Following a nearly month-long summer break, Formula One has now returned to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps for the 11th round of this year’s championships. The highly anticipated Belgian Grand Prix shapes up to be a nail-biting thriller as Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg brace themselves for yet another down to the wire second half of the season while being wary of the menace Sebastian Vettel will pose in the battle for supremacy.
The historic racing venue of Spa-Francorchamps is one of the few old school circuits remaining on the F1 calendar today. It has its origins in the early 1920s. A unanimous favourite among drivers and fans, the high-speed circuit is situated in the middle of the heavily forested Ardennes mountain range, making the weather unpredictable during the course of the race weekend. A common sight at Spa is one part of the track being soaking wet whilst the rest remains bone-dry.
Spa is home to some of the most celebrated corners in motor racing such as Eau Rouge, La Source, Les Combes, Blanchimont and Pouhon. It is the longest circuit in Formula One with a single-lap distance of 4.352m (7.004km) at an average speed of around 230kph.
Contested for 44 laps, Spa retains its blindingly-fast nature from the original layout that stretched between three villages in its earliest triangle form, when it ran 14.9km long.
Its ominous speeds claimed many victims in the 1960s, resulting in protests led by F1 legend Sir Jackie Stewart to improve safety standards and real-time medical facilities – something Stewart has himself been a victim of in the past. These protests meant that the track would not return for 12 long years after 1970, as the Belgian GP alternated between Nivelles and Zolder.
In 1983, Spa was reinstated with heavy modifications to its layout, keeping its notorious fast sweeps and long straights. Over the years, the track underwent changes to meet modern safety standards with the addition of runoff areas around the high-speed sections. In order to facilitate more space for the new pitlane, the Bus Stop chicane was moved towards the Blanchimont left-hand fast corner in 2007.
The engine power curve has to be smoother, as its flowing nature and power delivery at all torques must immediately assist traction. The middle sector comprises 10 of 19 available corners where finding a good balance between downforce and straight line speed is of paramount importance.
Often used as a control circuit on the dyno, the medium downforce setup, similar to that of Canada, is used to tackle the ultra-fast corners and long straights as 70% of the lap is spent on full-throttle. This makes Spa one of the hardest tracks on the F1 calendar in terms of engine exertion.
Stats from the Belgian Grand Prix
It has never been easy to come out of Spa mastering every challenge, and this is one of the reasons the track is so revered by Formula One drivers. The legendary Michael Schumacher is the undisputed king of Spa, with six victories at the track including a hattrick.
Unassailable in his Honda days, greatest-of-all-time Ayrton Senna swept four successive wins besides a triumph with Lotus in 1985.
Of the currently racing crop of drivers, Kimi Raikkonen took his latest of four wins in 2009 to level with Scottish maestro Jim Clark, and the Iceman’s Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel is the only other multiple winner at this track.
Double world champion Fernando Alonso of McLaren has never tasted victory here despite appearing on the podium on three different occasions.
Ferrari have been the most successful team in Belgium with an astonishing 16 wins ahead of McLaren, who are not far away with 14 to their credit.
Vettel will aim to surpass Senna’s tally of 41 all-time wins this weekend, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, the reigning world champion, looks to close in on the Brazilian’s record from 38 victories.
Although the Briton has been the polesitter in 9 of the 10 races so far this year, this guarantees nothing at Spa. In the last 13 years, only five drivers have won starting from pole at Spa.
Same boats, different sails
This time last year, the dueling Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were in a league of their own as the German outfit made the most out of switching to the revolutionary V6 turbo engine formula.
The gap between them now is as similar to what it was in 2014 ahead of Spa, as Rosberg led the championship for a change by 21 points. But the eventual winner, Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull Racing, was 60 points adrift of Hamilton in second, putting the Mercedes drivers in a comfortable enough position to square it off amongst themselves.
With no real challengers, Mercedes allowed its drivers to go head-to-head, and complacency came with a hefty price earlier. On the second lap, both drivers collided, incurring a puncture to Hamilton’s rear tyre. The furious British driver retired from the race while his teammate guided his car to the finish line in second behind the opportunistic Ricciardo, who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Going into the race this year, Mercedes will be aware of the Prancing Horse waiting to rear its legs. Vettel consolidated his title chances with a fully-deserved victory in Hungary, and lies only little over a race win’s worth of points behind Hamilton and Rosberg. Should history repeat itself, Vettel will have every opportunity to sneak through into firm contention for the drivers’ crown.
Fresh off renewing his contract with Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen will arguably play second fiddle if his teammate gets anywhere near a shot at the championship but the same cannot be said for the Silver Arrows.
Although Vettel did beat both the Silver Arrows to the top step of the podium in both Malaysia and Hungary, the outright pace of SF-15T hasn’t been as convincing as it should be.
Race starts are down to drivers
The clampdown on driver aids set to be introduced during race starts is unknown territory, as some drivers raised concerns over the drastic impact it might have off the line. Others welcomed the prospect of handling the job that is meant to be theirs in the first place.
However, it could relieve Mercedes of their miserable getaways in recent races that cost them a certain race victory in Hungary and could almost have gifted Williams a 1-2 at Silverstone. Drivers will have restricted access over the team radio as the clutch bite point will now be fixed when cars leave the pitlane to the grid ahead of the start.
Midfield developments heat up
Williams will be hoping to revive themselves as the Mercedes-powered FW37 will suit the demands of the high-speed corners and long straights at Spa. Its nearest rival, Red Bull Racing and sister team Toro Rosso were down on racing, as their lackluster Renault engines could hurt them severely, despite putting on stellar performances to finish the Hungarian Grand Prix in second, third and fourth respectively.
Force India have revealed that the revised VJM08 that made its track debut in Silverstone will have more on offer, as updates are planned to be fed in gradually every race until Singapore where the team expects to unravel the new challenger’s full potential.
The other Mercedes-powered team, Lotus, aims to recover lost points due to reliability issues in the first half of the season with a strong weekend in Belgium as the midfield battle for fifth place intensifies with only eight points separating Force India, Lotus and Toro Rosso.
Languishing at eighth in the constructors’ championship, Sauber will look to turn the tables around with the more powerful and updated Ferrari engines that first came to light in Canada at the expense of three tokens from the Italian automakers’ Maranello outfit.
McLaren, meanwhile, will perform a double engine change on the cars of both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button cars as Honda prepares to introduce revised specification engines in a hope to reel in the performance gap to its rivals while having to deal with grid penalties.