Spa Francorchamps has many claims to fame; popularity among drivers, a superb collection of high speed corners, unpredictable weather. But the factor which will probably stand out this weekend is that it is the highest engine power factor circuit on the F1 calendar.
The track is 70% full throttle and the run from La Source hairpin to the braking point for Les Combes features 23.5 seconds of constant full throttle. And in this first season of the hybrid turbo power units, that will have a significant bearing on the result.
Add to that the fact that, with only five engines per driver permitted for a season and some drivers already struggling with reliability, we could see some drivers saving engine mileage in Free practice and we could see some blow-ups as engines reach end of life. So engine strategies could be as important as race strategies this weekend.
It should be a serious challenge for the drivers this year, with the restriction on rear downforce under the 2014 rules, the 270km/h Eau Rouge corner will not be taken easily flat out, as it was in recent seasons under the old rules.
The Spa Francorchamps circuit has a very strong history in F1, going right back to the first year of competition in 1950 and is one of the drivers’ and engineers’ favourite tracks. It has the longest lap of any modern F1 track at over seven kilometers.
Always one of the key issues for teams to decide in their strategy planning –and this will be more important than ever with the difference in performance between power units – is whether to go for a low down force set up, with less wing, to help straight line speed in sectors one and three, or whether to go for more down force to help with sector 2. Gearing is always important and several drivers have found themselves with a less than ideal combination of gearing and down force, with the result that they hit the rev limiter on the Kemmel Straight and lose speed.
Qualifying rarely determines the final race result; the pole sitter has only won the race four times in the last 13 years. Overtaking is not a problem at Spa and the DRS wing makes it very straightforward anyway.
Throw in a more adventurous tyre selection from Pirelli than in the last couple of years at this track and you have multiple elements that could add up to an exciting race.
Spa Francorchamps – 7.004 kilometres. Race distance – 44 laps = 308.052 kilometres. 19 corners in total. Average speed 238km/h. Circuit based on public roads.
Aerodynamic setup – Medium to Low downforce. Top speed 322km/h (with Drag Reduction System active on rear wing) – 312km/h without.
Full throttle – 70% of the lap (high).
Time spent braking: 14% of lap. Number of brake zones – 9. Brake wear- Low.
Total time needed for pit stop: 21 seconds
The Belgian Grand Prix is the twelfth round of the 2014 FIA F1 World Championship and comes after the teams’ enforced two week factory shutdown, during which no development work may be carried out.
However many teams will have been planning a significant Spa upgrade in the weeks prior to the shutdown.
The Mercedes team maintains a clear advantage over the rest of the field, however Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo claimed his second win of the season at the last round in Hungary, before the break, helped by changeable conditions and excellent strategy work by his team.
Last year Red Bull won in Spa; part of the tactic was to run low downforce to allow overtaking on the straights. Mercedes went for higher downforce on Hamilton’s car and although he took pole, he lost the lead to Vettel.
This year the superior performance of the Mercedes hybrid power unit is likely to tell and this should help Williams, which has been it’s most competitive customer engine team.
It is a circuit on which another Mercedes customer, Force India, has always gone well. They will be counting on a significant points haul this weekend to assist with their battle for fourth place with McLaren, also powered by Mercedes.
As far as drivers’ form is concerned, Kimi Raikkonen has always been outstanding here, winning four times. Sebastian Vettel won twice, including last year, while Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa have all won here once. Fernando Alonso has never won at Spa.
The forecast for this weekend is for cloudy weather, with a chance of rain on Saturday qualifying day.
However this can change very quickly. It’s always a good idea to factor in a wet weather plan.
Spa is notorious for fickle weather. With such a long lap, it can be raining on one part of the circuit and the rest can be dry. Also the temperatures can fluctuate dramatically, so it can be 25 degrees one day and 15 degrees the next. This can have a significant effect on the cars.
Likely tyre performance and other considerations
Pirelli tyre choice for Spa: Medium and soft. This is the fifth time this season that Pirelli has brought this combination.
