Spa-Francorchamps Belgian Grand Prix 2010 Belgian Grand Prix

Hasn’t the last four weeks been a bit of a drag?

While the annual summer break may have been tough for the sport’s fans, it has provided all of the teams with a much-needed break from the action. No doubt everyone’s recharged batteries will see them raring to go when the F1 circus makes its way to the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.

The Richard’s F1 team takes a look at the action ahead of us this weekend, which is the penultimate European race before the action heads to the final flyaway races. We have little doubt that the Belgian Grand Prix will deliver in spades!

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The Circuit

2011 FORMULA 1 SHELL BELGIAN GRAND PRIX

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit

Date: 28 August 2011 No. Laps 44
Lap Length: 7.004km Race Distance: 308.052km
Lap Record: 1:45.108, Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren) – 2004
Last Year’s Winner: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)

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 Raikkonen 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.

 

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A look back to 2010

Last year’s race weekend saw Rubens Barrichello celebrate his 300th Grand Prix start, sixteen years after the Brazilian claimed his first ever Formula 1 pole with Jordan at the 1994 event.

Vettel collects Button at the Bus Stop chicane Lewis Hamilton claimed his first win at the circuit after an exciting – and fairly chaotic, it must be said – race in typically changeable conditions that saw most of the frontrunners eliminated.

Sebastian Vettel made a rare gaffe when he slammed into Jenson Button at the Bus Stop chicane, while Fernando Alonso also retired courtesy of driver error when he lost control on the damp kerbs later in the race.

 

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Memorable Moments

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 Hakkinen’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 Hakkinen 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 Raikkonen. 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 Raikkonen found his comfortable lead evaporate as Hamilton closed in. The pair traded the race lead before Hamilton took over, and Raikkonen crashed out. But then came the penalty…

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Spa-Francorchamps Talking Points

What are the three big talking points of the Belgian Grand Prix?

  • The region’s unpredictable weather? The local Ardennes region has something of its own microclimate, and it’s a rarity to have a Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps that isn’t hit by wet weather at some point. The length of the lap – the longest by far on the F1 calendar – often means that one section of the circuit can be sodden, while another can be bone dry. Teams and drivers will need to be on top of their strategy calls in order to maximise their potential results.
  • Is the domination of Red Bull on the wane? Having romped to regular victories in the first half of the season, Red Bull Racing hasn’t claimed victory in any of the last three rounds, which have seen McLaren and Ferrari claim the spoils. Undoubtedly, the competition at the sharp end of the field is closer, but given that two of the last three races (Britain and Hungary) were wet-weather affected, it may be difficult to see gauge who the actual pacesetters are.
  • Can anyone catch Vettel? Vettel spent the first half of the year seemingly unchallenged as he romped away into an early points lead, which conversely means that now as he is being caught on the track, he can afford to settle for points. This is rather annoying because it means we still don’t know how he’d cope in a tight on-track battle that matters. But second place at Hungary – helped by finishing ahead of his main rivals Webber, Hamilton and Alonso – meant his buffer is now 85 points. With the equivalent of more than three wins in hand with only eight races to go, it seems that only a sequence of serious reliability issues will thwart his title defence.

So what do the Richard’s F1 readers and contributors think will happen this weekend?

Matt
Matt, Richard’s F1 IndyCar Correspondent

“The teams call it a mid-season break so everyone can freshen up. I would dare to call it a prequel to the off-season, as it is likely a freshened-up Sebastian Vettel will be even more devastating as he was in the early rounds of the season. Red Bull has likely used the break to figure out the niggling bugs that allowed McLaren and Ferrari back into the fray of sorts through Britain, Germany and Hungary and should resume normal service this weekend in Belgium.

Spa-Francorchamps is such a beautiful circuit, and the elevation changes combined with the ever-unpredictable weather is capable of throwing up all kinds of surprises. Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso know that time is almost out for any real challenge to be made and need to bring their A-Game to Belgium. However, my prediction is for Red Bull to rubber-stamp this championship with another master class by their young German champion.”

Joseph
Joseph, Richard’s F1 Technical Correspondent

“Hidden in the mountains in beautiful Belgium, this piece of tarmac has had some great historic battles. This circuit has almost always delivered fantastic racing. A mix of technical and flowing corners, incredible high speed corners like Blanchimont and Eau Rouge, and great overtaking spots like the bus stop chicane and Les Combes are more than what most circuits can deliver, Spa goes above and beyond and even throws in the odd rain shower for good measure.

“Spa has traditionally rewarded those with a clean/efficient aero package, and it isn’t unheard of for a midfield team to do well here for that singular reason (Force India comes to mind). Spa is also hugely demanding as a driver’s circuit, with the best of the best really showing their racecraft here over the years. You only need to look at the repeat winners here to know what it takes to take a win here:

“Can Schumacher do well here in a circuit he effectively dominated at? Can Lewis build on recent McLaren form and make it into the double winners list with Prost and company? Will Sebastian the German Prince bounce back to form? Personally I think McLaren will give RBR a run for their money here, given their Aero package and strong engine, but with a solid few weeks since the last round, who knows what the teams have up their sleeve. I can’t wait.”

