After five weeks of nothing but news and rumours to keep F1 fans occupied as the championship took it’s now traditional summer break. F1 returns to the race track and our screens today in Belgium at the Spa Francorchamps circuit. This is the start of a run of nine races in 13 weekends that will ultimately decide where the 2012 F1 titles will end up.
Spa is the perfect place to restart the championship from. It’s a circuit with everything from high-speed to low-speed turns, Banked corners, the infamous Eau Rouge as you climb up hill and cut through the forest and that’s before we get to corners like Pouhon or Blanchimont where drivers have their cars on edge and push the limits of adhesion. That’s all before we get to the unpredictability of the weather in the region that’s lead to many amazing races in the past.
The track at over 7km is one that tests the drivers unlike many others and it’s a place where a driver can still make a difference. It’s a drivers circuit and whilst it has been tamed with some run off areas in places. It’s as exciting for drivers as it is for fans. Eau Rouge isn’t the flat out challenge it once was as the cars have developed and the tarmac has been re-laid to flatten out some of the old bumps. However the nature of the track and it’s unique configuration mean that it along with Suzuka is regularly mentioned by drivers as their favourite track.
We should be in for a great race as well. Spa has tended to produce great racing and provides overtaking opportunities in many places, especially the long run from La Source, through the climb up the hill that covers Eau Rouge and Les Combes.
The use of the DRS (use of which is usually unrestricted in practice and qualifying) has once again been prohibited at Eau Rouge for safety reasons. Even with that in mind, this is a circuit where DRS in qualifying (should it be dry) could have a massive impact. Many are expecting the Mercedes and Lotus teams that use the “Double DRS” concept to be very strong in qualifying. With many straights and high-speed kinks there is opportunity for chunks of time to be found if a driver can find the right compromise on their set-up to brave it out.
The main issue for teams that trim their car out is the middle sector of the track. Downforce is key through that section. We’ve seen Red Bull usually give up straight-line speed to be strong through this sector. It’s an utter trade off but that extra downforce can also pay dividends if the weather changes. With the field so close this year and as many as five drivers vying for the championship. We may see some of those further back take big risks starting this weekend.
Mark Webber is 40 points down on Alonso, with Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton a further two and seven points respectively down. The fifth member of the Alonso chasing quintet is Kimi Raikkonen. He’s a single point behind Hamilton and to say he has previous at Spa is an understatement. He’s got four wins at Spa to his name since his debut in 2001. That figure becomes more impressive when you take into account that he’s not raced here since 2009 and that there was no race in 2003 or 2006. If ever there was a place for Kimi to take that first comeback win, it’s here.
The real battle for the championship starts now. It’s a drivers circuit and this is evident in the past winners list. Fangio, Clark, Prost, Senna and Schumacher are just some of the names that have claimed multiple wins at the track.
Tyre strategy could play second fiddle to weather this weekend. Spa practically has it’s own climate and is notoriously for sudden localised showers to the point where there is lashing rain on one sector of the track and sunshine on the others. In the past races have been decided by inspired decisions in the cockpit or on the pit wall.
Spa-Francorchamps Facts and Stats
• Fernando Alonso has never won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps. Despite having triumphed at 19 different circuits in his grand prix career he is yet to win here. He has never started from the front row either and since his F1 debut in 2001 and has only climbed on the podium twice at the track.
• Sebastian Vettel has had his best and worst showings at Spa in the past two seasons. In 2011 he dominated from pole to claim victory. In 2010 he smashed into Jenson Button having lost control of his Red Bull.
• Speaking of Jenson Button. Spa is not his happiest hunting ground either. He has retired a total of six times (three accidents, three mechanical failures) since his debut in 2000. He’s never won here and since 2008, he has always been beaten by his team-mate in qualifying.
• Michael Schumacher reaches his 300th race weekend (297 starts up to now). The track holds many happy memories for Schumi. He made his debut for Jordan here in 1991. He claimed his 1st victory here a year later in 1992. His love of the circuit is evident with his total of 6 wins. That’s a record at the track by the way. Last year he was able to finish fifth from 24th in grid, the biggest comeback ever in Spa. He also won from 16th on the grid in 1995!
• Kimi Raikkonen, with four wins out of five races from 2004 to 2009. He missed out only in 2008, when he led 37 of the 44 laps but crashed out in slippery conditions whilst trying to keep up with Lewis Hamilton who had just passed him. Qualifying has never been to important for Kimi in Belgium; he was able to win from 10th in 2004 and from sixth in 2009. Significantly, when he has finished, he has always WON!
• It rained three times in the last 10 grands prix at Spa, and in 2010 and 2011 it rained during qualifying. Perhaps due to the unpredictable weather, in the last 10 editions the race was won from pole only four times.
Man to watch: It has to be Kimi Raikkonen with his history here and the fact that he has a top car. He’s 9/2 for the victory with William Hills. It may be worth waiting until after qualifying to see if a bigger price is available.