After what has felt like an eternally long summer break, the Formula 1 field reconvenes at the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.
|2015 Formula 1 Shell Belgian Grand Prix|
|Date||21-23 August 2015||Lap Length||7.004km|
|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||Qualifying||Sat 14:00-15:00|
|Race (44 laps)||Sun 14:00-16:00||2014 Winner||Daniel Ricciardo|
Session times quoted in Central European Summer Time (GMT + 02:00)
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 great loss, particularly with the double fatalities of Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow at the 1960 event.
This year’s event will once again see two DRS zones, with the FIA placing one activation zone along the track’s short start-finish straight and a second on the run into Les Combes. But with overtaking having never really been a problem at Spa-Francorchamps, one questions why the device is even necessary here…
Rewind to 2014
The 2014 Belgian Grand Prix provided what was one of the most controversial chapters in the torrid intra-team fight for championship honours in the Mercedes camp.
Having once again dominated in qualifying and being a sure bet for a dominant 1-2 finish from the outset, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg then controversially collided on the second lap of the race while disputing the lead. Hamilton popped a left-rear tyre after being tagged by his teammate at Les Combes, before sulking his way into retirement, while Rosberg was forced to pit with a damaged front wing.
The German managed to recover to finish in second place ahead of a duelling Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen, while the victory spoils went to a disbelieving Daniel Ricciardo, who claimed his third win of the season to put himself in mathematical contention for the Drivers’ Championship crown.
The controversy between the Mercedes pair was only just beginning, as after the race Hamilton would publicly accuse Rosberg of deliberately crashing into him.
Hamilton stated that Rosberg “said he did it on purpose, he said he could have avoided it. He said “I did it to prove a point.”
While Rosberg initially denied any wrongdoing, saying that “I gave it a go. I didn’t see any risk in trying to overtake, so why should I not try?”, Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff was forced into having to yet again smooth things over between the two warring teammates who the team had seemingly little idea how to properly manage.
The Form Guide
After years of computer software programmed launches, the Formula 1 field will face a return to one of the most fundamental concepts in driving this weekend: a manual clutch start.
The mid-season rules change has come in order to spice up the action on the opening lap of the race. Under previous rules, drivers and engineers would work together to electronically map out the perfect clutch bite point to give the most traction and the least wheelspin off the starting grid. Now, the drivers will have to juggle this task themselves with no outside assistance.
That could pose problems for the championship-leading Mercedes’, which – despite enjoying prime starting positions – have completely fluffed their getaways at the last two Grands Prix and found themselves swamped on the run into the first corner.
Expect to see a lot of practice starts being attempted during the event’s three practice sessions, although the true effect of the rules change will only be known when the five red lights go out on Sunday.
For just the second time this season, Mercedes will come into a Grand Prix on the back of having been beaten by Ferrari at the preceding event. Sebastian Vettel emerged victorious last time out in Hungary, taking full advantage of the Mercedes’ sluggish getaways to lead into Turn 1 en route to an untroubled victory.
The German’s run to victory was aided by sloppy drives by both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, as well as the sort of searing track temperatures that favour the German’s SF15-T. The same weather conditions cannot be expected this weekend – indeed, light rain is forecast for race day! – but Ferrari will still be confident of a good showing, having made major strides in the development of both its chassis and engine.
Added to that is the incredible record of both Vettel and teammate Kimi Räikkönen, who have celebrated victory in six of the past eleven races held at the truest of drivers’ circuits.
For Räikkönen, this weekend’s event will probably mark the Finn’s final opportunity to demonstrate that he is worth keeping on beyond the end of the season, when his current contract is set to expire. Ferrari traditionally confirms its future driving line-ups at its home race in Monza (immediately following this Grand Prix), and while it might be tempted to delay an announcement while it waits on other candidates – most notably Williams’ Valtteri Bottas – it also cannot hang on forever.
With four victories here, the 2007 World Champion is a Spa master, but his 2015 campaign has been marred by errors, poor reliability and pace compared to his teammate. He simply has to deliver this weekend.
The Italian team’s chasing rivals, Williams, will be hopeful of turning around its fortunes after a dismal showing last time out at Hungary. Rather like their early performances at Monaco, the high-downforce circuit didn’t play to the FW37’s strengths, but Spa-Francorchamps’ fast and flowing layout almost certainly should.
Provided Williams gets its set-up and strategy calls right, there’s no reason to believe that Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas shouldn’t be candidates for podium finishes this weekend.
Conversely, the Belgian Grand Prix will highlight those whose packages are far from sorted. Both Red Bull Racing and McLaren are expected to start well down the field if widely-anticipated engine grid drops are dished out.
Poor reliability and and lack out outright power has ensured that neither outfit has enjoyed particularly competitive seasons, although both squads did enjoy their best weekends at the Hungaroring – thanks to the circuit’s characteristics and a race of high attrition – with a double-podium for Red Bull Racing and a double-points’ finish for McLaren.
One factor that could greatly help the team is an expected onset of rain on Sunday. The weather in the Ardennes forest can be notoriously changeable, and while precipitation hasn’t reared its head in a race since 2010, it will almost certainly make an appearance at least once this weekend.
Image via Sutton Motorsport Images
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