In Monza, every team ran a circuit-specific aerodynamic package, but in fact the aerodynamic performance of the car is even more important at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit which returns to the F1 calendar this weekend after a two year break. At ...
In Monza, every team ran a circuit-specific aerodynamic package, but in fact the aerodynamic performance of the car is even more important at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit which returns to the F1 calendar this weekend after a two year break. At least that is the opinion of Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro's Chief Designer, Nikolas Tombazis. "Generally speaking, Spa is the type of circuit where the performance difference between the cars gets amplified."
"Compared to the circuits where we have been quite strong, Spa has actually got a lower level of downforce, so cars have higher top speeds with less downforce. But nonetheless, in common with the tracks that appear to have suited us, Spa also has some very high speed corners, which do stress the tyres quite a lot and that, for us is a positive aspect. Furthermore, with long straights there is also a high emphasis on engine power here. I think all in all, I am hopeful we can be quite competitive here with the F2007."
However, at 7.004 kilometres, fractionally longer than it used to be because of the small changes to the layout, Spa is quite different to the majority of the circuits, so a clear picture of the pecking order between the teams is hard to predict and only after the free practice sessions will a general trend begin to show.
"But I am reasonably optimistic that it will suit the strong points of our car," reckons Tombazis. "We were looking not too bad when we had our first ever Spa test session back in July. However, the cars have evolved since then and therefore it's difficult to know exactly which of two teams - ourselves and our nearest rivals - has made the most progress since then. But I am reasonably optimistic."
The fact that Spa-Francorchamps is harder on tyres and therefore might suit Ferrari better than its rivals is of course an area where the Chief Designer does not want to give away too much information! "It touches aspects of the car performance that are very complicated in terms of how the car behaves mechanically and dynamically and how the tyres are treated," says Tombazis.
"It is a complicated phenomenon and is very much connected to the dynamic performance of the car but also its aerodynamic characteristics and how a car gets loaded from its condition when travelling down the straight and then to how the tyre gets loaded during the braking and cornering phase. This can have a significant effect on how tyre wear evolves over a few laps."
While there have been some changes to the Belgian track, one aspect that remains the same is the high risk of rain in this part of the world, possibly heightened by the fact that this year's grand prix takes place a couple of weeks later than its traditional date. "The weather is one element that, unfortunately, we have no control over," continue Tombazis.
"In a few words, if you are competitive you hope for dry weather and if you are not competitive you hope for a bit of help from the weather gods. I don't like it very much when a Formula 1 race becomes a bit of a lottery, even if I accept that it's great for the spectators. I find it nerve wracking when a race where you look like winning gets spoilt by a bit of rain, as was the case in Germany."
The longest track on the calendar provides a mix of just about every imaginable corner type from the very slow hairpin at La Source to the thrilling rollercoaster ride that is Eau Rouge. "I think Eau Rouge is quite an important corner, because it is not only fast but also the car is compressed and is therefore much lower to the road than any other typical fast corner," comments Tombazis. "The way the cars are built these days, particularly in relation to their diffusers can be a tricky aspect to manage over the weekend."
The length of the lap also affects the way practice sessions and qualifying will run. "The lap is long here and so the actual number of laps that can be completed in practice is lower. You suffer a bit, although it is the same for everyone, as you have a smaller statistical sample of laps, so if a driver is blocked or makes a mistake there are less laps to get good data from. In qualifying you will have fewer fuel burning laps, but again it is the same for everyone, so that the amount of fuel you end up doing your quick lap with will be a bit higher than usual, but that should not penalise or benefit anyone in particular."
The fantastic challenge provided by the beautiful Belgian circuit is often cited as one where the driver's ability can play a bigger role in terms of the overall package than at some other tracks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as an engineer, this is a view about which Tombazis is sceptical.
"Spa is considered a driver circuit, but it is so competitive at the top end of the field that, this weekend, we just need to pull out every last hundredth that we can to be competitive and that is the same for every race in fact. We are definitely not in a position where we can relax." While the importance of the driver at Spa might be a subject of debate, one concrete fact is that the winner of the last two Belgian Grands Prix, back in 2004 and 2005 was Kimi Raikkonen!