By Bob Constanduros
Spa in August; yes, one might see 36 degrees on the car thermometer. It can be pretty cold at this time of the year but oh, wait and minute, 36 degrees Centigrade! Well, that’s what I saw yesterday as I came through Liege. In fact the temperature started off at 32 degrees when I left the Channel tunnel and stayed that way to within a mile or so of Spa and then it only briefly dipped below thirty.
And that’s what we’ve got for the weekend, apparently. Yes, we have known this in the past – it was pretty warm for the World Endurance championship round in May – but it’s probably not the norm. So that’s going to be an interesting factor for this weekend’s Grand Prix, especially when we have a look at the tyre allocation for each driver and team.
Pirelli have brought white medium, yellow soft and red supersofts here, but with some interesting differing numbers of each set for each driver. Ferrari, Sauber and Gutierrez have just one set of medium here which means that they are basically concentrating on using the other two compounds. Most teams have four, five or six sets of softs but Williams, Red Bull and Renault have only three sets. And most teams have either six or seven sets of supersofts – which will be used in qualifying but will suffer in this heat – but Mercedes have only four sets and Manor five sets.
But we’re coming back to Formula One after four weeks away, four weeks in which the teams have to leave their bases for two weeks and only management and communications are allowed to turn up for work. You can be sure that some members of the factory are working from home and that not everyone has totally knocked off from work.
But the drivers say that they are invigorated and ready for part two of the season. Hopefully the rest of us are too because the second half is almost as tough as the first half. We have a double-header in Europe, before heading for Singapore as a stand-alone race, then the Malaysian-Japan double header, then the similar pairing of Austin and Mexico, before a pair of stand-alones in Brazil and Abu Dhabi – and that’s covering a lot of ground. I have to add in the Goodwood Revival and the Bahrain WEC round just in case I feel at a loose end some weekend.
But what a great weekend to start it all with a sunny weekend around this majestic circuit. Everyone loves Spa – although there are times when one wonders why, when the cloud is hanging in the trees and the Scotch mist is thickening to a steady drizzle. And it’s a curious statistic that because the circuit is the longest in the F1 calendar at a smidgen over seven kilometers, there are fewer laps around this track than anywhere, just 44 in comparison to even 70 laps around the Hungaroring, so 34 fewer opportunities to see the cars in the race. Yet the spectators love it.
It’s always the first of two very quick circuits – Monza is next weekend. These are circuits which tend to favour the cars with low downforce, although the combination of good downforce and low drag is ideal. So we have the first and third sectors with low drag and the middle sector with fast corners and a higher downforce requirement. In the first sector, drivers can be on full throttle – or nearly so – for 22s on the 2.015kms from La Source to Les Combes. So it’s tough on the engines as well, particularly at 410kms above sea level, a total of 73s at full throttle around one lap. Add in temperatures of 30 degrees ambient, then it can be pretty demanding.
Many teams will be coming to this race with revised cars – particularly for these quicker layouts, so there’s a little bit of an unknown, but that worked fine for Red Bull a couple of years ago when they came totally prepared for the second half of the season and absolutely nailed it. Can that change Ferrari’s fortunes, for instance?
There was no doubt that prior to the mid-season break Mercedes were slowly being hauled in by Red Bull and this is a race track that has been good for them in the past. Daniel Ricciardo won here two years ago, Sebastian Vettel two of the three years before that. This is a circuit that will be looking good for Red Bull. Having said that, they have opted for more medium compound tyres than anyone apart from Manor who will probably start on them, so Red Bull must be looking at a long final stint on them, having started on supersofts.
Mercedes will probably have been taking steps to ease away from their rivals again, however. You always feel that they just have a little performance in reserve, but what will also be interesting is just how the two drivers approach the first race of the second half of this season. Hamilton was the winner from pole last year; if he comes back firing on all cylinders then it could well be all over – even if Rosberg thinks he might have found his own solution. That will be something else to keep an eye on.
But Hamilton is on five turbo chargers and five Motor Generator Unit – heat and probably needs to take a penalty either at this race or Monza where he can overtake relatively easily. So qualifying won’t so vital – hence four sets of supersofts – and long stints slightly more important, hence six sets of soft.
The most successful of the current drivers is Kimi Raikkonen who has won here four times, but his last win was in 2009. Can he or Sebastian Vettel turn around Ferrari’s fortunes? Certainly they’ve opted for an aggressive tyre strategy..
There is one change in Formula One for this race: the substitution of Rio Haryanto with Esteban Ocon. The young Frenchman hasn’t had a sparkling DTM career which suggests he will be better off in single-seaters. He has lots of experience of Spa, as have the other F1 newcomers although Pascal Wehrlein hasn’t raced here for four years.
Things can change very rapidly post-break and on two very quick circuits and that’s what we will be looking for as Formula One presses the reset button for the final nine race sprint to the chequered flag. Will anything or everything change? There’s a possibility for both; even the tyre choice here could make a massive difference if anyone has been banking on low temperatures and little dry weather running. Which is what makes the weekend so fascinating. Oh, and finally expect a lot of noise from the vast number of Dutch spectators who will be here to cheer on Max Verstappen. They’re going to love it.