This weekend F1 roars back into life after the summer break at the Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium one of the heritage jewels in the F1 calendar.
It will be a test of character for Nico Rosberg in his battle for victory with Lewis Hamilton; a test of performance for Red Bull, who should be very fast here, especially in the middle sector and a test of resilience for Ferrari, which dispensed with its technical director before the break and now needs to regroup and finish the season strongly. This is Round 13 of 21 so there is still a long way to go and plenty to fight for as Ferrari fell behind Red Bull in the Constructors’ championship before the break.
With 19 corners on a 7km lap, Spa is the longest track on the calendar and one of the toughest on engines, with two sustained periods of flat out full throttle each lap; from La Source hairpin to Les Combes chicane which is around 25 seconds and then later in the lap the run through Blanchimont to Bus Stop chicane.
It has some fast, high energy comers that take a heavy toll on the tyres, however it is not the fastest combination of corners in one lap on the F1 calendar; that honour belongs to Silverstone.
Overtaking is easy on the long straights, so teams can plan their fastest strategy knowing that they will be able to clear traffic. However there is a high chance of a Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car and this can wreck a race plan, if it falls at the wrong time.
The weather always plays a part in the strategy planning and execution for this race and being responsive is always useful at Spa. This year with the new tyre rules meaning that each team has three different tyre options to choose from, the supersoft is the qualifying tyre, but the soft and medium the race tyres, as last year. It’s the eighth time that this combination of tyres has been brought to a race and thus is becoming something of a ‘default’ combination, which the teams understand well.
This should make life interesting as the supersoft will not last long in the opening phase of the race, so it will be interesting to see the pace offset between the supersoft and soft in qualifying over the long lap to see whether some front runners try to qualify on the soft. The cars starting outside the Top 10 could have quite a tactical advantage, being able to run a longer first stint on soft.
Last year race winner Hamilton did 13 laps on soft, then 17 lap middle stint on mediums before a final 13 lap stint on softs again.Rosberg did something similar, while Grosjean and Perez bagged third and fifth places respectively with two short, punchy stints on softs at the start and then a long final stint of 22 laps to the flag on mediums.
Last year after a weekend of limited dry running in practice, teams had a limited knowledge of how the soft and medium compound tyres would perform in the race. Most teams were briefing that it would be a two-stop race, with some teams perhaps getting marginal on degradation and needing a third stop. No one was contemplating a one-stop for the 44-lap race.
However Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari found themselves attempting it after being caught out by a Virtuil Safety Car just at the wrong moment for their race strategy. Realising that they were racing Roman Grosjean for a podium, after a poor qualifying performance, Ferrari decided to run a longer first stint with Vettel to Lap 14 and to put him onto the medium tyres for the middle stint, the idea being that Vettel would have a tyre offset of five laps against Grosjean later in the race and would come through on new soft tyres as Grosjean’s mediums faded and attack him in the closing laps.
However the problem with this plan was if there were a Safety Car or a Virtual Safety Car between laps 19-23, Vettel would be compromised as his rivals around him on soft tyres would pit and be able to move to a set of medium tyres that would take them to the finish.
The nightmare scenario came true; when the VSC was deployed on Lap 21 and Grosjean, Perez, Raikkonen all pitted and effectively took a pit stop in half the normal time.
So Ferrari took the gamble to try to make the finish and as we all know, one of his tyres exploded in the closing stages.
Belgian Grand Prix in Numbers
If any Mercedes powered car starts on the front row this weekend, the manufacturer will move ahead of Ford and into third on the all-time table of front row starts for F1 engine suppliers. The two companies are currently tied on 301 each, while Renault (388) and Ferrari (472) head the list.
Hamilton led every lap of the German Grand Prix last time out in Hockenheim, and in the process he surpassed Alain Prost’s 2,684 total of F1 laps led to slot into third on the all-time table with 2,732. Ayrton Senna (2,987) and Michael Schumacher (5,111) remain in front of the world champion, but it is possible he could pass the Brazilian if he leads 255 more laps before the end of the season.
The Belgian Grand Prix can often generate surprising results and the polesitter at Spa has only won three times in the last eight races at the 4.35-mile track. The 2011, 2012 and 2013 races also featured a podium finisher who had started outside the top eight on the grid, as did 2015, when Grosjean came third for Lotus from ninth on the grid
Qualifying on Saturday offers several drivers the chance to continue positive streaks or break bad runs. Nico Rosberg, who has a 100 per cent finishing record in the nine Belgian races he has started, has qualified first or second at the last 18 races – although a grid penalty meant he started sixth in Austria.
Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat has never started in the top-10 on the grid at Spa, while Nico Hulkenberg has not qualified higher than ninth for the Belgian Grand Prix since 2010 when he drove for Williams.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen is something of a Spa specialist, with four F1 victories at the track, a figure that is twice as many as the number of wins he has secured at any other circuit in his career.
But the Belgian track has not been a happy hunting ground for McLaren’s Fernando Alonso. The Spanish driver has never won an F1 race at Spa in 12 attempts and he has only finished on the podium there on one occasion since 2007, when he came second for Ferrari in 2013. The double world champion also has five retirements in Belgium, a number beaten only by the six times he has failed to finish at Montreal.
Manor’s Esteban Ocon will make his F1 debut this weekend and in doing so he will become the tenth teenager to make a Grand Prix start. The 19-year-old Frenchman, who will be four days younger than Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was when he made his first F1 appearance at Indianapolis 2007 for BMW-Sauber, has already driven in four FP1 sessions for Renault and completed the mid-season test for Mercedes.
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