It’s been a long five-week break between races, but Formula 1 fans worldwide will be eagerly awaiting this weekend’s instalment, the Belgian Grand Prix, which has so often proven to be a pivotal point in many a championship season.
With nine races to go, we have a surprising – but very wily – championship leader, and four hungry drivers trying to chase him down.
Let’s take a look at the RichardsF1.com Belgian Grand Prix Preview…
2012 FORMULA 1 SHELL BELGIAN GRAND PRIX
|Date:||31 August – 2 September 2012|
|Venue:||Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Ardennes, Belgium|
|Race Lap Record:||1:45.108, Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren Mercedes MP4-19) – 2004|
|Event Schedule:||Free Practice Session 1||Fri 10:00-11:30|
|Free Practice Session 2||Fri 14:00-15:30|
|Free Practice Session 3||Sat 11:00-12:00|
|Race (44 laps, 308.052km)||Sun 14:00-16:00|
|Past Winners:||Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing Renault RB7)*||2011|
|Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes MP4-25)||2010|
|Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari F2009)||2009|
|Felipe Massa (Ferrari F2008)||2008|
|Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari F2007)*||2007|
|Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren Mercedes MP4-20)||2005|
|Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren Mercedes MP4-19)||2004|
|Michael Schumacher (Ferrari F2002)*||2002|
|Michael Schumacher (Ferrari F2001)||2001|
|Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes MP4/15)*||2000|
* Denotes victory from pole position
Regular surveys of drivers past and present will invariably see the Spa-Francorchamps circuit emerging on top when the list of their favourite circuit comes up for discussion, and it’s not hard to understand why.
The seven-kilometre circuit crests and plunges through the idyllic Ardennes forests in the east of Belgium, and it’s a truly spectacular circuit with some of the most challenging corners. On the grandest of scales, other modern-era circuits can only dream of competing with it.
Partnered alongside Monaco, Monza and Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps remains as one of the few historic venues left on the calendar, having first played host to Grand Prix racing as early as 1925.
Back then, the circuit was a nine-mile ride of terror on public roads through the forests and small villages along its route, and it was no surprise that the Belgian Grand Prix eventually found itself relocating to the blander locations of Nivelles and Zolder when concerns over driver safety began to become more prevalent.
In 1983, the Grand Prix circus finally made its long-awaited return to Spa-Francorchamps, albeit in a shorter and much safer incarnation. Fortunately, the track designers and officials had remained faithful to the spirit of the earlier version, keeping the famous corners like La Source, Eau Rouge and Blanchimont, while adding in new corners like the Pouhon left-handers and the iconic Bus Stop Chicane – although even that has now been bastardised with a clumsy final chicane leading onto the reprofiled main straight.
In either of its major incarnations, the circuit as seen the pinnacle of triumph and tragedy. The greats have won here on multiple occasions – Ascari, Fangio, Clark, Senna, Schumacher and Räikkönen have all won here multiple times – but it’s also been the scene of tragedy, particularly with the deaths of Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow at the 1960 event.
Take a look at our Spa-Francorchamps Circuit Guide:
The History Bit
Spa-Francorchamps – particularly when wet weather is thrown into the mix – has generally thrown up more memorable races than not, and narrowing down a short-list of our five favourite moments was a tough task…
Here they are:
1967: After several races of unfulfilled promise, Dan Gurney finally stood on the top of the rostrum as a driver and constructor, beating Jackie Stewart’s BRM by over a minute to claim the Eagle team’s only victory. It was a fitting win, coming a year after the team made its debut at the circuit, and it remains the only all-American win in modern-era Formula 1.
1970: Yet another race that the luckless Chris Amon should have won (but didn’t), the final race to be staged on the original Spa-Francorchamps circuit was a cracker. Driving for March, the New Zealander staged a race-long scrap with BRM’s Pedro Rodriguez, which the Mexican won by just 1.1 seconds after snatching the lead from Amon on the fifth lap. For the last half of the race’s 28 scheduled laps, the pair posted lap times quicker than what they’d each managed in qualifying!
1998: Torrential rain has left the track soaked, and the conditions helped trigger an almighty pile-up just seconds into the race as the pack funnelled down to Eau Rouge. Thirteen of the grid’s 22 cars were damaged in the smash, but only two drivers failed to take the restart nearly an hour later. Damon Hill made a great getaway in his little-fancied Jordan to enjoy an early race lead until he was passed by Michael Scumacher. The German looked set to add to his tally of Spa victories until he, unsighted in the spray, clobbered the back of David Coulthard as he came to lap him mid-race. A sideshow was the pair nearly coming to blows in the pit lane, but the end result saw Hill lead team-mate Ralf Schumacher to a shock 1-2, and Jordan’s maiden race win.