It is a more adventurous selection than the last two seasons, where Pirelli brought medium and hard tyres. This reflects a growing confidence on Pirelli’s side after the problems of 2013 with tyre failures.
Hungary showed once again how the performance level between two tyre compounds from this 2014 range can open up many strategic possibilities and the race, as well as being thrilling, was a case study for strategists.
The soft will be the qualifying tyre, clearly, but the race will be interesting and trading off pace for durability will be key. With a long lap, almost 2 minutes around you gain and lose more than at most venues by being on the right or wrong tyre at a particular moment.
Spa is also hard on tyres with high degradation and wear. The medium was good for up to 20 laps last year, but many drivers ran it for only around 15 laps. This year’s tyres are not the same as 2013, we have tended to see one more stop than last year at many venues.
With hard and medium tyres at Spa we saw one stop strategies, which is what Pirelli is trying to avoid this year. In 2012, after the opening stint on mediums, most teams defaulted to longer stints on the hard tyre for the rest of the race.
One of the key things for teams to establish in Friday practice is the fastest way to do the race and so getting the maximum preparation time in Free Practice is crucial.
The soft tyre is designed for higher temperatures, so crucial to getting a competitive lap time will be setting the car up so that it switches the tyres on in the all important middle sector.
Number and likely timing of pit stops
The time needed for a stop at Spa is average at around 21 seconds. Although it’s a long pit lane, with a slow exit, the cars staying on the track must navigate a slow hairpin so the lost time isn’t as great as it might be.
Based on the tyre considerations listed above, the majority will probably go for two stops, around laps 13 and 28. A safety car, if it is long enough, could push teams to switch from two stops to one in the hope of stealing a result.
Chance of a safety car
The chance of a safety car at Spa is statistically high at 80% and 1.4 per race. Rain is one reason, but also accidents tend to be high speed and so there can be quite a lot of debris.
Recent start performance
Starts are a critical part of the race and strategy can be badly compromised by a poor start, while good starts can make strategists change their plans in the hope of a good result. Much can change.
As far as 2014 start performance is concerned drivers have gained (+) or lost (-) places off the start line this season on aggregate as follows:
Net gained positions
11 Sutil, Raikkonen
10 Massa, Hulkenberg
Net held Position
Net lost positions
1 Vettel, Magnussen
Melbourne Notes: Kobayashi, Massa eliminated in a first corner accident; Perez, Gutierrez pitted at the end of Lap 1; Bianchi, Grosjean started from pit lane.
Malaysia Notes: Perez started from pit lane, Bianchi pitted at the end of lap 1
Bahrain notes: Vergne pitted at the end of lap 1 after contact
China Notes: Sutil lost power at start and dropped 8 places, retiring soon after.
Monaco notes: Maldonado did not start, Ericsson started from pit lane, Perez crashed Lap 1.
Canada Notes: Gutierrez started from pit lane; Bianchi and Chilton crashed lap 1; Ericsson pitted lap 1
Austria Notes: Grosjean started from pit lane
GB Notes: Raikkonen and Massa eliminated in 1st lap accident
Germany notes: Massa eliminated in 1st lap accident, Magnussen and Ricciardo dropped back as a result
Hungary Notes: Hamilton, Magnussen, Kvyat started from pit lane
Pit Stop League Table
Of course good strategy planning also requires good pit stop execution by the mechanics and we have seen tyre stops carried out in just over two seconds by F1 teams.
However, this season with high penalties for unsafe release and wheels coming off, teams have focused on consistency of stops. Nevertheless, the target is around 2.5 seconds to change all four wheels.
The league table below shows the order of the pit crews based on their fastest time in the Hungarian Grand Prix, from the car entering the pit lane to leaving it.
1. Red Bull 21.608s
2. Ferrari 21.634s
3. McLaren 21.812s
4. Lotus 21.818s
5. Mercedes 22.001s
6. Williams 22.111s
7. Toro Rosso 22.202s
8. Sauber 22.500s
9. Marussia 22.892s
10. Force India 24.040s
11. Caterham 34.086s
The UBS Race Strategy Briefing is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli