Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- Strong lineup for 2011 Race of Champions
- The magic of Spa-Francorchamps
- What drivers say about Spa-Francorchamps
Strong lineup for 2011 Race of Champions
This year the by now famous Race of Champions (ROC) will take place at the German Düsseldorf ESPRIT arena on the weekend of December 3-4, 2011. Previous winners include the names of Tommi Mäkinen, Marcus Grönholm, Sébastien Loeb, Heikki Kovalainen and Swede Mattias Ekström, who won the event three times. Surprise winner of the 2010 edition was Portuguese driver Filipe Albuquerque who is now active in the German Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) for Audi.
The event has previously been held on the Spanish Canary Islands, the Stade de France in Paris, London’s Wembley Stadium and Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium, and this year the event will be back on German once more. Race organizer Fredrik Johnsson about the decision to go to Düsseldorf again, “We had a successful event at the ESPRIT arena last year and we look forward to working alongside the same people again.”
This week it was announced that Jenson Button will return to the ROC event after an one-year absence. “I'm really looking forward to coming back to the Race of Champions again in December,” the Briton said. “It's a great way to round off the season and it's always fun to meet up with old friends from all the different forms of motorsport.” And asked about his expectations he said, “In the Nations Cup Team Germany had an annoying habit of beating us at Wembley, so it's probably about time someone managed to pay them back on their home ground...”
Organizer Johnsson was also happy Button will again be fighting for the ROC crown this year, “We are delighted that we will see Jenson back at the Race of Champions in 2011. He has always been a hugely entertaining performer in this event and we’ve always appreciated his appearances. The last two were particularly memorable as he came to Wembley in 2008 when he didn’t know if he’d still be driving in Formula One in 2009. Then, 12 months later, he returned to ROC as Formula One world champion. We look forward to plenty more excitement from him in December.”
And Button will be in good company, 2010 Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes GP driver Michael Schumacher will defend the honors for Germany, and triple winner Mattias Eskstrom will also return after an one-year absence. “I have many happy memories from the Race Of Champions so I’m delighted to be returning this year. I was born in the Swedish countryside and drove lots of different cars as a boy, while I’ve since been lucky to race many good touring cars, sportscars and rally cars,” he said.
The ROC is an annual post-race season event in which drivers from all forms of race disciplines including Formula One, World Rally Championship, Touring Cars Championships and Le Mans and NASCAR championships compete in identical race machines on a purpose-build parallel indoor circuit. The ROC event consists of two parts: the Nations Cup where drivers pair up and defend the honor of their country on Saturday, but drivers are on their own battling for the Driver’s ROC crown on Sunday.
The magic of Spa-Francorchamps
Everyone who has been to the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium knows it: Spa is magic, Spa is awesome, and Spa is unique -- not only from a drivers’ point of view, but also from a spectators’ perspective. Together with Monza, the Nurburgring, Silverstone and Monaco the Belgian circuit represents many decades of Formula One history and is regarded as a classic drivers’ circuit. But in the early days of Formula One the circuit also claimed the lives of many drivers, and in the 1950s and 1960s a driver either hated or loved the circuit.
Situated in the hills of the Belgian Ardennes, the track follows the bends and slopes of the terrain, and similar to the famous Nurburgring Nordschleife, the track is lined by tall trees which in the early days proved to be deadly. To add to the many dangers of the track in those days, the weather in Spa is notoriously unpredictable and when it rains, it can be dry on one part of the circuit, while another part is soaking wet.
Formula One eventually turned its back on Spa for safety reasons, but returned in 1983 when the new 7.004 km long circuit as we know it today was opened. The race in 1983 was won by Alain Prost for Renault while local hero Belgian driver Thierry Boutsen had to retire his Arrows-Ford after just four laps. The race in 1983 was the start of a new era in the almost 90 years of history of the circuit, which hosted its first race in 1922.
Mercedes boss Norbert Haug about the circuit, “This is one of the classic circuits and a true link back to the road racing history of Formula One. There is little left to say about the track itself -- it offers a complete challenge to the car and engine, with some of the slowest and fastest corners of the season, plus the longest full-throttle period of the year at over 23 seconds.”
The circuit has 20 turns, and the names of Stavelot, Blanchimont, La Source and Les Combes sound like music to the ears of drivers and spectators, but the most spectacular corner is of course Eau Rouge, named after the small creek that crosses the circuit. For most drivers the Raidillon de l’Eau Rouge as the official name is, is the most challenging corner sequence on the Grand Prix calendar, a high speed corner combination that separates the men from the boys.
At the foot of Eau Rouge drivers face a steep uphill climb, and arrive at the top without actually being able to see the turn itself, which means they have to blindly position their car to make it through the left-right-left combination of Eau Rouge, if a driver gets it wrong, it almost always ends with a very unhealthy high speed shunt.
As far as Formula One is concerned, Italian Alessandro Zanardi had a high speed accident in 1993 when he hit the kerbs on the inside too hard and landed his Lotus in the barrier, totally destroying his car. Initially the crash looked bad but luckily Zanardi wasn’t seriously injured and spent just one night in the hospital. 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve also crashed hard at Eau Rouge in 1998 and 1999. In 1998 he crashed his Williams during the race on lap 16 and in 1999 he did it again during qualifying when his BAR-Honda slammed into the tyre stack backwards and rolled over, and although he was visibly shaken and initially had no clue as to where he was when he emerged from the remains of his car, the Canadian described it as his ‘best-ever crash’.
