Superb F1 season set to get even better at spectacular Spa

It’s been five weeks since Lewis Hamilton won the Hungarian Grand Prix and Formula 1’s summer break is coming to an end.

In that time the teams have recharged their batteries and started to prepare themselves for a gruelling conclusion to the 2012 season. With eight races in 13 weeks the battle for the championship looks set to be a test of endurance as well as speed.

This weekend sees the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit play host to the Belgium Grand Prix and it’s clear that the paddock is raring to be let off the leash again and get back to racing.

The Spa-Francorchamps circuit

Spa is a circuit filled with fast flowing corners that require precision and bravery and has long been regarded as the ultimate driving test. Having hosted Formula 1 since the inaugural season of 1950 and while it has been modified extensively over the last 60 years the challenge remains the same.

Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen takes us on a driver’s eye view of the track:

“Spa is a legendary circuit, one of the greats and a race that every driver looks forward to. The track has changed over the years but it still retains a lot of the characteristics that make it so special. It’s quick, the weather almost always makes it a real challenge and the fans are hardcore F1 supporters so the atmosphere is always good.

“Spa’s also home to Eau Rouge, possibly the most famous corner in F1. It’s still feels good as you head down the hill and start feeling the compression as you head back out onto the straight, but in all honesty it’s not the challenge it used to be. You can go through there flat without any major issues and compared to what it must have been like when the cars had less downforce it’s relatively tame. Despite that, you still have to get the line right and if you do and you’re close enough to the car ahead you have a good chance to overtake on the run down to Les Combes.

“Before Eau Rouge you’re on the throttle for about 20 seconds out of the hairpin and down the hill. You need to make sure you have a good exit out of the hairpin to have maximum speed through Eau Rouge and onto the first long straight or you can lose time and track position in the first sector. We then head down into turns five, six and seven which are taken in third gear and through which you can be pretty aggressive, using the kerbs to save lap time and pushing on into Rivage which is taken in first or, at best, second gear. Rivage is slightly off-camber so the cars tend to fall off the track a bit and you can’t really attack other cars into there. Sometimes you see the front rights locking up into that corner as the cars struggle for grip and there’s a bump on the exit to deal with. The key is to carry as much speed as you can out of Rivage and down the hill through turn nine and into Pouhon which is another of Spa’s most famous corners.

“Inside the cockpit Pouhon is a good test. You head into it on full power, lift off a tiny bit and then you’re straight back on the throttle. It’s quite tight on the entry but then it opens up on the exit so you can carry a fair amount of speed through it and out onto turns 12, 13 and 14 which are pretty similar to five, six and seven. After that you’re into turn 15, pretty much at the bottom of the valley and on your way back up to the start / finish straight. Turn 17 is Blanchimont, the third of the famous Spa corners and another one that these days we take flat. Like Eau Rouge it’s not quite what it was a few years ago, but you still need to have the car set up right to go in and out of there flat and carry the speed through to the final chicane at turns 18 / 19. Braking into there is crucial – you need to make sure you don’t lose time through the final two turns and back out onto the run down to turn one.

“That’s a lap of Spa. It’s rightfully one of the great races and even though it usually rains for at least half the race weekend it’s still one everyone looks forward to. After a good break and the move to our new home in Leafield the whole team is up for it and we can’t wait to get back on track.”

Milestone weekend for Schumacher

Michael Schuamcher makes his 300th Grand Prix start this weekend at Spa. The German has been victorious at the Belgium venue seven times and armed with the best car since returning to sport with Mercedes hopes are high for another strong finish.

“Spa is like my living room; for me, it’s clearly the number one race track in the world,” said the seven times champion. “It’s uncanny how I always seem to have special moments there – my debut, my first win, a world championship victory and many great races. The fact that I will also take part in my 300th Grand Prix at Spa was somehow almost inevitable and we will have to celebrate it in the right way. I’m proud to be just the second driver in the history of the sport to reach this milestone and there’s no question that we are looking to have a particularly nice weekend. We delivered a good performance in Spa last year; I’ll be doing everything possible to drive a strong race.”

Mercedes have struggled for form in recent races and have clearly fallen behind their rivals in the development race but on a circuit like Spa, and next weekend at Monza, their powerful engine and double DRS could give them a decided advantage over some of their rivals.

Challenging for a race win looks beyond the performance of the team but giving Schumacher a strong weekend as he joins Rubens Barichello in the “300 club” is well within reach for the team.

Team principal, Ross Brawn, has been alongside Schumacher for most of his 91 race wins, and all seven titles, and he is keenly aware of the importance of this race:

“For the second year in succession, Spa will be a special occasion for Michael and the team as we follow his 20th anniversary last year by celebrating his 300th Grand Prix this time around. It is a fantastic achievement which has so far only been matched by one other driver, and we look forward to celebrating with him, and hopefully a strong weekend.”

Can Lotus finally fulfill their promise?

Lotus has been on the cusp of a race win all season. From the opening race of the season in Melbourne it has been clear that they have had a very fast car. Last time out in Hungary Kimi Raikkonen showed that his determination and nerve have not been diluted to any extent by his time away from the sport.

