Preview of the Belgian Grand Prix
Missed Formula One? After the summer break the Grand Prix circus returns with the majestic Spa-Francorchamps and the Belgian Grand Prix awaiting. Fernando Alonso leads the Drivers’ Championship with a healthy 40 point lead but just eight points cover the next four and they’ll remain confident they can overhaul the Ferrari driver’s advantage by the end of the season. However, first they have to overcome the testing Spa-Francorchamps. And if it’s tough for the drivers, for the strategists it can be a nightmare as the weather in the Ardennes is wildly unpredictable: This is a track where it’s not unusual for it to be bone dry at the far side of the circuit, and flooded in the pits.
So what should you expect this weekend?
Track and Conditions
Fans reminisce about the great classic circuits but Spa came through the changes much better than others to produce one of the great modern circuits. As it follows the contours of the Ardennes mountains it remains the most thorough test of a Formula One car on the current calendar. Average lap speeds are high, aerodynamic loadings are prolonged, and handling is tested to the limit as breathtakingly fast straights combine with hairpins, several high-speed bends and, of course, the famous Eau Rouge.
Despite its fearsome appearance, Spa is a fairly average circuit for retirements but the exception is the opening lap. Immediately, the cars funnel into La Source hairpin and it’s unusual if the field escapes undamaged. Even if they do, there is always the twisting Les Combes to take care of a few more. With 5.5% of the starters failing to complete a lap in the last five years, Spa has the fourth toughest opening lap on the calendar. However, once the field starts to spread out, the race tends to become more civil.
Between La Source and Les Combes there is the famous Eau Rouge at the bottom of the valley, and despite some re-working it’s still an awesome challenge taken in top gear at 300km/h and with a blind crest. At -3.5G it’s the only corner in F1 to offer negative G-force. However, the less famous Pouhon presents as much, if not more of a challenge. Taken blind in sixth gear it’s a corner which still allows the drivers to make the difference as they balance the throttle on the fine line between grip and disaster. Then there is the mighty Blanchimont, curving through the trees in top gear, before slowing for the chicane. All-in-all, drivers and spectators alike are spoilt by Spa-Francorchamps.
The climate in the Ardennes at this time of year can just about throw up anything, and typically does. Sure enough, forecasters are already predicting that showers will feature throughout the coming weekend but such is the temperamentality of the area’s microclimate that they could miss the circuit completely just as easily as linger over the pit lane.
It’s all about aerodynamic efficiency and high-speed balance. Drivers would like more downforce in the corners but drag carries a high penalty around Spa. A stiff suspension set-up keeps the car happy through the high-speed turns as long as the drivers avoid the few kerbs. The main worry about the slow corners is how far apart they are: the teams need to ensure the brakes are kept warm enough to respond efficiently when needed.
The circuit also rewards teams with engines with good horsepower due to its undulating nature. Nowhere is this more true than on the run from La Source to Les Combes, with the Kemmel Straight slightly uphill and the cars on full-throttle for some 23 seconds: a real test of engine durability.
In what seems a conservative decision, Pirelli have moved up a step from last year and allocated the hard and medium tyre compounds. The tyres do have to cope with particularly high energy loadings though, particularly as they are compressed through Eau Rouge.
While rain can further complicate the strategists’ task, even if it remains dry there is pressure to judge when to stop just right: Stop too late and the drivers face a punishing 4.3 miles while their rivals under-cut them on fresh rubber. However, it is when it rains that the real difficulties arise, particularly when it comes to judging when to switch tyres on a track that may suit slicks in one sector and the extreme wet tyres in another. The right choice can reap huge rewards while a misjudgement can prove extremely costly.
Twenty years ago, Michael Schumacher claimed his maiden Formula One victory in Belgian, the race in which he’d made his début the year before. Nigel Mansell and Williams went into the race looking close to unbeatable but it was Ayrton Senna who briefly led before Mansell and team mate Riccardo Patrese came through. Then the rain came. While the majority stopped for wet tyres, Senna gambled on the rain subsiding which proved to be a mistake and the McLaren driver soon dropped out of the running. It was now clear that it would come down judging when it was dry enough to switch back to slicks. At this point, Schumacher had a quirky piece of luck as he ran off the track and rejoined behind team mate Martin Brundle. Noticing that Brundle’s tyres were blistering, Schumacher pitted at the optimum moment and the Benetton driver went on to record his first of 91 wins.
Ones To Watch
The unusual demands of Spa have thrown up some surprise contenders in the past – remember Force India’s pole position and second place finish in 2009? With Mercedes power behind them, watch out for the Indian outfit looking stronger than usual. However, key to the Belgian Grand Prix is likely to be the weather – a cool head, shrewd judgement or just blind luck could make all the difference.
Food for Thought
Who do you think will win in Belgium? Who will have made the most gains over the summer? Will Mercedes power be enough for Michael Schumacher to turn the clock back twenty years?
Circuit Profile – Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
2011 Belgian Grand Prix – Red Bull Supreme at Spa
Photos: Pirelli Tyres, Sauber Motorsport AG, Williams F1/Lorenzo Bellanca/LAT Photographic, Red Bull Racing/Mark Thompson/Getty Images