Spectacular Spa marks the return of Formula 1


With four weeks having passed since Jenson Button won a thrilling Hungarian Grand Prix in mixed weather conditions Formula 1 reconvenes at the fabled Spa-Francorchamps circuit where once again the weather will play a key role in this weekend’s race.

With just eight races to go the next two races, at Spa andMonza, are key to finding out whether anyone can challenge the dominance of reigning world champion, Sebastian Vettel. The German currently holds an 85 point championship lead over his Red Bull teammate, Mark Webber, but theMilton Keynesbased squad will face their biggest challenge of the season in the next two races.

Spa and Monza require a fast top speed, the one limiting factor of Red Bull’s performance in recent years. The team has developed their current car to maximize its potential over the course of the season and with only two races where top speed is critical their design philosophy has allowed them to take pole position at every race thus far in 2011 and lead both championships.

If Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button are to mount a serious title challenge they know that their title fight will have to be marked by winning the battles inBelgiumandItaly.

What the paddock has been talking about this weekend

The main news stories ahead of this weekend have concentrated on the drivers market. At Renault the team has finally run out of patience with Nick Heidfeld after a disappointing season that has seen the Enstone squad struggle to develop their car after opening the season with a brace of podiums. Brazilian Bruno Senna will replace Heidfeld for this weekend and while no decision has been announced for the rest of 2011 there is little doubt that Heidfeld will spend the rest of the year on the sidelines.

Senna raced last year for HRT and replaced Heidfeld during FP1 at the Hungaroring but the former GP2 racer’s potential is still an unknown quantity. He was favoured by some within the team to replace Robert Kubica for the year before Heidfeld got the nod due to his ability to ensue a “safe pair of hands.”

Senna will be under immense pressure this weekend with another Renault reserve/test driver, Romain Grosjean, set to wrap up the GP2 title. Grosjean raced for the squad at the end of 2009 in place of Nelson Piquet Jr and the Frenchman is clearly keen on making a return to the pinnacle of the sport for next year. As a result it would be of little surprise if the game of musical chairs continues in Enstone.

The other driver market related story doing the rounds this weekend is that Kimi Raikkonen is interested in making a return to racing with Formula 1 his preferred landing spot. The former world champion has become a solid if unspectacular rally driver and now wants a return to wheel to wheel action. With the top teams set to continue with their driver lineups next year it is likely that Raikonnen would only have midfield opportunities.

The Spa-Francorchamps Circuit

Spa is one of the greatest challenges of the season and a race that every driver, team and fan looks forward to. This is one of the few circuits that truly allows the driver to make a difference to the laptime. In a sport where the machinery is the prime factor in competitivness this is one of the few windows that gives an opportunity for drivers to showcase their national skills.

Ask any driver what his favourite circuit on the calendar is and invariably Spa, Suzuka and Silverstone are mentioned. All three are fast, flowing circuits where drivers can make the leap from a good car to a great performance.

This weekend the majority of drivers share the viewpoint of Adrian Sutil:

“I always say that Spa is my favourite circuit of the year,” said the veteran German. “I just love the place. There’s nowhere else like it and the range of corners feel so impressive in a Formula 1 car. I think all the drivers have a big smile on their face when they come back to Spa.”

The circuit has not changed much in the last thirty years, effectively only reprofiling the Bus Stop Chicane, but the challenge of the lap has changed immensely. If you asked the majority of drivers ten years what was their favourite corner of the circuit, and indeed the season, the expected response was “Eau Rouge.” The fabled corner, previously an almost flat out left-right-left that say cars plunge into the foot of a hill and then climb towards the sky in a blur of hand movements has become sedate in recent years.

Cars have progressed and now there is little challenge for drivers through this once fearsome corner. It has sadly become just another corner to drivers. Nowadays with the cars changing the main challenge for drivers is Pouhan. The double left hander in the mid section of the lap.

For Vettel this corner is now the ultimate challenge of the lap:

“My favourite part of the track is the double-left Pouhon,” said the 24 year old.”You put the car into sixth, take your foot off the accelerator for a moment and then it’s up to 280kph in the corner. The last chicane is difficult, as the car pulls you all over the place; you need all your concentration to keep it on the track.”

His rivals share this viewpoint with Hamilton saying:

“Corners like Eau Rouge, Pouhon and Blanchimont are fantastic, just because they’re so fast,” commented the McLaren star. “Pouhon, in particular, is incredible, because you’re really at the limit of the grip level, and you’re gently playing with the throttle and trying not to scrub off too much speed with the steering. Getting it right is an amazing feeling.”

It’s clear that the traditional challenges of Spa, Eau Rouge and Blanchimont, still factor in a drivers love of the circuit but corners such as Pouhan has now become the one that sets the drivers heart racing.

The other challenging corner is Stavelot. The super-fast right hander leads drivers onto the final long straight of the lap. It was here in 1996 that Jos Verstapen had a huge accident that left his Arrows upside down. With cars increasing downforce and grip corners such as Pouhon and Stavelot have seen their challenge increase enormously and while the fabled corners of yore no longer provide the same challenge a circuit like Spa will always increase the heart race of any racer.