2000: When thinking of this race, two thoughts immediately come to mind. Firstly, fans witnessed what will probably remain as the greatest overtaking move of all time. Secondly, it will be remembered as one of Mika Häkkinen’s greatest victories. In a wet-dry race, the Finn lost the race lead with a spin, but then set about closing down on race leader Michael Schumacher as the race wore on. With just a few laps to go, the pair was nose-to-tail, staging an epic battle that, at times, threatened to be resolved in the barriers. But the signature moment came when Häkkinen out-foxed Schumacher on the sprint up to Les Combes, passing both the German and backmarker Ricardo Zonta in one fell swoop to clinch the win. Amazing stuff!
2008: Felipe Massa claimed a surprise victory at the hands of the FIA stewards after Lewis Hamilton has handed a contentious time penalty for his late-race duel with Kimi Räikkönen. Stewards ruled that Hamilton had failed to cede position to the Finn (after shortcutting the chicane in his attempts to get past) by a significant enough margin before he retook the lead. It all started when a late rain shower caused havoc, and Räikkönen found his comfortable lead evaporate as Hamilton closed in. The pair traded the race lead before Hamilton took over, and Räikkönen crashed out. But then came the penalty…
Rewind to 2011
Red Bull Racing finally broke is duck at Spa-Francorchamps as Sebastian Vettel took victory to all but guarantee he would successfully defend his 2010 championship crown.
While the Milton Keynes squad earned yet another 1-2 result, the outcome was by no means guaranteed, with the team’s technical director Adrian Newey describing it as "one of the scariest races I’ve ever been involved in".
So why the fear and trepidation? Well, the team had opted to run a very aggressive camber angle on its Pirelli tyres for the race after experiencing heavy blistering on the softer ‘option’ compound during the limited amount of dry-weather running the teams had in Friday practice.
The problem didn’t disappear, and after qualifying, the top-three qualifiers – Vettel, Webber and Hamilton – all had significant tyre blistering. Pirelli warned Red Bull Racing that it risked near-certain tyre failures with its set-up choices.
The team was faced with a dilemma. After trying – and quite rightly, failing – to convince the FIA Stewards that it should be allowed to make tyre and set-up changes to its cars without losing its grid places.
The decision was instead to load up the front tyre pressures and restrict the use of DRS during the race to prolong the tyres.
Despite both Vettel and Webber (in particular) making poor getaways – Webber would tumble to eighth at the end of the first lap – it was Rosberg who snatched an early lead before the order was restored after the first round of pit stops.
Webber and Alonso (who had qualified a poor eighth) were both fighting their way through the field, and staged a thrilling battle which culminated in Webber making a do-or-die pass on the Spaniard at Eau Rouge!
Despite more pit stop issues for Webber – who misheard a radio message to pit and instead stayed out on track while the Safety Car was called out so marshals could clean up a comical collision between Lewis Hamilton and Kamui Kobayashi – the Red Bull pace was so superior that Vettel and Webber claimed the top-two positions, much to the tremendous relief of Newey and the team.
Completing the podium was Jenson Button, who put in a storming drive after pitting for a new nosecone which dropped him to 19th. He scythed his way up the order with some tremendous passing moves to cap off a truly excellent drive from the Englishman.
Spa-Francorchamps Talking Points
So what do the RichardsF1.com readers and contributors think will happen this weekend?
The Form Guide
With a maximum 225 points up for grabs, anyone in the field could still claim the Drivers’ Championship in the nine races that remain. Of course, the odds of a Marussia or HRT driver suddenly emerging as a championship challenger are laughably remote, so in reality we have about five drivers with a realistic claim for the 2012 crown.
As the 2012 season has shown so far, predicting who of the five – those being Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen – could claim the crown is another story entirely.
That being said, the Spa-Francorchamps is undoubtedly Räikkönen’s circuit. He’s won here an incredible four times, and in fact he hasn’t finished a race here without being on the top step of the podium. With Lotus’ ever-improving form and his outstanding driver to second place last time out at Hungary, he’s looking a likely candidate to finally break through and claim the team’s first win in its black-and-gold colours.
The man the entire field will have to catch, points wise, is Fernando Alonso, who will find himself still in the lead of the Drivers’ Championship no matter what happens this weekend. Granted, he’s been helped by a bit of luck and the fact that the chasing pack continues to pick points off each other. Unless someone out of the chasing quartet can emerge as a serious challenger – and soon – it’s hard not to see why the bushy-eyebrowed Spaniard won’t clinch a third, and most-deserved, Drivers’ Championship title.
Don’t forget to enter your F1 Predictions!
The twelfth round round of the 2012 RichardsF1.com F1 Predictions Competition is now open, and you can enter your predictions for the race right here to be in the running for some great prizes throughout the season and at the end of the year!
The cut-off to submit your predictions is no later than five minutes before qualifying starts, so make sure you’re in it to win it!
You can view the latest Predictions Competition ranking right here.
There were more changes in the points table following the Hungarian Grand Prix round, and the overall winner’s title remains open to many people to claim. Again, we’ll be awarding a prize to this weekend’s highest points-scorer (before ‘double up). Will it be you?
To enter your predictions, click here.
As always, RichardsF1.com will be bringing you the best of the on- and off-track action this weekend, so make sure we’re your first port of call for your Belgian Grand Prix fix!