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F1 fight back on again at Spa

2011-08-25 10:50


Could there be a better place for Formula 1 to reconvene after its three-week summer break than at the classic seven kilometres of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit deep in Belgium’s brooding Ardennes forests?

The circuit has a long, illustrious history, having hosted its first grand prix back in 1925. Then it ran to 15km, on public roads, past farmyards and through rural landscapes – and stories abound of drivers crashing into gardens, sprucing up in the homes of locals, then settling in with their hosts to watch the rest of race, jar of good Belgian nectar in hand!

Like all classics Spa has been steadily emasculated, but still the current seven kilometres, first used in 1983 in roughly this layout, is reckoned to be the best of the current crop, with most Tilke-dromes – futuristic facilities such as Sepang and Shanghai, named after their architect Hermann – not deserving to be mentioned in the same breath. In fact, only Istanbul does, and then only as a result of its topography and Turn 8.


Now with "just" 19 corners (10 left and nine right), a measure of the place is that almost half of those are taken at speeds of over 250 km/h, while the lap average is 242 km/h. Drivers will change gear 50 times per lap – so over 2000 shifts in under two hours – while so dangerous is Spa in parts that use of the drag-reduction system has been banned through Eau Rouge, that daunting foot-flat, left-right-left crossing the reddish river of the same name ahead of the long blast past Kemmel where speeds of 320 km/h are reached.

Ask any self-respecting driver to name the top track on this year’s 19-race trail, and invariably the answer is "Spa"; throw in a question about his favourite corner, and "Eau Rouge" is the universal response.

Resembling a giant undulating ‘T’, Spa has the first-gear La Source hairpin at one extremity and the Les Combes chicane at the other, with the Paul Frere bend – named after the country’s sports car/F1 star – at the base of the ‘letter’ being taken at close to 270 km/h. Drivers are foot-flat for 80% of each lap, including a 23-second run from La Source to Les Combes.

ARDENNES MOUNTAINS HEAVEN: The Spa-Francorchamps track is seven kilometres long - it used to be 15 and run on public roads through the forest. Note the elevation changes.


All the sport’s greats have won here, and there is little doubt that, along with Monaco, it is the one grand prix every grand prix driver aims to add to his CV. It’s easy to see why: the weather is invariably capricious, at times with rain at one end and bright sunshine at the other, while its length – over a kilometre greater than Silverstone, the next longest – means strategy calls need to be perfectly executed.

In fact, only six drivers have won here more than once. On the flip side, the race has been won only twice (2002, 2007) from pole position in the last ten years; in the last 18 years the winner started from pole just thrice.

After 11 (of 19) races run, reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, yet to win this race and thus ultra-hungry to do so, leads the pack with 234 points versus the 149 of Red Bull Racing team-mate Mark Webber. In the Renault-powered RB7 they have the car to scoop victory; will either, though, get it all together to take RBR’s first win in the Ardennes?

Third in the championship is McLaren’s 2010 winner and 2008 title holder Lewis Hamilton (146), with double champion Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) just one point adrift. The latter has yet to win here; in fact, he last took a podium in Belgium in 2007, so surely it burns the Spaniard that his nemesis has a Spa win to his name...


Fifth on the log is 2009 champion Jenson Button, who won in mixed conditions for McLaren in Canada and the last round before the break in Hungary, and is therefore considered a prime candidate for victory should the going get treacherous. It is expected with showers forecast throughout the weekend, with the heaviest scheduled to break shortly before the start of Sunday’s 44-lap race.

Thus Pirelli’s tyre choice of medium (white sidewall markings) and soft (yellow) compounds is likely to be academic, with the intermediate (blue) and rain (orange) options likely to see most use, although high-speed performance will prove crucial when things are dry.

Another driver to have impressed recently is Felipe Massa, who seems to have gotten to grips with his Ferrari after a lacklustre early season. The Brazilian, winner here in 2008 after Hamilton was penalised for cutting a chicane, out-qualified Alonso in the same car in Hungary, then set the race’s fastest lap despite a broken rear wing. He lies sixth in the championship with 70 points.

One slot behind the Ferrari driver is Nico Rosberg, son of 1982 champion Keke. The German has proven he has the speed to race at the sharp end, and given a better car than the Mercedes MGP W02 would surely have taken a chequer by now.


No preview of Spa can, though, be complete without mention of team-mate Michael Schumacher: it was here in 1991 that the German made his Formula 1 debut, thereafter having enjoyed a mercurial relationship with the event, in turns dominating the race and being penalised for infringements. He took his maiden grand prix win at Spa a year later, and the place has been the scene of some of his most audacious races. In fact, in the nineties and noughties, he and Spa were synonymous. 

However, on current form he (and Mercedes) are not expected to add to his tally of six Spa wins, but Michael always was at his most scintillating in Spa, and this weekend sees him celebrate the 20th anniversary of that momentous race when he made his debut with Jordan, qualifying seventh before retiring at the start with a blown clutch.

In total 24 cars are entered, with qualifying and the race getting under way at 14:00 on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.


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