Four weeks after a potentially game-changing Hungarian Grand Prix, the Formula 1 circus regroups after its summer break. Kickstarting the remaining nine Grands Prix of the season is the historic Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps – the perfect stage for Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel to resume their championship battle.
|Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps|
|Location||Stavelot, Belgium||Circuit Length||7.004 km / 4.352 mi|
|Opened||1921||First Grand Prix||1950|
|Turns||19||Lap Record||1:47.263 – Sebastian Vettel (2009)|
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.
|2017 Formula 1 Pirelli Belgian Grand Prix|
|Event Dates||25-27 August 2017||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|
|Driver Steward||Mika Salo||Pirelli Tyres|
|2016 Pole Winner||Lewis Hamilton||2016 Race Winner||Lewis Hamilton|
Session times quoted in Central European Summer Time (GMT + 02:00)
Rewind to 2016
Thanks to his incredible mid-season turnaround where he had won the previous four races, Lewis Hamilton headed into the 2016 Belgian Grand Prix a healthy 19 points clear of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, who had been the season’s early runaway championship leader and held a 43-point lead after the Russian Grand Prix in April.
Trouble would strike Hamilton, however. The Englishman was initially hit with a 15-place grid penalty when Mercedes was forced to swap him to a sixth turbocharger – above his season-long limit of five – and a further two power unit elements. Recognising that he would be starting well down the order anyway at a circuit where the Silver Arrows were expected to dominate, Mercedes took the tactical decision to swap and stockpile more power unit elements to hopefully protect him against further grid drops later in the season. The end result was a mammoth 60-place grid drop for the three-time World Champion, guaranteeing he would start from last place on the grid.
Rosberg, therefore needed to maximise this opportunity and duly romped to pole position, although the German was pushed hard by crowd favourite Max Verstappen who hustled his unfancied Red Bull Racing entry to a front-row grid slot, just 0.149 seconds adrift. The two Ferraris of Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel locked out the second row of the grid, while Daniel Ricciardo was fifth-fastest in the second Red Bull Racing RB12.
Despite the clear advantage his car had around the sweeps of Spa-Francorchamps, Hamilton feared that he would still struggle to make it into the top ten and limit the likely points damage he would suffer to his teammate.
While Rosberg was able to effectively cruise and collect to claim his first Grand Prix win since the European Grand Prix in Baku, Hamilton incredibly finished third to keep a 10-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
His cause was helped by an ambitious first-corner lunge by Verstappen, who tried to make up for a poor start and only succeeded in hitting the Ferraris of Räikkönen and Vettel. That effectively knocked all three out of contention, easing Hamilton to thirteenth place by the end of Lap 2.
His biggest help came thanks to a Safety Car and subsequent red flag caused by Kevin Magnussen heavily crashing his Renault at Raidillon – despite the 12.5G impact, the Dane amazingly suffered no more that a cut on his ankle although his car was completely totalled.
Hamilton vaulted to fifth place as many ahead of elected to pit and swap tyre compounds, and when the race was suspended the Briton had a free pit stop. When the race resumed, he quickly dispensed with Fernando Alonso and Nico Hülkenberg to move into third place, but could do more more in his quest to catch second-placed Ricciardo. Given his initial predicament, the final spot of the podium was a result that Hamilton would never have expected.
The Form Guide
Sebastian Vettel comes into this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix with a 14-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, but this could well be a weekend where the Mercedes driver is able to claw back the deficit to his rival.
While both drivers have four wins apiece, Vettel’s advantage comes by dint of being better able to maximise his results when he hasn’t quite had the car underneath him. Even putting aside his deliberate collision with the Englishman in Baku, Vettel still managed to outscore his chief rival. His ability to minimise his losses has made the difference.
By contrast Hamilton was worryingly off-song at slower circuits where the Mercedes has proven trickier to set up, most notably at Russia and Monaco, but he has equally been untouchable when the F1W08 has hit its sweet spot at circuits like Silverstone and Montréal.
Spa-Francorchamps is expected to be another one of the ‘sweet spot’ circuits where the F1W08 can showcase its aerodynamic prowess and sheer horsepower advantage will give it the upper hand at the end of the seven-kilometre circuit’s long straights. The upcoming Grands Prix at Monza, Suzuka and Circuit of the Americas are similarly expected to benefit the Mercedes’, while the slower Marina Bay circuit at Singapore is likely to favour Ferrari.
Belgium is therefore a race where Ferrari will need to minimise the potential points’ loss to Mercedes. Vettel will have a capable ally in teammate Kimi Räikkönen – buoyed by confirmation he has been re-signed by the Scuderia for another season – who is something of an artist in the Ardennes with no less than four of his twenty career victories occurring at this very venue.
While the Italian team has clearly shown it is prepared to sacrifice Räikkönen at the expense of Vettel – as evidenced in Monaco and Hungary – the four-time World Champion will have to worry about power units, or rather the lack of spares available. Vettel has already used all four turbo chargers available to him, and switching to a fifth will trigger an immediate grid penalty. Will Ferrari elect to take the hit and stockpile a raft of new components at a track where they can fight back, as Hamilton and Mercedes cleverly did last year?
Don’t discount Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas either. The Finn was handed third place by Hamilton last time out in Hungary and is still very much in mathematical contention for the Drivers’ Championship. With two Grand Prix wins to-date, he has both the pace and form to play a spoiling role in the Hamilton-Vettel squabble and equally force Mercedes management’s hand to continue to allow them to race.
Behind the top-two teams, expect Red Bull Racing and Force India to maintain their lonely runs as the third and fourth best teams on the grid – neither able to threaten those ahead nor being particularly threatened from behind. Expect Red Bull Racing to inch a little closer to the front, however, thanks to further chassis developments and a power unit upgrade from Renault.
The midfield scrap between Williams, Toro Rosso, Haas and Renault will probably be the closest fight this weekend. Don’t expect McLaren or Sauber to feature if conditions remain dry, however the forecasters are predicting a heavy thunderstorm to hit halfway through Sunday’s race.
As ever, Spa-Francorchamps’ notorious micro-climate could have the last laugh…
|Belgian Grand Prix Weather Forecast|
|Friday||17°C – 24°C||Saturday||15°C – 24°C||Sunday||14°C – 21°C|
Images via Formula1.com, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team and Red Bull Content Pool