 Michael O'Keeffe
Mike, Richard’s F1 Contributing Writer

“Ferrari and McLaren will try and reinforce the improvements the two teams have enjoyed over the last few races. Red Bull will be desperately trying to re-discover the advantage they had at the start of the season over the rest of the grid. Now that Vettel isn’t dominating the season quite so much, opportunities should surely arise for other teams to make a bid for the title.

“But, due to the sheer amount of race wins Vettel accrued, McLaren and Ferrari cannot afford to share wins between their drivers if they are to have a hope of winning the driver’s championship. With McLaren allowing their drivers to race (unlike Red Bull) and Massa simply lacking pace, I don’t see either team singling out one of their drivers to mount a challenge against Vettel. As a result, I’m sceptical as to whether or not the Driver’s Championship remains a contest.”

Jen
Jen, Richard’s F1 reader

“The first race after the summer break always turns up some surprises as the teams return. This is usually the point where we see which teams are willing to continue their investment and fight for the title and which teams are going to sign off the season and start their development for next year. The question this year is if McLaren and Ferrari will continue to try and win races or if they will resign to the dominant lead that Vettel and Red Bull have established.

”After the last few races I would place my money on Hamilton being the most motivated driver at the top of the grid but further down the field we are going to see drivers starting to fight to retain their drive – rumours are already flying that Nick Heidfeld is on the chopping block. After what feels like a very long break I’m excited to have Formula 1 back and hoping that the racing wont see a return to its predictable form from the beginning of the year.”

 

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The Form Guide

With the first half of the 2011 season largely proving that the new rules package has helped to spice up the racing, fans should be confident that the remaining eight races can continue to deliver the standard of wheel-to-wheel racing that has been a feature of the season. And we can say this even if Sebastian Vettel winds up clinching the championship before the year is out.

The Spa-Francorchamps circuit has, far more often than not, delivered some truly classic racing in preceding years, and fans can look forward to what will hopefully be another close tussle at the front between Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari.

Back-to-back wins for McLaren could mean that the Woking squad has the psychological edge over its main rivals coming into this weekend. With three of the team’s four wins having come in rain-affected races, win number five could be on the cards, particularly if the region’s usually fickle weather is a factor.

Ferrari has historically done very well at Spa-Francorchamps, it having claimed twelve wins here to McLaren’s eleven. Three of the last four Belgian Grands Prix have been won by the scarlet cars, and the team will be looking to bounce back after a so-so performance at the Hungaroring a month ago.

What could be equally encouraging for both McLaren and Ferrari is that Red Bull has never won here, despite the circuit’s middle sector containing the sort of high-speed flowing corners that would normally suit an Adrian Newey designed car down to the ground. Could the Milton Keynes squad finally break its Spa duck?

It will be a large gap between the top three teams and the midfield, which both Mercedes GP and Renault will be hoping to head this weekend as they restart their battle for fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship standings.

And while we’ve already mentioned some major talking points in this preview article, these two teams will deliver two more points of interest this weekend.

Michael Schumacher's F1 debut was 20 years ago The first is that Michael Schumacher will mark the twentieth anniversary since he made his Grand Prix debut with Jordan in 1991, an incredible milestone that will be commemorated with a huge paddock party. It really is an incredible achievement for the 42-year-old, who’ll no doubt be hoping that he can reignite some of the Spa magic from the past in order to deliver a competitive result.

Down at Renault, the team will be delivering its first major aero upgrade since the start of the European leg of the season, while there are also growing rumours that the team will fire Nick Heidfeld and replace him with Bruno Senna. We’ve already documented our thoughts on the matter here.

With Force India showing improved competitiveness in the last few rounds, expect another solid showing from them this weekend on a circuit where they claimed their only podium (and pole position) in 2009, courtesy of Giancarlo Fisichella.

And with Toro Rosso also snapping at their heels, these two teams could run down and overtake sixth-placed Sauber in the Constructors’ standings, with the Swiss team’s form seeming to have stalled. Certainly the squad is becoming too reliant on running fewer-stop strategies to compensate for their lack of pace, while their main rivals are picking up speed…

The Cosworth teams look set to struggle on this engine and aero-dependent circuit, and Williams will need a dose of wet weather and some carnage ahead of them if they want to add to their points tally this weekend.

Lotus, HRT and Virgin Racing will all break the record set by the RAM F1 team in the 1980s for the most starts without scoring a championship point should any of them fail to finish in the top-ten this weekend.

Lotus, in particular, might be starting to look over their shoulders this weekend. Not because HRT or Virgin Racing are quicker (far from it!), but because the green cars’ poor reliability could see its tenth place under threat in the Constructors’ Championship. With Lotus purely ahead of HRT on countback (both teams having earned a best finish of 13th this year), all it could take is an attrition-hit race to change the game…

As usual, this is going to be a weekend of major talking points. Make sure you keep visiting the Richard’s F1 website for the latest news, gossip and action from the weekend!

[Images via Hannah Corbett, LAT, Sutton Images]

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.

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