Tuesday 18 August 2015

Spa Preview: Predictably unpredictable

Some things never stand alone; their mere mention brings immediate associations. A few things bring plentiful associations indeed. And so it is with the Spa-Francorchamps circuit that F1 returns to this weekend for the Belgian Grand Prix. With it much comes to mind instantly almost as with Pavlov's Dog. Just about all of it positive.

There's nowhere else quite like fast and challenging Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
The picture postcard scenery of the Ardennes forest is one. The high average speed of the circuit's layout with many undulations and fearsome turns is another. Even with the sport's onward march ensuring that some of its previous towering tasks like Blanchimont are not quite what they once were, the track remains a considerable driver challenge. Indeed Daniil Kvyat spoke recently that the modern spec of F1 cars has indeed returned the famous Eau Rogue to being "a bit of a balls out corner". I guess you can call that irony.

And driving around Spa one gets the tangible sense that you are going somewhere. Not many F1 tracks do that these days. Spa remains a totem of what is possible even within the sport's ever-narrowing track design constraint, and sadly that is rarely lived even halfway up to elsewhere.

The heritage of motor racing in the area literally is as old as circuit racing itself, and pre-dates even the purpose-built autodrome. No wonder Spa feels organic; grown rather than imposed. No wonder either that visits here lend a familiar and well-worn feeling. And again increasingly few other tracks on the modern calendar do that.

Add too that F1 races at Spa almost always are diverting ones, that provide more action, incident and unpredictability than several other rounds around it combined. I'm sure there have been dull races here, but it's not that easy to cite them.

Many eyes will be on Mercedes, in part
due to Hungary and all that
Photo: Octane Photography
Bottom line, ask an F1 driver, F1 engineer, F1 fan or anyone else with a link to this sport what their favourite current circuit is and most answers will be the same. This one in Spa.

The four-week summer break that separates this Grand Prix weekend with the previous one in Hungary will have given all much opportunity to ponder the question of whither Mercedes - not least the team in question you suspect. The imperious squad looked a lot less imperious last time out and indeed failed to grace the podium for the first time anywhere since 2013.

And of course Merc has to look to bounce back at the scene of its lowest point of last year, when it took treading on its own tail to a new height (or depth). It also has to do it with severe doubts about its race starts which have made its life unnecessarily difficult in the past two rounds, and do it with the added complication that this will be the first round where the FIA's famous clampdown on remote launch assistance from the pitwall will be enforced. How that one will manifest itself, and not just for the Mercs, will be fascinating.

Perhaps in a roundabout way everyone returning to base camp as it were on starts is exactly what Mercedes needs? Or perhaps it'll only serve to make a tricky situation more difficult? Perhaps, at the extreme end of the scale, its launch struggles in the last two rounds were mere portent of the team complying with the changes for this weekend, that some trick or other it had has been taken away, as Gary Anderson for one has suggested?

Mercedes has insisted it is now understanding what its launch problems are explained by but Lewis Hamilton has admitted to worry at this weekend's change. "The starts might not change or they might be disastrous. It could make more weaving, who knows?" he has said in recent times. Toto Wolff too has expressed some concern. One thing that does tend to be the way of such changes is that the biggest variation is in the early days after the change, only for it to settle in time. So sit tight for some fun this weekend.

The Mercedes likely would have had a dominant 1-2
at Spa last year without their problems
Photo: Octane Photography
But truth be told Mercedes as ever enters this weekend as firm favourite. The Spa track with 70% of it being full throttle and much of the rest being sweet turns should suit the W06 down to the ground and for all of its trauma here last season without that race-day collision and its consequences the Mercs likely would have walked away from Belgium with a dominant 1-2. That Nico Rosberg finished a close second even with a multitude of race-day problems (most of them self-inflicted) told us something. And with a decent start in Hungary last time out the team likely would have finished up with a 1-2 there also. At the very least Lewis in clear air was not to be touched.