Overtaking has traditionally occurred on the run from Eau Rouge to Les Combe and this year the DRS activation zone will be in this area. Throughout the rest of the lap overtaking is possible at numerous sections with the entry to the final corner a possible overtaking spot but one where a locked brake can lead to disastrous consequences, as shown by Vettel last year as he attacked Button early in the race.

Compromise is key for finding the right setup

Spa, like most circuits, requires a balance. The first and final sectors of the lap require a low downforce configuration with more grip and downforce required in the middle sector.

The run from La Source to Les Combe sees cars driving full throttle for over 23 seconds. Any unnecessary drag is heavily punished in this sector and would leave a driver certain to lose a position to any car within the DRS activation area.

As a result teams trim their cars downforce to the smallest wing possible. The use of unrestricted DRS in qualifying however could complicate the picture as to who will be competitive in race trim. Cars with more inherit downforce, such as the Red Bull, will have the DRS open and still able to set fast sector times in qualifying but in race trim the Red Bull looks almost certain to be heavily punished in sectors one and three by the much faster McLaren and Ferrari cars.

Sector two is all about grip and it is here that Red Bull were stunning in 2010. The foundation of Mark Webber’s pole position was in the middle of the lap where the Australian was stunning and visibly quicker than his rivals. The mid sector however requires more than just sheer grip, drivers need to have stability in the fast corners, Pouhon, where they need to thread the eye of needle for a fast time while also being able to have enough front end grip not to understeer through Rivage.

The downhill right hander is tackled in second gear at 80 mph but is one of the most difficult corners of the lap. The car will always push wide through the apex and bring drivers away from the optimum line into the entry of turn nine, which leads into Pouhon. Drivers therefore have to compromise their line into the corner in a bid to have a smoother passage through to the exit of the corner.

Williams outgoing technical director, Sam Michael, was keen to talk on the challenges of finding the right balance at the Belgian Grand Prix venue:

“Spa is one of the greatest circuits in the Formula One Championship,” said the Australian. “Large variations in terrain provide a challenge to the engineers to cover all of the different corner types, from slow speed curb riding to the flat out Eau Rouge. Race day can be really interesting when the weather changes as it can rain on one side of the circuit and be dry on the other!

Formula 1 revolves on Pirelli tyres in 2011

Pirelli will bring their soft and medium compounds to Spa. The tyres have not had to play a key role in recent races, with weather interrupting proceedings but Pirelli motor sport boss, Paul Hembery, is eager to get to Belgium and showcase the Italian company’s rubber:

“Spa-Francorchamps is one of those legendary names in motorsport, which has become a real icon of the Formula One season,” said Hembery. “It is a track that tests ultimate commitment, so once again we have to supply tyres that are capable of not only absorbing the colossal forces that they are subjected to on a regular basis, but also of delivering maximum performance in complete safety.

“In many ways Spa is one of the most unpredictable tracks of the season, and since we have never tested here, we have very little data to go on. From what we have seen in the past though, in Valencia and at the Nurburgring especially, we are confident that this combination of the medium and the soft tyre strikes the correct balance between performance and durability, equipping the drivers to display every aspect of their talents. It’s a race that rewards brave overtaking manoeuvres, which is exactly in keeping with our own tyre philosophy as well. The weather in Belgium as always will be a question mark, but with so many wet races behind us already this year, this is one area where we are definitely gaining in experience more rapidly than we anticipated!”

Three stops expected this weekend

The weather always plays a key role in deciding strategy at Spa and this year is sure to be no different but in dry trim it is likely that drivers will use a three stop strategy. With overtaking relatively easy at Spa it is likely that teams will focus on consistently having the fastest available car to them. Laptime and speed are more important than anything else this weekend.

Using a two stop strategy will surely leave teams vulnerable to attack from faster cars and while venues likeBarcelonaallow drivers to defend their position it is highly unlikely that drivers would be able to keep a faster car at bay for more than a handful of laps. As a result it is likely that teams will be forced into the three stop strategy just so that they do not lose track position.

There will still be some teams eager to play a wildcard and stay out on a two stop strategy, Sauber a prime favourite, but it could be a risky strategy for any team.

James Key, Technical Director for Sauber, knows that this is a key race for the Swiss squad. Force India have been strong in recent races and with Toro Rosso regularly challenging for points it is imperative that Sauber score points this weekend:

“As always in Spa, we have to monitor the weather closely over the weekend,” when asked about this weekend’s strategy. “The Pirelli tyres are the soft and the medium compounds. We know from Silverstone that the soft tyre works well with the high speed corners, but we have some work to do with the medium compound.”

Weather for this weekend

Spa has its own micro climate with rain seemingly coming out of nowhere to force the teams into the pits for wet weather tyres. Forecasts for this weekend are best taken with more than a pinch of salt but it the local forecasters are expecting heavy rain on Friday with Saturday likely to see a dry qualifying session before a cloudy raceday with rain threatening throughout the 44 lap race.

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