After the four week summer break Formula 1 actions resumes this weekend with the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. Sebastian Vettel is in pole position to claim a fourth consecutive world title with the German holding a 38 point lead over Kimi Raikkonen in the standings.
Having endured a slump in fortunes Raikkonen bounced back with two runner up finishes in the last two races and the Finn now needs to build on that momentum if he is to win a second world title. Raikkonen is two points ahead of Fernando Alonso but with Ferrari now off the pace it’s likely that Alonso will fall off the championship radar and the season will distill to Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton trying to close down the gap to Vettel.
The German has been imperious in 2013 with only a mechanical failure in Britain costing him points. At the other nine races he has finished in the top four and even though Mercedes have a faster car in qualifying the Red Bull has been superb on Sunday’s. The recent trend however has clearly pointed to Mercedes now having gotten to terms with the Pirelli tyres and with three wins in five races the Brackley squad are well placed to win more races in the coming months.
Even so it’s difficult to see how Vettel can lose the title at this point but with Spa historically throwing up unexpected results nothing can be discounted this weekend and a Vettel retirement could put the car amongst the pigeons in terms of the championship.
The summer break is over and the next three months are filled with racing so it’s time to sit back, relax and enjoy Formula 1 again!
The Spa-Francorchamps Circuit
At over four miles long Spa is a majestic ribbon of tarmac that weaves its way through the Ardennes forest to provide drivers with one of the most challenging circuits of the season. Drivers love the historic Belgian venue which has played host to the sport on 45 previous occasions, including the inaugural F1 championship of 1950.
Since then the track layout has changed from the original nine mile configuration to the current layout but crucially the character has remained the same. With so many of the same corners in use, such as La Source and Eau Rouge to start the lap, we can see the likes of Vettel and Hamilton on the same track as Fangio and Farina in 1950.
Spa is a race that drivers and fans all look forward to. It’s one of the few remaining circuits that truly reveal the sheer speed and thrill of a Formula 1 car in full flight. All races may be worth the same amount of points in the final standings but Spa-like Monaco, Silverstone or Monza-has a special place in the heart of all racers and this weekend seems to mean more than some others.
Williams’ have struggled in 2013 but having scored points for the first time at the previous Grand Prix in Hungary the team are looking forward to building some momentum at Spa. This is the type of track that suits Pastor Maldonado’s aggressive and on-the-limit driving style and the Venezuelan is looking forward to this weekend.
Speaking about Spa the Grand Prix winner said:
“Spa is one of my favourite circuits because it has so much history and is so fun to drive,” commented Maldonado. “It’s a very technical and fast circuit and you find a very wide range of corners there: uphill, downhill, very slow, medium, fast, short and long corners. It’s the most complete track of the season and this tests you as a driver and also tests the car’s setup.
“It also has the famous Eau Rouge corner which puts a lot of G force and pressure on your body. You feel this even more during qualifying when you are low on fuel and are trying to get the most from the car. Two years ago I picked up my first point in Formula One here and hopefully I will be in the points again this weekend.”
Sauber have also struggled to build on a promising campaign last year and with Nico Hulkenberg having once again stated that he does not regret joining the team the German will be pleased to get back on track this weekend and hopefully see some improvements.
Hulkenberg echoed the thoughts of Maldonado by saying:
“I am probably not the only driver to say Spa-Francorchamps is one of my favourite circuits,” said the former GP2 champion. “It’s a track with a lot of history. It’s an old school circuit with great corners like Eau Rouge and Pouhon. I have great memories from last year; it was my strongest career finish so far finishing fourth, which was really good. In terms of the car, it’s important to have a really efficient one.
“There are a lot of medium and high-speed corners, where you need the down force, especially in sector two. But you also need to loose the drag on the straight, because there are long straights, especially out of turn one through Eau Rouge, which is flat, and then again coming back to the start and finish line. There are a lot of straights, so top speed is also important. The Ardennes area of Belgium has a really nice atmosphere and I enjoy going to there.”
While Maldonado and Hulkenberg have fond memories of Spa the same cannot be said for Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman, who made his debut at the track in 2009, has been involved in opening lap crashes both times he has started the Belgian race. Last year he triggered one of the most spectacular crashes in memory and was handed a one race ban as punishment.
