Belgian Grand Prix preview – By Bob Constanduros
Summer break? Really? Doesn’t seem like it for a lot of us. It’s almost as if the changes and announcements over the past three weeks were engineered by Liberty Media, to keep interest in Formula One alive. It’s certainly done that; I’ve had loads of comments about the state of the sport and how ‘this year seems to be a little bit better.’
I would agree that that is the case. We go into the second part of the season, a double header to begin with, with nine races to go having had 12. Lewis Hamilton leads the championship by 24 points, just under the number of points for a win. Mercedes have just ten points lead over Ferrari in the Constructors, so battle is well and truly joined there.
Not much has changed to those two top teams in the off-season, although there are still questions marks as to Ferrari’s line-up next year. They have a habit of announcing that at the Italian Grand Prix – if it suits them – but there’s no guarantee. They have a good couple of points-scoring drivers who are more than keeping up with Lewis Hamilton and the unlucky Bottas at Mercedes, so they won’t want to upset that applecart by suggesting that Kimi Raikkonen might go elsewhere.
Imagine the scenario at Red Bull Racing. One of their drivers, plus their engine supplier are now in the final races with the team. How will the team be treated by Renault, given the future moves? Cyril Abiteboul has already been quoted as saying Renault no longer takes any notice of what Christian Horner says about them. And how will Daniel Ricciardo be treated, given that he will be going to Renault next year?
It’s all a bit de-stabilising, so imagine the scenario at Force India, where Bob Fearnley is sadly no longer involved, or McLaren with the departure of Fernando Alonso? What about Williams? How do they juggle their paying driver while his Dad has put together a financial bail-out for another team?
Teams and drivers always talk about everything coming together perfectly for the ultimate success but when you have instability and perhaps a level of disloyalty or dissatisfaction then not everything is sweetness and light at which point people may not be working at maximum efficiency. Add in the importance of preparing for next season and even the on-going uncertainty regarding regulations and cost-caps and you have a second half to the season which begins with some teams treading on eggshells.
Not only that but we have two very tricky and fast circuits, where any mistake will be rewarded with a fairly major accident. Spa and Monza are good old traditional circuits, but get it wrong and they bite and bite hard. They may not be quite the challenges that they were in the past, but the circuits we go to in the next few months are still circuits which can cause a team major disruption one way or another.
Spa is a favourite with almost everyone. It’s a major challenge for drivers, it’s fast – and they love fast – it’s spectacular, great countryside, lots of trees and no doubt a tremendous atmosphere. Last year was a great weekend: brilliant weather with a fantastic crowd from home as well as Belgium’s neighbours. It’s pretty much the same again: Germans supporting Sebastian Vettel’s title fight, Brits supporting Lewis Hamilton on a bank holiday weekend. Then there are the Dutch and Max Verstappen, the French now supporting Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon and Romain Grosjean, the Belgians hoping that McLaren can be resurrected and take Stoffel Vandoorne with them – not forgetting the Danish and Kevin Magnussen.
So the potential is there for a great weekend of racing before we even look at the field. There’s no reason to believe that it’s going to be any different to the last few races with a top four perhaps leaving Red Bull behind a little on this power circuit. Fernando Alonso is right to say it’s predictable! But look out for the Milton Keynes team showing its prowess in sector two, the twistier of the sectors where handling means so much. Power will reign for the championship contenders, so expect to see them on top. Hamilton has had four poles here and three wins; as his teammate nears his 29th birthday on Tuesday, expect to see him improve on his best of third places in both qualifying and races.
Raikkonen, however, is a Spa specialist – I’ve often suggested that the reason or this is that the circuit is covered by pines and it makes him feel at home. He has four wins here from pole, second, sixth and tenth on the grid. Vettel has had two wins.
Who will be the best of the Renault-powered teams? Nico Hulkenberg has finished just about every race he’s started here and having qualified seventh twice has also finished fourth on two occasions. His teammate, Carlos Sainz, replacing Alonso at McLaren next year, has a best of tenth in qualifying and racing. They are up against Red Bull Racing with the same power unit; Daniel Ricciardo who has never qualified higher than fifth but won from there in 2014, and teammate Max Verstappen whose best finish here is eighth in 2015.
And don’t discount Haas or Force India here. Grosjean’s last podium was with third in 2015 while Perez has twice qualified fifth to start fourth and has two fifth places to his name. When the drivers come out to play here, they want to have fun and they love this place to drive.
The weather, of course, can put a dampener on things, and not only is it expected to get cooler but rain is expected at some stage during the weekend although quite when seems to be less certain. How much of an indication of form this race will be for the Italian Grand Prix seven days later remains to be seen, but the championship really could and can change in the next few days as the European season comes to an end. It’s a case of watch this space.