This coming weekend's Belgian Grand Prix is as much a farewell as it is a welcome back. Spa Francorchamps returns to the calendar after a year's absence, due to circuit alterations, while the 14th race of the year marks the end of the European ...
This coming weekend's Belgian Grand Prix is as much a farewell as it is a welcome back. Spa Francorchamps returns to the calendar after a year's absence, due to circuit alterations, while the 14th race of the year marks the end of the European season. After Spa, F1 packs up and heads off for the last three long distance races and the conclusion of the championships -- other events notwithstanding.
Like Monza before it, Spa is one of the most individual tracks on the schedule. At 7km it's the longest of the year and has just about everything squeezed into it; slow corners, such as the La Source hairpin, high speed thrillers like Eau Rouge, two long straights and a top speed of approximately 320 kmph. Along with the elevation changes and unpredictable weather, Spa is certainly challenging.
"Set-up is geared towards high and medium speed stability to ensure that when the cars make their way back from the far stretches of the circuit that they are quick through the flowing parts," said Williams technical director Sam Michael. "At the same time, the car must handle well over the kerbs through the chicane."
The length of the circuit means it's not unusual to see it raining at one end and dry at the other, which brings its own complications. Tyres for the weekend will be from the medium and soft compound ranges but wet and extreme wet tyres will be on hand. "We can control many things, and we have many computers, but the one thing that we can't control is nature," remarked Bridgestone's Kees van de Grint.
Spa is often described as "a drivers' circuit" and Renault's Heikki Kovalianen gave his opinion on why that is so. "The track layout is very nice, with lots of elevation changes and some really good sequences of corners which put the drivers and the engineers to the test," he said. "It is certainly one of the best races of the year, and a fantastic challenge for the drivers -- especially through the famous section of Eau Rouge."
So, which drivers and teams will triumph over the challenge? McLaren was undoubtedly top dog at Monza, much to Ferrari's chagrin, but many expect the reds to be more comfortable at Spa. They're going to have to be for Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa to keep their title hopes alive. It's not quite over for them yet but anything less than a one-two this weekend will leave them with an almost impossible mountain to climb.
Raikkonen has a good record at Spa, being the victor in the last two races there. "We will fight as long as arithmetic allows us to," said the Finn. "(Spa) is my preferred circuit. It's a wonderful place, I always loved to race there and I like the latest modifications of the track. There are some very fast and challenging corners, where we could exploit some of the qualities of the F2007."
Some think it's possible that McLaren won't even be on track this weekend, depending on the outcome of Thursday's World Motor Sport Council meeting in Paris. It's hard to imagine a scenario that warrants a punishment so severe that the team is thrown out of the championship on the spot and there is nothing to be gained from speculating about it at this point, so let's move on.
Another race, another fourth and fifth place finish for Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica respectively; BMW Sauber once again claimed its 'reserved' places at Monza. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the same again at Spa, although Heidfeld hasn't been at the circuit since 2004. In 2005 he missed the race due to being injured from a cycling accident and he didn't attend the test this July. Kubica, however, did.
"We had quite a good test there, but the weather, as always in Spa, will probably be unpredictable, so we have to see how things develop," said the Pole, who makes his Spa debut as an F1 driver this weekend. "After Monza, again we have a track where we have a lower downforce configuration on the cars, although not as low as in Monza, but it will be very good."
The order of the teams in the midfield has not changed a great deal through the season but now the gaps between them have stretched out more. Renault cannot quite shake off Williams but has eased away a little and the latter has likewise put slight breathing space between it and Red Bull. In terms of points the gap between the energy drink team and Toyota is the smallest, four from sixth place to seventh.
Toyota's senior chassis manager Pascal Vasselon is optimistic. "Before going to Spa you always spend time on wet race strategies and the transition between wet and dry conditions," he said of the test there. "We saw all types of weather that week, which was representative of the wide range of conditions that we can expect to face. The drivers felt comfortable and competitive at the test so we should arrive in Belgium well prepared."
Honda picked up a little boost to its confidence with the point Jenson Button similarly picked up in Italy. It's a scant reward compared to what Honda expected from this season but the team has struggled so badly that even one point was a minor victory. Rubens Barrichello admitted that the test at Spa was "not one of our best" but believes that improvements have been made since then.
Button concurred with his teammate's assessment. "We had a good weekend in Monza, coming away from a strong race performance with a point," he commented. "We have to be realistic about our prospects for Spa as the circuit demands are very different and our test in July was difficult, but I am hopeful the improvements will carry through."
Presuming that we will have a full compliment of teams on track at Spa, this last European race will most likely have a defining effect on the championship. For the moment it's evident that McLaren has the advantage but it only takes one bad race for that advantage to suddenly shrink -- and at Spa you don't even have to do anything wrong; the weather can do it for you.