But not only Eau Rouge is a bad place to park your car in the barrier, in fact with the current lay-out, the La Source hairpin after the start-finish straight is now the only real slow corner, and in 2001 Brazilian Luciano Burti demonstrated the almost flat-out corner of Blanchimont is equally dangerous. Burti lost control after he had hit the Jaguar of Eddie Irvine and went straight into the tyre barrier at full speed and although he fully recovered from his injuries, this crash was the end of his Formula One career.
The circuit also holds the record of the biggest crash in Formula One ever, in 1998 the race was started in heavy rain, but accelerating out of La Source David Coulthard lost control of his McLaren and slammed into the concrete barrier, bounced back across the track and took out another 12 cars, in total 13 of the 22 cars were involved in this massive accident in which none of the involved drivers were injured. Damon Hill, who managed to escape the havoc, won this memorable race for Jordan.
But the circuit and especially Eau Rouge is also hard on the material, Mercedes GP came up with some facts and figures, “Le Raidillon de l'Eau Rouge is reduced to three simple corner numbers on the official map of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit: Turns Two, Three and Four. Turn Two, the left-hand kink, is taken at 306 kph, with a lateral G-force of 2.4G; Turn Three, the right-handed uphill sweep, at 303 kph with a lateral G-force of 4G; and Turn Five, the left-hander over the crest, at 296 kph with a lateral G-force of 2G.
The cars also undergo significant vertical loadings through this section: a vertical force of -1.7G in the compression at the bottom of the hill and +1G over the crest. Although the section is taken flat-out, the cars lose approximately 10 kph through the sequence. The series of corners is 535 m long (7.6% of the lap distance) and is negotiated in 6.4 s (6.1% of the 2010 pole time). The sequence from La Source to Les Combes, including the Raidillon, lasts for 23.5 s and is the longest full throttle sequence of the entire season.”
Large variations in terrain provide a challenge to the engineers to cover all of the different corner types, from slow speed curb riding to the flat out Eau Rouge
Williams Technical Director Sam Michael about the technical challenges, “Spa is one of the greatest circuits in the Formula One Championship. Large variations in terrain provide a challenge to the engineers to cover all of the different corner types, from slow speed curb riding to the flat out Eau Rouge.”
What drivers say about Spa-Francorchamps
Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso describes the challenges of Eau Rouge, “You come into the corner downhill, have a sudden change [of direction] at the bottom and then go very steep uphill. From the cockpit, you cannot see the exit and as you come over the crest, you don't know where you will land.” And added, “It is a crucial corner for the timed lap, and also in the race, because you have a long uphill straight afterwards where you can lose a lot of time if you make a mistake. But it is also an important corner for the driver's feeling. It makes a special impression every lap, because you also have a compression in your body as you go through the bottom of the corner. It is very strange - but good fun as well.”
One driver in particular has fond memories of the Ardennes circuit: Schumacher. He made his Formula One debut at Spa in 1991, and won his first race at the same circuit exactly 12 months later, and the seven-times World Champion calls the circuit his ‘living room’. “For me, in my history, everything comes back to Spa. It's where everything started and where a lot of great stories happened. The emotion of the track and the combination of the history is the reason why Spa became my living room,” he said.
“If you imagine what has happened in Spa in all those years -- my start in 1991, my first race victory in 1992, the phenomenal race in 1995, the strange race in 1998, the championship of 2004 to win in Spa -- all those steps mark Spa with a particular touch.” But the German still loves the circuit, “A lot has changed in those 20 years, but one thing has not: the track is still sensational. I just love the great nature of the location and the resulting layout with all the ups and downs.”
For Force India’s Adrian Sutil Spa is also an unique circuit, “I always say that Spa is my favorite circuit of the year. I just love the place. There's nowhere else like it and the range of corners feel so impressive in a Formula One car. I think all the drivers have a big smile on their face when they come back to Spa.”
HRT team principal Colin Kolles describes the circuit from a technical point of view, “Spa Francorchamps is a great race track, with many high-speed corners. But there is also a disparity in the corners between Blanchimont, which is taken at 300 km/h, and the La Source hairpin, which is taken at only 60 km/h. The car set-up must reflect the need to perform with complete stability in the very fast and medium-speed corners, while also having the mechanical traction to deal with the Bus Stop chicane and La Source.”
Championship leader Vettel also fell in love with the circuit, “The Spa circuit has everything that a driver dreams of, unbelievably fast corners and slow chicanes, and it can be full of surprises due to the weather.” The super fast corners are his favorites, “Eau Rouge and Blanchimont are real highlights -- in dry conditions they can be driven without any problems but in the wet it's a different story and you have to have dig deep to put your foot down.”
McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton is also captured by the magic of Spa, “Spa's always been one of my favorite tracks, it's a place where you really feel on the limit, and that's pretty awesome in a Formula One car.” So, what is special about Spa? “Corners like Eau Rouge, Pouhon and Blanchimont are fantastic, just because they're so fast -- Pouhon, in particular, is incredible, because you're really at the limit of the grip level, and you're gently playing with the throttle and trying not to scrub off too much speed with the steering. Getting it right is an amazing feeling.” he explained.
Team Lotus driver Heikki Kovalainen is also a fan of Spa, “Eau Rouge is of course the corner everyone talks about and while it is still flat-out it's actually not that hard for us now, but it's still a big thrill. Any corner you take at 300km is pretty quick so you hang on to the wheel pretty hard so that you don't get any snap out of the corner, build up a good speed down then you feel all that compression as the car bottoms out through the corner and then you're up the hill. It's still very exciting!” And the Finn concluded, “It's been said so many times before, but Spa is what a racetrack should be -- hardcore corners, massive speed, overtaking opportunities and passionate fans.”
Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”