When asked for his thoughts on the track Grosjean used the word “rollercoaster” and it’s an apt comparison for his career in the top flight. The Frenchman has a lightening turn of speed but is still prone to moments of madness that overshadow his clear potential. The final nine races of the season are crucial if he is to maintain his place with the Lotus squad for 2014.
“What a track; it’s fantastic!” beamed Grosjean. “It’s a superb rollercoaster of a circuit, then there’s the added bonus that they speak French meaning it’s almost another home race for me after Monaco and Canada. It’s going to be good. If we have the pace we displayed in Budapest at a more normal circuit with better overtaking opportunities – and a bit wider track too – then I think good things could well be possible.”
Alonso’s title bid on the rocks
It’s hard to believe but in 2000 Fernando Alonso was seen as a talented F3000 racer but still not one that was truly ear marked for greatness. The Spaniard was a serial karting champion but in F3000, racing for Astromega, Bruno Junqueria and Nicolas Minassian and Mark Webber were all considered to be better long term prospects than the future double world champion.
Alonso’s reputation at the time was possibly hindered by his nationality with Spain regarded as producer of world class motorcyclists rather than single seater racers. Alonso has of course changed that reputation and made Formula 1 hugely popular in Spain. His victory at Spa in 2000 however could be viewed as the day he announced to world just how much potential he had. That day Alonso was untouchable in a race ran in mixed conditions. He was surefooted, consistent and blindingly fast to claim a dominant victory.
Alonso graduated to Formula 1 the following year and his career path was on a constant upward curve. The first blip in his career occurred in 2007 when he moved to McLaren after winning his second title with Renault. Armed with the best car on the grid it was almost impossible to bet against Alonso winning the title with the Woking squad with the Spaniard sure to enjoy a long and successful stint with the team.
History however will remember that the team became Lewis Hamilton’s and Alonso returned to Renault. A move to Ferrari in 2010 came with much fanfare but has yet to produce a third title, and only 11 race wins. The team is clearly struggling with development of the car and has fallen off the pace. As a result Alonso’s title drought will surely extend to seven seasons.
It is almost inconceivable that a driver of Fernando’s talent has not been able to add another title to his name but the fact is that Ferrari are not the force that they were previously and while Alonso has produced some stunning races this year-such as his wins at China and Barcelona-some of the blame for their failures has to also fall at his door.
The team has recently hired James Allison, formally of Lotus, so there are signs of encouragement for the future but it does little to help the team at present. With Ferrari now clearly having fallen off the pace it is difficult to even see Alonso on the rostrum in the coming races and this could be compounded this weekend given Alonso’s past form at Spa.
The Spaniard has never won at the track in Formula 1 and has only stood on the podium twice. With the team having struggled with upgrades due to wind tunnel issues and an inability to utilise simulation tools to the same extent of other leading teams means that there is little chance of Fernando being capable of scoring more than a handful of points this weekend.
Can Raikkonen and Lotus maintain form?
Kimi Raikkonen has finished second at the last two Grand Prix with the Finn bouncing back from a disappointing stretch of races that had seemed to signal an end to his championship challenge. Raikkonen finds himself 38 points adrift of Vettel in the championship standings but Spa has traditionally been one of his stronger races with the 2007 champion having won the Belgian GP on four occasions.
Given his past form it’s little surprise that he’s looking forward to this weekend:
“Usually I’ve achieved a good result at the Belgian Grand Prix, but what has happened there before doesn’t help me right now,” said the Finn. “Of course, it doesn’t cause any harm either and it would be great to win at Spa for a fifth time. Extra points are always good and if you win the race no-one scores more points than you. There have only been good memories from Spa and it’s great to go racing there. It’s great to race with a modern racing car at a proper circuit which has such a great tradition.”
For Raikkonen to have any chance of winning again at Spa he’ll need to qualify better than he has for much of the season. Having struggled to qualify within a second of the pace at times this season Kimi showed a better turn of speed in Germany and Hungary but the Spa was one of the more difficult races for Lotus in 2012 so even though the team has taken a step forward this season this looks set to be one of the more challenging races for Raikkonen.
