Tuesday 20 August 2013

Spa Preview: Back in the old routine

There's something about Spa. Somehow, no matter how much F1 exasperates us, no matter how many political vultures swirl around proceedings, when we visit Spa-Francorchamps suddenly all seems right with the sport.

There are lots of reasons why this is so. One is the heritage of the place, even today the Spa circuit drips with the feel of motorsport's very origins of fearsome road racing. And not for nothing: without exaggeration cars have been racing in the area for as long as road racing has existed. The classic triangular Spa circuit layout, some 15km compared to the current 7km, was first used all the way back in 1921, and the one used in F1 as late as 1970 wasn't much different from it. Furthermore, the first race at the Circuit des Ardennes in the area took place in 1902 - on a circuit that was a snip at 86km in length, before being extended to a mere 118km tour for the 1904 race - and is thought to be the first ever circuit motor race; before that city to city races were the norm.

Spa-Francorchamps is very special
Photo: Octane Photography
While the Spa track was shortened from its classic triangular layout in the late 1970s into broadly its current form, almost none of the spirit of the old track was lost in so doing. It is set in beautiful Ardennes forest, the layout is all dips, rises, long sequences at full throttle and challenging quick turns. And, increasingly rarely in a contemporary F1 venue, when cars are proceeding around the track it feels that they are going somewhere.

And in an age wherein F1 has dashed somewhat to new and clinical autodromes, often without much of a soul, more-and-more Spa's well-worn atmosphere has seemed explicit. It has stood as a totem of what can be achieved even within the modern myriad of constraints for an F1 venue.

Further, despite that through a combination of reprofiling, more generous run off and the almost science-defying downforce of the modern-day F1 car the drivers' challenges at Eau Rouge and Blanchimont aren't what they once were, Spa remains something special. F1 pilots still consider a win here very much as a badge of honour.

Adding to the charm, even before the days of DRS and degrading Pirellis overtaking was a frequent feature of Spa races, mainly in the big braking zones after long flat out blasts at Les Combes and at the Bus Stop chicane. And then there is the weather, with rain being about as inseparable from Spa as any of the other factors I've mentioned. The track is set within a notorious micro-climate, which means that weather forecasts are of little consequence and that wet weather, and sudden wet weather, is a permanent threat, and its arrival can ruin many-a weekend.

Wet weather is a frequent feature at Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
The weather is one of the many challenges that face drivers and teams heading into a weekend at Spa. On set-up a compromise has to be found between the lengthy flat out sections and the more twisty middle sector which features turns such as Pouhon and Stavelot. And it all came into sharp focus in last year's meeting, as some of the famous Spa rain reduced dry running in practice to a handful of laps, and Jenson Button by luck or judgement landed upon an ideal set up which prioritised straightline speed over downforce (and led to his stable mate committing a Twitter faux pas). This contributed to a surprise, and surprisingly dominant, pole and win for Button. It also contributed to a jumbled-up grid with Saubers and Pastor Maldonado's Williams high up, Lewis Hamilton just seventh and Sebastian Vettel down in tenth.

All of this, and that we're returning from a four-week break for some of which teams were forced to down tools, makes form for this weekend hard to predict. To start with the perennial front man Sebastian Vettel, things for him might be relatively tough. While he ran away here in 2011 (just as he ran away just about everywhere that year) and quick corners will suit his Red Bull, the long sections at full throttle will not. At Spa, 70% of the lap is spent with the loud pedal on full noise, and that from the La Source hairpin through to Les Combes lasts all of 23.5 seconds. And while the Renault engine in the back of the Red Bull has many virtues, top end power is not one of them, in addition to the fact that the Bulls more generally tend not to prioritise straight line speed. As mentioned, Vettel started down in tenth place last year, though he was able to salvage second place in the race thanks in part to a first corner accident removing a few rivals.

Kimi Raikkonen - a Spa specialist - will be one to watch
Photo: Octane Photography
Kimi Raikkonen is something of a Spa specialist, evidenced by his four wins here in his last six visits. Further, the Lotus has started to go well again in recent times, and its fine handling characteristics will serve it well on this track. And its usual impediment of tyre warm up for a qualifying lap should be less of a problem here, given the Spa track is a long one and contains lots of long fast corners. The Pirelli tyre compound selection is conservative - the medium and the hard tyres being brought - reflecting the high lateral loads experienced at Spa as well as that Pirelli is (understandably) keen to avoid a repeat what followed a similar challenge at Silverstone. Nevertheless, this may actually assist the Kimi-Lotus effort, as it may bring a one-stop strategy into play (indeed, Button won with a one-stopper last year). Kimi therefore will be one to watch, as will his stable mate Romain Grosjean who in tandem with his team has shown improved pace in recent races. As is often the case with Grosjean though, whether he can reach the end of the race without getting into a scrape will be a key question.

Ferrari will have more questions surrounding it than most this weekend. Its slide from competitiveness through this summer has been pretty unchecked, with its old bogeymen of poor windtunnel correlation and technical upgrades being no good seemingly rearing their heads again. And as if it didn't have enough troubles (and Ferrari has quite a previous for finding additional troubles for itself), President Luca Montezemolo revealed some strain in his relationship with Fernando Alonso just after the Hungary round. Quite how that impacts on things in the immediate term on track remains to be seen, but you can't help but think that things are getting critical for the Scuderia's 2013 campaign. It needs a strong result, or more to the point it needs to step-up on pace, and soon. And frankly on recent evidence you wouldn't bet the farm on it achieving this.

Lewis Hamilton could be well-placed to build on his
Hungary win
Photo: Octane Photography
But these days there is also the Mercedes to consider. And of Red Bull's rivals the Merc probably keeps the Milton Keynes team awake at night more than anyone else, with the Silver Arrows recently demonstrating consistent raw pace as well as an increasing consistency in maintaining this pace over a race distance. From Monaco onwards this year only in Germany did the Mercedes fall down the order with high tyre wear on race day, and that was when the tyres were a one-off in design. In the varied challenges of Hungary, Silverstone and Montreal there have been next to no problems. Given the false dawns for Mercedes before, one is reluctant to declare the team totally out of its Pirelli woods (I'm reminded of Pat Symonds' comment that anyone who claims to really understand the Pirelli tyres is lying), but it may be the case that tyre wear is about the only thing that can deprive the team of a win this time.

For more reasons even than usual, there seem a lot of reasons to keep a close eye on proceedings in Spa this weekend.

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