This weekend Raikkonen has been victorious four times in Belgium and racing at the track this weekend is something that he is clearly looking forward to:

“For me there have only been good memories from Spa and it’s great to go racing there,” said Raikkonen. “You can’t get the same kind of a feeling anywhere else. It’s great to race with a modern racing car at a proper circuit that has such a great tradition.”

After enduring a turbulent number of seasons the Enstone team is finally ready to win races again and with Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean clearly driving at a very high level this weekend’s race should play to the strengths of the E20.

Red Bull and McLaren looking to catch Ferrari

With Fernando Alonso enjoying a commanding championship lead the remainder of the season will see Red Bull and McLaren look to close the gap on the Spaniard in the title chase.

At the start of the season Ferrari were clearly outmatched by their rivals in terms of single lap pace but in recent races this has no longer been the case. With an improving car, and a team that has minimised mistakes, Alonso and Ferrari have penned a perfect start to the season.

Now however with the season starting to come to a conclusion the pressure is growing on everyone. Two years ago, in his first season with the team, Alonso was in a great position to win the title at the final race of the season but a tactical error cost the team dearly and Sebastian Vettel walked away with the title.

For McLaren and Red Bull the key for the rest of the campaign is to make sure that they have both cars starting in the front three rows of each race to put as much pressure as possible on Ferrari. With Lotus improving all the time it is essential for McLaren and Red Bull to ensure that Alonso spends the rest of the season in wheel to wheel battles. If the they can do this there’s a chance that Ferrari might start to the feel the pressure and mistakes could start to creep into the Italian squad.

Car setup at Spa

Compromise is key at Spa. Even though it is one of the fastest laps of the season cars will use a medium downforce configuration so that the drivers have enough downforce to tackle the high speed corners.

Another challenge presented by Spa is that the track features a number of compressions, such as the entry to Eau Rouge, and as a result the ride height and suspension settings are crucial for the handling of the car. To put this into perspective Eau Rouge sees a vertical load of 1000kg placed on the car.

In addition to the strain placed on the suspension and tyres the engine is also stressed to a tremendous degree. From the opening corner, the La Source Haripin, drivers are full throttle for over 2km until Les Combes. Overall drivers are at full throttle for 75% of the lap.

To illustrate the strains placed on the engines by the track Remi Taffin, Reanult’s head of F1 operations, said:

“The driver will encounter every sort of corner possible so we have to get the RS27 to perform over all levels of torque and revs. The engine needs to deliver good top end power for the long straights, yet a smooth power curve through the flowing corners like Blanchimont. Response is also key out of the slower hairpins and chicanes. We actually use Spa as a control circuit on the dyno to test an engine’s reliability as it puts so much stress on the internal parts. With such huge demands exerted, we’ll be introducing fresh engines for this race.”

Sauber’s Giampaolo Dall’Ara, the Swiss team’s head of track engineering, discussed the issues acing teams at the legendary circuit:

“For drivers as well as for engineers Spa-Francorchamps is quite a challenging track,” said the Italian. “The downforce level is lower than on most other tracks, which is due to the long full throttle sections as well as the layout of the corners, which are mainly high speed with only a few low speed ones. With regard to set-up, it’s not an easy track, and it’s also quite demanding on the tyres, which this time will be the two hardest compounds – medium and hard. This is a logical choice, because the surface is quite abrasive, and there’s a lot of load on the tyres in the high speed sections.

“But then you have this unpredictable weather. In the morning the track is often damp, and the conditions can change very quickly, which you have to consider when preparing for the weekend as well as during the race, when you might have to adapt the strategy. We will obviously use the medium downforce wings, and there will be some minor modifications to the car in view of the configuration we are running.”

Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres….

Pirelli will take their medium and hard compound tyres to Belgium.

Pirelli motorsport boss, Paul Hembery, is looking forward to returning to Spa and the challenges that are brought by the high loading of the unrelenting series of fast corners.

“The Spa circuit is a personal favourite of mine,” said Hembery. “I recently visited the 24-hour race there: the configuration of the track and the variety of the weather always seems to produce some great racing. From a tyre perspective, it’s certainly one of the most demanding circuits that we face all year, because of the high speeds and extreme forces involved, which are often acting on the tyres in more than one dimension.

“The nomination of the hard and the medium tyres will allow drivers to push hard from start to finish, which is what Spa was designed for. The first half of the season began with the most close and competitive start to a year ever seen in Formula One’s history, so I am looking forward to seeing how the rest of 2012 pans out, and which teams have made which steps forward over the summer break. Currently the grid is so closely-matched – particularly in the midfield – that it’s impossible to predict.”

Weather for this weekend

Spa has a micro climate all of it’s own and the weather can change in an instant. Even in the modern era of high tech weather systems provided to the teams’ it is still not unknown to place a “weather spotter” a few miles upwind of the track.

These spotters have given teams a tremendous advantage in the past and given that last year saw a wet start to qualifying before a dry line emerged later in the session they could play a role once again.

Local forecasts are expecting a cloudy Friday with possible scattered showers before a drier weekend with a sunny race day expected.

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