“A good grid position is extremely important and it will be very decisive at Spa too, even though it is maybe easier to overtake there than at some other tracks. It’s crucial to have a good car aerodynamically to tackle the fast corners and it’s a long lap, so to get the right time you really need to maintain the best rhythm. Last year we were not very strong there. I think we know the reasons and for sure our car is better this year, but is it good enough to be fighting for a win? We will see on Sunday.”
Lotus has a good race car but their qualifying difficulties have given Raikkonen a lot of work to do on Sunday’s. If the team has not found a solution to this issue over the summer break closing the gap to Vettel will be impossible.
“I am now back in second which was a good way to enter the summer break. I finished ahead of Seb [Vettel] in Hungary so obviously scored more points than him there. To beat him, we need to be winning races and if we keep finishing second like we’ve done many times this year it’s probably not going to be enough for the championship, but you never know what might happen.”
Can Mercedes maintain momentum?
Mercedes have regularly had the fastest throughout the season over a single lap but since the Monaco Grand Prix the team has won three of the previous five races with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton both winning races and proving that the team has turned a significant corner in 2013.
Whereas in the past they were unable to solve problems during a season they will now start races as the genuine favourite most weekends. Having struggled early in the season due to chronic tyre wear problems Hamilton’s victory in Hungary illustrated just how significantly the team, and Hamilton, has improved this year.
Having clearly been unable to get the most from the car over the first six races of 2013 Hamilton has been in great form over recent races and the Englishman is raring to go this weekend:
“It feels like I have been out of the car for a very long time since the win in Hungary and I can’t wait to get going again,” said Hamilton. “I was at the factory to meet up with my engineers and get in some practice on the simulator so it was nice to see everyone and to feel the enthusiasm around the factory after the summer break. Spa is a fantastic circuit and it’s so much fun to drive. We’re all looking forward to the second half of the season and the opportunity to bring home some more good results.”
Hamilton is fourth in the championship but he is also the most likely challenger to Vettel for the title. The 2008 champion 48 points behind Vettel so he’ll need some luck in the coming races but if Mercedes can maintain their current form more victories could allow him to put some pressure on Vettel. The rivalry between the German and Hamilton has been clear at times in recent years but has mostly been kept in check this season. However if Hamilton can consistently close the points gap we might see the tension return to their relationship.
Having started the season with hopes of winning races they have surpassed all expectations but obviously this has changed the goals for the remainder of the year. AMG Mercedes motorsport’s Toto Wolff commented on this during the summer break:
“Our first half of the season exceeded expectations but we will continue to work hard and to improve performance further in the second half. On paper, Spa is a circuit that should suit our car, and Nico and Lewis will be at their best on a real driver’s circuit. We have a strong all-round package at the moment and good momentum after our win in Hungary. However, everybody will bring a special low-drag package for this circuit, so we won’t know who has found the best compromise before we start running on Friday. We cannot take anything for granted in terms of performance and Spa is always a demanding circuit for reliability. The key will be to do our homework well in practice in order to achieve a strong race result for the team.”
Nico Rosberg has won twice in the last five races with victories at Monaco and Silverstone and with overtaking relatively easy at Spa a three stop strategy could be employed by Mercedes to ensure consistent tyre performance throughout the 44 lap race. Given their single lap speed if Rosberg and Hamilton can qualify on the front row they should be the pace setter this weekend.
Speaking before the weekend Rosberg is looking forward to getting back to action:
“Spa is most definitely one of the best tracks of the year and all drivers love racing there,” said the German. “It’s a great feeling to drive through the fast corners, and particularly taking Eau Rouge at full throttle. The Belgian Grand Prix is always a special one as it’s very close to Germany and so a lot of our home fans will be there for the weekend, along with some of my friends. The layout and nature of the track should suit our car, although it does require very low downforce so we will have a different aerodynamic specification to the last race. I can’t wait to be back in my Silver Arrow and I hope it will be a successful weekend for us.”
