Friday 26 August 2011

Spa Preview: Tough one to call

It's good to have F1 back. And it's Spa, so all the better.

This is a really tough weekend to predict. This is for few reasons: one is we're just back from a long, four-week, break, in which the teams were forced to down tools for much of it. For another, the 'big three' - Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari - have had very little between them on pace in recent times. And, last but not least, this is Spa where the weather is usually one of the major players due to its notorious micro-climate, and can have massive impact on who comes out of top.

Much of practice was run in wet conditions
Credit: / CC
And today didn't give us many pointers for the weekend. It was typical Spa, with rain showers disrupting both practice sessions. It rained in the first session a matter of minutes in, at which point only the two Mercedes had set a time. Still, it ensured that Schumi has something to take from his 20th anniversary of his F1 debut weekend, as he topped the first session.

The second session gave us more pointers. Times tumbled as the damp track dried, and some running on slicks was possible, before the rain kicked in again. It wasn't a surprise that the usual 'big three' were up there, but more of a surprise was the apparent strength of the Red Bull. Mark Webber topped the second session, and he likely would have been joined by team mate Vettel had he ran on the options. The Bulls were strongest in the middle sector, not surprising as it's full of fast and medium speed corners. But the Bulls were also fastest in the speed trap at the end of Kemmel, where they tend to be at a disadvantage. They looked well-placed for the weekend, and it continues a theme of the season, that the Bulls tend to confound expectations at tracks that are supposed to trip them up. 

The Red Bulls looks strong
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Fernando Alonso was a smidgen slower than Webber in practice, and may have beaten him but for goofing up the final chicane on a faster run as it started to rain. Ferrari seem to be on it, and the long lap with fast corners mean that they shouldn't have their usual problems of heating their tyres up before their qualifying runs. They'll be hoping that the rain, Spa's usual party trick, stays away, where they looked a bit a slower than their rivals today and usually plays havoc with their ability to warm up their tyres. 

McLaren, by contrast, won't have much to fear from the rain. Indeed, both McLarens were half a second shy of Webber in the dry, and right there in the wet as usual. That they haven't had much of a chance to evaluate their new parts, a new rear wing and exhaust system, will be a worry to them.

However, with rain more likely for qualifying than for the race, they and all their rivals will have a judgement call to make as to how much wing to run if it is wet on Saturday, and not leave themselves sitting ducks on the straights on Sunday.

Free practice times
Highlights of Free Practice 1 (courtesy of the BBC)

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