw them sat a considerable distance further away from the action than they were used to.

The motoring press cadre were equally bemused. Motor Sport magazine’s legendary correspondent Denis Jeniknson didn’t hesitate to make his feelings for the new circuit clear when he wrote: “There is not enough to the autodrome to tax anyone's imagination or skill too far. To the inevitable question: ‘Did you enjoy Nivelles?’ the answer is simple—NO!”

The race itself provided only limited interest. Fittipaldi took pole but lost the lead to Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni at Turn 1. It proved a false dawn for the Swiss racer, with ‘Emmo’ regaining the lead on lap nine and motoring away to a dominant win. François Cevert finished second for Tyrrell, which was at least some compensation for Stewart’s absence for the team, but Ickx retired after his throttle stuck open. That the resulting crash was inconsequential thanks to the large run-off area did little to appease Ickx’s dislike of the place, despite the irony.

Ferrari team-mate Regazzoni was running third until he was eliminated in an accident while lapping the Tecno of Nanni Galli. Chris Amon inherited the position for Matra until its traditional achilles heel of high fuel consumption forced a late pitstop, handing the final podium spot to the McLaren of countryman Denny Hulme.

Financial woes come to the fore

Nivelles-Baulers had to make do with Formula 2 as its headline single-seater event in 1973, as the deal for the Belgian Grand Prix brokered by the government would see the F1 race alternate between the Walloon circuit and its Flemish rival at Zolder. The racing season saw a mixed calendar of GT racing, a 24 hour touring car race and lower category national events.

In 1974 minor changes were made to the course in anticipation of Formula One’s return. On the run up the hill to the Big Loop, a tight double chicane was added to slow the cars into Turn 1, though in the end it was never used. Ironically, it closely resembled a bus stop and so set the template for the chicane that would ultimately be added to its arch-rival at Spa.

Before the racers even got close to arriving for the Grand Prix, the financial situation had come to a head. Capenib found itself heading to the bankruptcy courts when the complex financial structures that underpinned the track fell apart. The reasons for the bankruptcy were questionable, with the true cause likely aided by political manoeuvring and the self-serving actions of influential figures, rather than any direct fault of the circuit management. Whatever the cause, the end result was the same and the return of Formula One seemed in peril. Despite backing from sponsors such as Marlboro and Texaco, a lack of funding for organisation and prize money saw the race in severe jeopardy.

Enter Bernard Charles Ecclestone. The Brabham team owner recognised an opportunity to make a significant impact on the sport. With the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium unwilling to offer financial support, Ecclestone took it upon himself to save the Grand Prix. He negotiated increased financial contributions from Marlboro and Texaco, secured a new sponsorship deal with audio equipment company Bang and Olufsen and personally guaranteed the prize money. He even entered a third car for Teddy Pilette to drive. It would prove a model for race promotion that would serve both Ecclestone and Formula One as a sport well over the next four decades.

The race was saved and 70,000 spectators duly filled the stands to watch the event unfold. This time they were at least treated to some decent on track action, even if it remained as far away as ever. Clay Regazzoni, driving a Ferrari 312B3-74, secured pole position with a time of 1:09.82, nearly a second faster than Jody Scheckter. There was speculation about a timing error, but this was never confirmed.

From the green light Regazzoni led until he went off the track on lap 38, allowing Emerson Fittipaldi to take the lead in his McLaren M23. Fittipaldi held onto his lead, but faced intense pressure from Niki Lauda in the other Ferrari. Ultimately, the Brazilian made it two-for-two at Nivelles, winning by a mere 35 hundredths of a second ahead of Lauda, reclaiming the lead of the world championship in the process. Although Regazzoni seemed poised for a podium finish, his Ferrari ran out of fuel, allowing Jody Scheckter to claim third place in his Tyrrell 007.

This improved on-track spectacle meant that most departed the circuit satisfied and even ‘Jenks’ could only find time to make one snide comment about the track in his subsequent race report!

Decline, closure and abandonment

Despite the success of the race, Capenib was finally declared bankrupt in 1975. The Belgian state subsequently put the circuit up for auction and, while entertaining a bid in its own right, ultimately elected to sell the track to businessman Laurence Gozlan. National racing continued under Gozlan’s helm but there were no significant international series visiting. Instead, Gozlan attempted to diversify, hosting more testing and police training events.

By rights, 1976 should have seen the return of the Belgian Grand Prix, but the circuit was showing signs of having been built on the cheap. The track surface was deteriorating significantly, despite being only four years old. Without sufficient funding to put in place a solution, Gozlan was forced to watch as the race was switched to Zolder, never to return.

The track soldiered on, with 1978 being the last year of significant racing activity on the main circuit but in 1980, the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium withdrew its homologation for car competitions, further diminishing the circuit's viability. The kart track did at least see some action and even hosted the World Championships in 1980, when a young Ayrton Senna competed for the first and only time at the Belgian venue. An interested spectator that day was said to be an even younger Michael Schumacher.

Bike events soldiered on the main course for a little longer, but the final blow came on June 30, 1981, when the circuit's remaining racing license expired and was not renewed.

Behind the scenes the local political machine was working to end racing at Nivelles. New plans were announced by the Walloon Region to rezone the whole area for a major business park, putting the track firmly out of business. This decision paved the way for the ‘Portes de l’Europe' project, which aimed to transform the site into an industrial estate.

Gozlan fought the plans through the courts to try and prevent expropriation of the land, with the case dragging on for over a decade. In the meantime car enthusiasts often used the abandoned track for illegal racing. Police interventions were frequent, but the races persisted, leading to vandalism and further deterioration of the circuit's infrastructure.

The court case was resolved in 1994 when Gozlan finally was forced to admit defeat and handed the track over to the local authorities. Demolition of the circuit's remaining infrastructure, including the pits and other buildings, began in 1999, marking the start of the "Portes de l'Europe" development. The layout of the former track was partially incorporated into the road network of the new industrial park.

The circuit today

Today, the track has been long-forgotten by the international racing community, with the gleaming office buildings and industrial units of the business park having wiped away almost all traces of the former track. However, there are some signs that the locals do still to cherish the racing history. The "Circuit" restaurant, located on the former start-finish straight, serves the business park and pays homage to its motorsport heritage.

On the 40th-anniversary of the last grand prix in 2014, a revival event was organised using the roads of the estate, featuring classic car and motorbike races, even showcasing rare racing cars like a Trojan F1.

Circuit info

This is a historic circuit which is no longer in operation.

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Location Information

The circuit was located near to the town of Baulers, just north of city of Nivelles in the Wallonia region of Belgium.

Today, the site of the circuit is home to a business and industrial park. Some sections of the original track were repurposed for roads, but most of the circuit, including the hairpin, was completely demolished. Barely any remnants of the circuit's infrastructure remain, though the ghost outline of the final hairpin remains in the overgrowth on an as-yet undeveloped portion of the facility.

If you should visit, a trip to ‘The Circuit’ restaurant will provide a reminder of the racing past, with photos from the two Grands Prix adorning the walls and a giant outline of the circuit layout suspended from the ceiling.

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