Following the four weeks summer shutdown, Formula One descends on Circuit de Spa Francorchamps for the 11th round of the championship. The highly anticipated Belgian GP 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 possess in the battle for supremacy.
The historic racing venue of Spa Francorchamps is one of the fewest old school circuits remain on the F1 calendar and has its origin dated back to the early 1920s. An unanimous favourite among drivers and fans, the evocative high-speed circuit is situated in the middle of Ardennes forest making the weather unpredictable during the course of the race weekend. A common sight is one part of the track being soaking wet whilst the rest remain bone dry.
Spa being the home to some of the celebrated corners in motor racing such as Eau Rogue, La Source, Les Combes, Blanchimont and Pouhon, 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 retained its blindingly-fast nature from the original layout that stretched between three villages in its earliest triangle form and ran 14.9km long.
Its ominous speed claimed many victims in the 1960s resulting in protests led by Sir Jackie Stewart to improve safety standards and real time medical facilities. This meant the track wouldn’t return for 12 long years after 1970 as the Belgian GP altered between Nivelles and Zolder venues.
In 1983, Spa was reinstated with heavy modifications to its layout amidst keeping its notorious fast sweeps and long straights. Over the years, the track underwent changes to meet the modern safety standards with the addition of runoff areas around the high-speed sections and to facilitate more space for the new pitlane, Bus Stop chicane was moved towards the Blanchimont left-hand fast corner in 2007.
The engine power curve has to be smoother for its flowing nature and power delivery at all torques must be immediate in emphasizing traction. The middle sector comprises 10 out of 19 available corners where getting a good balance between downforce and straight line speed is important. Often used as a control circuit on the dyno, medium downforce setup as similar to Canada is used to tackle the ultra-fast corners and long straights as 70% of lap is spent on full-throttle making it the hardest track on engines.
Belgian GP statistics:
It has never been easy to come out of Spa mastering all the challenges and that’s why it is revered by Formula One drivers with greater admiration. The undisputed king of Spa has to be the legendary Michael Schumacher with six victories including a hattrick. Unassailable in his Honda days, Ayrton Senna swept four successive wins besides a triumph with Lotus in 1985.
Of the current grid, Kimi Raikkonen took his latest of four wins in 2009 to be on level with Scottish maestro Jim Clark. Whilst his Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel is the only other multiple winner at this track, Fernando Alonso has never tasted victory here despite appearing thrice on the podium.
Ferrari has been the most successful team in Belgium with an astonishing 16 wins ahead of McLaren not far away with 14 to its credit. Vettel will be aiming to surpass Senna’s tally of 41 wins this weekend while Lewis Hamilton looks to close in on the Brazilian’s record from 38 victories.
The Brit will secure the 2015 pole position trophy with another qualifying dominance as he had been the polesitter in nine of the ten races thus far. However, in the last 13 years, only five drivers have won starting from pole at Spa.
Same boats, different sails:
This time around last year, the dueling Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were in a league of their own as the German works outfit made the most out of switching to the revolutionary V6 turbo engine formula.
The gap between them now is as similar to what was in 2014 ahead of Spa as Rosberg led the championship for a change by 21 points. But the eventual winner Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was 60 points adrift of Hamilton in second, putting them on a way too comfortable position to square it off among themselves.
With no real challengers, Mercedes did allow 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. The furious British driver retired from the race while his team-mate nursed his car to the finish line in second behind the opportunistic Ricciardo who was in the right place at the right time.
However, going into the race this year, Mercedes will be aware of the prancing horse waiting to pounce at them. Sebastian Vettel consolidated his title chances with a fully-deserved victory in Hungary and lies only little over a race win worth of points away behind Hamilton and Rosberg. Should the history repeat itself, Vettel will have every opportunity to sneak through into firm contention for the drivers’ crown.
Fresh from renewing his contract with Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen will arguably play second-fiddle if his team-mate gets anywhere near a shot at the championship but the same cannot be said with Mercedes. Albeit Vettel did beat both the Silver Arrows to the top step of the podium in Malaysia and Hungary, the outright pace of SF-15T hasn’t been as convincing as it should be.
Race starts down to the drivers:
The clampdown on driver aids set to be introduced during race starts is an unknown territory as some drivers raised concerns over the drastic impact it might have off the line whilst others welcomed the prospect of handling the job that is meant to be theirs in the first place.
However, it could alleviate Mercedes off their miserable getaways in recent races that caused them a certain race victory in Hungary and almost could’ve gifted Williams a 1-2 at Silverstone. Drivers will be restricted access over the team radio as the clutch bite point will now be fixed when cars leave 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 and sister team Toro Rosso were downbeat on their exploits as the power deficiency of Renault engines could hurt them severely despite putting on stellar performances to finish the Hungarian GP in second, third and fourth.
Force India has revealed 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 Lotus team aims to recover lost points due to reliability issues in the first half of the season with a strong weekend in Belgium as midfield battle for fifth place intensifies with only eight points separating Force India, Lotus and Toro Rosso.
Languishing eighth in the championship, Sauber is looking 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 works Maranello outfit.
McLaren, meanwhile, will perform a double engine change on both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button’s 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. (Suren M)