BELGIAN GP PREVIEW – By Bob Constanduros
Here we are, back from our holidays and heading into the second half of the 2017 FIA Formula One World Championship with a high speed doubleheader starting with the majestic Spa circuit and then on to the high temple of speed at Monza, closing the European season.
In theory, then, the World Championships – led by Vettel and Mercedes in case you’d forgotten – could change dramatically in the next ten days or so. Is there any reason why the hierarchy could be changed? The answer to that is yes, there are reasons why things might have changed, even though we’re meant to have enjoyed a break since Hungary.
Experienced former technical director Pat Symonds points out that the one thing that happens on a break is that brains are still working, still turning over and churning away. You may not be allowed to work in the factory, producing, drawing, developing, testing things but you can’t stop the grey matter churning away as you watch the kids on the beach.
And elsewhere, there are other things to be looked at. Williams, quite clearly, had problems with their developments in Austria and Britain and they will have been working out why. Red Bull have also suffered wind tunnel correlation differences and so they will be eager to correct those. This could result in a shake-up on its own.
The drivers have largely had time off but even they admit that within a few days they’re eager to get back to work. Remember, they are massively competitive people so they want to be driving. Some have negotiated their future – Raikkonen staying with Ferrari, Vandoorne with McLaren, James Key with Toro Rosso – while others such as Vettel and Alonso have decided not to decide, waiting further developments such as decisions on powerplants and increased bargaining power in the case of Vettel.
The one thing they won’t want to be is rusty on their return to Formula One, because we have these two quick circuits. Of course, these circuits tend to be favourable to those with average aerodynamics because in sectors one and three at Spa, it is all about high speed. The drag from La Source to Les Combes is just over two kilometres and takes 26s of full throttle.
It includes the infamous Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex, these days much less of a challenge than it used to be, now replaced as a challenge by Pouhon, the double apex left hander in the twistier second sector, where aerodynamics will be much more important. So there is this balance between the fast sectors demanding as little drag as possible, and the slower, twistier middle sector where aerodynamic efficiency is vital.
Increasing the technical challenge is the use of Pirelli’s ultrasoft tyre at the circuit for the first time. Previously they’ve used soft and supersoft but now ultrasoft comes into the game. On the longest track in the championship, it’s going to be vital to bring the tyre up to speed in exactly the right way so that it gives grip throughout the lap and yet how many laps can it do during the race with a full fuel load?
Teams and drivers have come up with quite varied choices when it comes to the different compounds. Hamilton, for instance, has gone for four sets of softs whereas Red Bull, Williams and Vandoorne have just one set. At the softer end, the Mercedes drivers have just six sets of ultras whereas Red Bull and McLaren have nine. However, errors in these choices just might be corrected by the weather.
Because, of course, all that depends on a dry track, that we have the kind of brilliant weather we had last year. That’s highly unlikely, but at this stage the possible weather is just a lottery. At least that in itself is not an unknown. Having said that, only six out of the last 25 sessions (five years) have been wet, so it’s not a given.
There are many who know this circuit better than others, but there are also many who have been winners here. Kimi Raikkonen, of course, is well known as the most successful driver with wins in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009. He’s finished nine of his 12 races, has only been on pole once and won in 2004 from tenth on the grid.
Lewis Hamilton has won twice, in 2010 and 2015, as has Sebastian Vettel in 2011 and 2013. Lewis has had three poles including 2015 and it will be his 200th Grand Prix this weekend. Sebastian has finished nine out of his ten Belgian Grands Prix, both of his wins coming from the front row.
Two drivers have won once each; Felipe Massa was awarded the win in 2008 after Hamilton was docked 25s for cutting a chicane when battling Raikkonen at the end of the race. The Brazilian will be making his return following his middle ear illness at the Hungarian Grand Prix. He has qualified second twice for this race. Daniel Ricciardo won in 2014 which was from his highest position the grid here, fifth.
But there are several other winners, including the two debutants at this race, Lance Stroll and Stoffel Vandoorne. The Canadian won in F3 on his way to the Euro title last year while the Belgian has won in GP2, Formula Renault and F4 twice at his home circuit.
What is certain is that there will be a great atmosphere. The Dutch are already flowing over the border to support their man, Max Verstappen while the locals are flooding to Spa to support Stoffel in his first home Grand Prix. But let’s not forget the Brits heading over the encourage Lewis Hamilton and the Germans supporting his championship adversary Sebastian Vettel.
All in all, we’re heading for an epic Belgian Grand Prix on this wonderful circuit; what more could one want?