Still, Mercedes will likely be a little tender after all that went on during Hungaroring's race day and we've seen repeatedly that Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari do rather like exploiting even the most minor of stumbles from the silver squad. Further there are reasons to think that this weekend the red cars will be close enough to exploit those minor stumbles - the straightline speed of the Ferrari is strong plus the Italian team tends to put more resource into its low downforce set-up in order to get a good result at home at Monza, and this tends to help it at Spa too. And if Vettel wins out again those murmurs post-Hungary of him somehow pinching the drivers' title from between the warring Merc pilots will get rather louder.

So in short while Mercedes remains rightful favourite it also this weekend will have to perform something like a high-wire act. It can't waver, in other words.

And what of the other Ferrari occupant Kimi Raikkonen, the man long since viewed as a Spa specialist? With reason given his four wins here and several other strong performances - indeed even last year he put in by far his most convincing drive of a difficult season around these Ardennes sweeps. Ferrari will certainly appreciate him getting into the mix bothering the Mercedes, and it may be timely for Kimi too given his future rather transparently remains in the balance.

Kimi Raikkonen has an exceptional record at Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
The lengthy full throttle sections of Spa should tilt things generally to those with Mercedes or Ferrari engines. Sauber is due to get the latest Ferrari power unit spec so may experience an upturn, while Force India has a good record at this track, its revised car introduced at Silverstone has been going well and Nico Hulkenberg has been in excellent form in the last three rounds.

But then again Daniel Ricciardo didn't let having a Renault unit stop him winning here last year, and with the Red Bull chassis improving and the Toro Rosso one thought to be strong the four Red Bull cars aren't to be counted out given Spa has plenty of long fast turns that will reward their handling. Honda promises to spend a few tokens for this weekend too, promises indeed to have its engine on a par with the Ferrari, but Honda has over-promised before and it will be a surprise even with everything if the McLarens are doing anything other than giving plenty of space to others through the speed traps. And indeed Eric Boullier has since poured cold water on suggestions of things looking brighter for the Woking squad before the Singapore round, as well as has warned of yet more engine-related grid drops in Spa.

But of course we must include in our considerations that Spa perennial. As the name of the place indicates water it hard to escape from here, and the track is situated in a notorious micro-climate meaning rain can and often does arrive with little warning and sometimes in vast quantities. Weather forecasts, even localised ones, can be of little consequence; virtually no Spa weekend passes without rain at some point. The last two qualifying sessions indeed have been run in wet-to-dry conditions. You can add to this too that with the long lap covering a vast area it can be rainy on one part with the rest dry, and the length of the lap also means being on the wrong tyre at the wrong moment can really be punished. This all can turn the order onto its head.

Another of Spa's notorious variables is to do with set-up, and the temperature also can vary wildly from hot and sunny to overcast and chilly, sometimes from one day to the next.

Rain is a near perennial at Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
Even at the best of times a set-up compromise has to be found here between the lengthy flat out sections and the more twisty middle sector which features turns such as Pouhon and Stavelot. Indeed it all came into sharp focus in the 2012 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. And it contributed to a surprise, and surprisingly dominant, pole and win for Button, as well as to a jumbled-up grid with the Saubers and Pastor Maldonado's Williams high up, Hamilton just seventh and Vettel down in tenth.

But another good thing about Spa is that a poor qualifying slot isn't necessarily the end of your hopes. Even before DRS and gumball Pirellis race-day progress at this place was much more of a probability than at most other tracks. DRS of course makes such progress more presentable still. To wit - the pole sitter has only won this Grand Prix four times in the last 14 years.

Continuing from last year Pirelli has gone fairly aggressive with its compound selections, with soft and mediums brought it try to avoid one-stoppers. Most went for two stops here last year though Rosberg, influenced by a damaged front wing then later a flat-spotted tyre, went for three.

Yet even over and above all of this Spa has another intangible quality - things, somehow, happen here. Things that were almost unimaginable in advance. As we saw twelve months ago...

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