Rencken: Belgian GP preview
NO FLYING F1 CARS: Lotus’ Romain Grosjean promises to behave himself at the 2013 Belgian GP. Pictured here, Grosjean nearly crushes Ferrari's Fernando Alonso at the 2012 Belgian GP. Image: AFP
Author: DIETER RENCKEN
SPAR-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium - If any venue deserves to host Formula 1’s return to action after the sport’s enforced annual one-month shut-down it’s Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps for Round 11 of the Formula 1 championship.
At seven km, Spa is by some distance the longest circuit on the trail. It’s twice as long as the shortest (Monaco) so the 90-minute race will cover only 44 laps despite an average winning average speed of around 210km/h posted by Jenson Button (McLaren) in 2012.
Button’s pole average of 235km/h was even more impressive and illustrated the effects of a four-lap pace car phase after a multiple crash triggered by Lotus’ Romain Grosjean. The overall (race) lap record stands at almost 240km/h, set by four-times winner Kimi Raikkonen in 2004.
Pacing is a frequent occurrence during the race, the Mercedes coupes having been called to duty six times in eight races (2004 - 2012), placing the race in the high-risk (75%) end of the scale. Wet or dry, Spa invariably features Bernd Maylander and his lights-bedecked Merc leading at some point…
The event usually experiences lousy weather at some stage during the GP prix weekend. So unpredictable is the climate across the huge expanse of circuit that teeming rain is known to fall at one end while other's in bright sunshine. However, the forecast dry, 23C and cloudy, much like 2012. That said, light rain is again on the cards for the race on August 25 and Spa’s clairvoyants have been known to be out by a few hours…
Some forecasts event threaten thunderstorms.
The layout appears bland on paper but included in its mix are many challenges, among them the tricky La Source with its choice of two lines, the infamous foot-flat, left-right-left Eau Rouge/Radillion complex which vertically compresses tyres at a force of 1000kg, the slippery downhill Pouhon left-hander taken at a sliver over 250km/h and the daunting 300km/h Blanchimont sweep.
The circuit is characterised by short run-off areas, beyond which lie eight-metre drops. Mere mention of these to drivers invariably causes their eyes to dilate, their neck hairs bristling in recollection of some “moment” or other…
The circuit sweeps and swoops up hill and down dale through the country’s brooding, perpetually misty Ardennes forest. Around 70% of each lap is at full throttle, with the longest foot-flat stretch lasting 22 seconds on the 1.84km from Turn 1 to 5 in a third of a minute. For the statistically minded that's a more than 300km/h average!
Although only three of Spa’s 19 (9R/10L) turns are taken at less than 100km/h, double that number are negotiated at more than 250km/h. Each lap has eight braking events, two of which – slowing into Kemmel after the long climb from Eau Rouge and the “Bus stop” turn after Blanchimont – are “heavy”.
TWO DRS ZONES
Like all 2012 circuits, Spa has two designated DRS overtaking zones but they are almost consecutive: DRS 1 detection is immediately after La Source on the run down to Eau Rouge, with the zone itself stretching uphill to Kemmel (Turn 5); DRS 2 detection is just before the Bus Stop at the end of the lap, the zone operating down the start/finish straight to the hairpin.
Pirelli will supply its most durable compounds - Medium (white sidewalls) and Hard (orange) - but has stock of Intermediates (green) and Full Wets (blue). The expected performance difference between dry compounds is a second per lap, allowing scope for tactical variation under dry conditions.
Increased time spent in the pits due to F1’s revised speed limit means strategies are likely to be conservative rather than aggressive.
Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel stopped once in 2012, third-placed Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen twice.
For proof of the circuit’s challenge, look no further than its victory roll: the previous 10 GP's (2001-12 after 2003/6 were skipped) were all won by champions save 2008 which was won by Felipe Massa for Ferrari during a season which saw the Brazilian challenge for the title to the bitter end.
Current Spa champion Raikkonen has won an incredible four times, split two each for McLaren (2004/5) and Ferrari (2007/9); equally incredibly, the Finn’s immediate title predecessor - 2005/6 champion Fernando Alonso - has yet to win in Belgium despite mastering the circuit in 2000 when victory in atrocious conditions in the F3000 (forerunner of GP2) curtain-raiser set the Spaniard firmly on the road to F1 stardom.
Apart from Button, other champions who've won at least once during that period are Vettel (2011), Lewis Hamilton (2010) and Mika Häkkinen (2000) – last-named after an incredible last-gasp 320 km/h touch-and-go pass on Michael Schumacher, who won twice (2001/2) to add to his 1992/5/6/7 victories.
To hammer home the point, 1995 champion Damon Hill took Spa honours in 1993/4/8.
‘UNTOUCHABLE’ RED BULL LEAD
Each of the previous nine GP's at Spa has had a different driver on pole yet the winner has come from pole only three times in that period. Spa is Alonso’s bogey circuit: he's failed to start from pole and finished on the podium twice, neither occasion for his current team Ferrari.
Coming out of Hungary, Red Bull’s reigning triple champion Vettel has 172 points from four wins, with Raikkonen on a roll after winning in Australia then finishing second five times in the previous eight rounds - and thus very much the danger man, given his Spa record - on 134 after only one win.
Alonso (two wins) is one point behind the Lotus driver, with Hungary winner Hamilton fourth with 124, ahead of Mark Webber (Red Bull) on 105 and Hamilton’s team mate Nico Rosberg, who has 84 points after two wins and a string of retirements.
Red Bull Racing holds a virtually untouchable advantage in the Constructors’ championship, having 277 points to the 208 of Mercedes, with Ferrari third on 194.
Qualifying (August 24) and race (August 25) will both start at 2pm SA (CAT) time.
Stay with Wheels24 for the Belgian GP weekend!