Rookies look forward to Spa
Rookie seasons are always difficult but the current restrictions on testing make it harder than ever for rookies to make an immediate impact in Formula 1. Even so we have seen impressive performances from Valtteri Bottas and Jules Bianchi throughout the season with both drivers rewarding their teams’ faith by outperforming their cars on numerous occasions.
Bianchi has been linked with a move to Ferrari, likely in 2015, such has been his speed and consistency this season and the Frenchman is looking forward to racing close to home once again this weekend:
“On the one hand it is very important for everyone in the sport to have a good long break,” said Bianchi. “On the other hand I was ready to go racing again after just one week! That was three weeks ago now, so I am very much looking forward to Spa this weekend and also to the second half of the season, which is very important for us as we have to give it 100% to ensure we achieve our objectives.
“Over the break I have had the chance to reflect on my debut season so far, think about how I can bring all of that experience together to make me stronger and also focus very hard on my physical condition so that I can perform at my best through the run of long-haul races coming up. It will be good to race at Spa again as it is a fantastic track and it will be very special to get my first taste of it in an F1 car.”
His teammate at Marussia, Max Chilton, has gradually improved throughout the season and having looked out of his depth in some of the earlier races has improved with stronger performances at Silverstone. The Englishman has spent the summer break trying to build up his physical strength and as he reflected on his season thus far he is pleased with his progress:
“I can’t wait for Spa this weekend,” said Chilton. “The break has been a good opportunity to think about the first half of the season but it will be good to be back in the car again. I’m feeling very positive about what we need to do in the remaining nine races and I’m ready for the challenge. Although we haven’t been racing, the break has still been a busy time as I treated it a little like a ‘training camp’ and spent part of it on a pretty intensive physical programme.
“Having raced at Spa a few times now, I’m looking forward to my first experience of driving a Formula 1 car at what is a very special circuit. It’s a different challenge, with the exceptionally long lap and fantastic mix of long straights and high speed corners and it certainly ranks high on my list of favourites.”
“I first drove at Spa in 2007 in Formula Renault and immediately fell in love with the track,” said the Finn. “It’s very high speed, flowing and undulating and gives you a real adrenaline rush. Achieving a good car setup is difficult because of the wide variety of corners, but we will try to get as much information as we can during the practice sessions to find the most appropriate setup for qualifying and the race.
“I’ve had a good break during the shutdown period but I’m now itching to get back in the car. We have shown some improvements in race pace over the past few races and we know we are heading in the right direction. We will therefore be looking to have another points scoring result this weekend that will give us good momentum for the second half of the season.”
At Sauber Esteban Gutierrez has struggled to adapt to an underperforming car that has failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations. He has however had some strong outing, setting fastest lap at Barcelona for example, but with his vastly more experienced teammate, Nico Hulkenberg, having a poor campaign it’s hard to expect much from the Mexican.
Even so racing at Spa is enough to get Gutierrez excited:
“Belgium will be an interesting race with everything we have done to the car during the past GPs,” said the Mexican. “Obviously qualifying in Hungary was not good, because of the time we lost in FP3. But I think we can manage to get into the position we were expecting, which is around P10 in Spa-Francorchamps.
“It is one of the tracks that I enjoy driving the most, because it has a lot of quick corners and it just flows. You can feel the limits of the car at really high speeds. One lap is quite long and sometimes you even face varying weather conditions in different parts of the track – on one side it might be raining, while the other side might be dry. This makes it very challenging and interesting.”
The final rookie on the grid is Giedo van der Garde. The Dutchman almost sneaked through to Q3 in Monaco during the damp conditions and he has showed encouraging pace at times this season in comparison to his teammate, Charles Pic. This weekend is practically a home race for van der Garde and he’s looking forward to racing in front of many of his compatriots who will travel across the border into Belgium:
“Honestly, I’ve been excited about racing in F1 at Spa ever since the start of the season, actually probably for all my life! As there isn’t a Dutch Grand Prix these days the Belgian GP is the closest I have to a home race and I know there’s going to be a lot of orange flags around the track, and a lot of support for me and the team all weekend,” said van der Garde. “I know we’re not going to be in a position to fight at the front of the grid, but we’ll still be pushing as hard as possible to beat our nearest rivals, and after the last race in Hungary I’m confident we can start the second half of the season in a positive way and put on a good show for all the fans who’ll make the trip to Spa. I can’t wait!”
Keys to finding a Spa setup
Whereas in the past Spa was an ultra low downforce configuration it has morphed into a medium downforce track as teams wing elements have been restricted and other cost cutting measures have ensured development of such packages are only applicable for Monza. Even so compromise is key at the Belgian track with a balance needed between straight line speed and grip through the fast corners that dominate the track.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s race Tom McCullough, Sauber’s Head of Track Engineering, outlined the challenges:
“After the August break the whole team feels refreshed and we are looking forward to the remaining nine races,” said the Englishman. “Spa-Francorchamps is a favourite track for many engineers and drivers as the track requirements are different to the majority of the tracks we visit. The circuit efficiency penalises higher levels of drag so the rear wings will return to the medium levels of downforce.
“As always, we will have to keep an eye on the forecast as this often influences the race weekend in Spa-Francorchamps. The track is made up of primarily medium and high-speed corners with significant flat out sections. Pirelli has selected the medium and hard compounds for our return to Spa.”
From a race engineer’s perspective Spa is one of the biggest challenges of the year with the variety of slow, medium and fast corners combined with a need for acceleration and top end power providing the ultimate conundrum.
Xevi Pujolar, Chief Race Engineer at Williams, spoke about this challenge:
“After the August break it is great to be back racing again and the whole team is looking forward to arriving at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend,” said Pujolar. “It is one of the most challenging circuits in the world for both the car and drivers as you see every kind of corner from long flowing curves to twisty chicanes and hairpins. It’s one of the fastest circuits with an average speed of 230kph and is also the longest single lap of the year at 7.004km.
“With DRS and the long lap resulting in large differences in tyre degradation between strategies, overtaking is usually easier here than at many other tracks. Weather is often very changeable here and although early forecasts show a chance of rain on Sunday only, this can quickly change.
“Also, given the length of the circuit there is an added challenge in selecting tyres in changeable conditions as certain parts of the circuit can be much wetter than others. Overall, we are looking forward to getting the final races of the season underway.”
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres
Pirelli’s future in Formula 1 is still far from secure with teams voicing concerns that the failure to confirm a supplier is leading to major worries about the development of 2014 machines but for the team mean time Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motorsport director, is concentrating on ensuring that the Italian manufacturer is prepared for this weekend.
Having come under fire throughout the year the Englishman will be looking for a quiet weekend where racing rather than tyres is the major talking point.
Speaking ahead of this weekend Hembery emphasised the difficulty of Spa where tyres face some of the highest cornering loads of the season:
“Spa is not only an epic circuit, but also one of the biggest challenges for our tyres all year,” said Hembery. “Mostly this is because of the very high-energy loads that go all the way through the tyres, both vertically – due to the big compressions such as Eau Rouge – and also laterally at fast corners like Blanchimont. Often, the tyres are subjected to forces acting in different directions at the same time, which increases the work still further.
“So looking after the tyres is very important, particularly as it’s such a long lap. This means that there are a very wide variety of possible strategies available at Spa as well, with plenty of time to be won and lost if the right tactics are chosen. However, any strategy has to be very flexible, because it’s the changing weather that often makes Spa such a fascinating race. The conditions can change extremely quickly, which then makes how the teams use the intermediate and wet tyres the key to success – as we have seen so often in the past. Both our wet-weather tyres have proved their performance over previous races; with the intermediate tyre in particular showing how well suited it is even to inconsistent and drying conditions. There are plenty of overtaking opportunities, and the blend of performance and durability offered by our nominated tyres should maximise those chances this weekend.”
Weather for this weekend
Nestled within the Ardennes ensures that Spa has a micro climate of its own. Torrential downpours can occur in one spot while a couple of miles away the neighboring towns and villages could be bathed in beautiful sunshine.
Pastor Maldonado spoke about the difficulties that the weather can provide in Belgium:
“The weather can be changeable and because it is such a long track, there are times where the track can be wet in one sector but dry in another which requires the teams to make some difficult strategy decisions.”
The local forecasters are projected sunshine on Friday and Sunday with a change of scattered showers on Saturday.