Monday 20 August 2018

Spa Preview: Back with a bang

It's not true what they say. Not everything about modern F1 is bad.

There's nothing quite like Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
This weekend it returns from its summer holidays and could not pick a better place to reconvene.

Spa-Francorchamps, the inimitable longtime host of the Belgian Grand Prix. Its mere mention brings many associations. The speed. The mighty turns. The undulations. The organic feel. The picture postcard Ardennes scenery. The link to the very beginnings of road circuit motorsport. Little wonder that when you ask F1 drivers, engineers or fans for their favourite modern venue this is the one commonly said, often without the slightest hesitation.

You can add too that F1 races at Spa almost always are diverting. I'm sure there have been dull Sundays here, but it's not all that easy to cite them.

Ordinarily we'd stand before a Spa visit expecting a Mercedes demonstration run - it's won the last three here and a fast circuit with long corners has been its happiest of hunting grounds in the hybrid era. Yet in last year's visit Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari against all expectations all but matched Lewis Hamilton's Merc punch for punch in qualifying and the race, and likely was the faster race day proposition.

And we can add that in recent months the Ferrari's generally looked the faster car, including in the sort of circumstances described for Spa. At Silverstone, the previous similar-ish challenge, Vettel won and was at least as fast all being equal as either Mercedes. Also 70% of the Spa lap is full throttle and there is a growing consensus that the Ferrari engine is the strongest out there.

Ferrari matched Mercedes here last year
Photo: Octane Photography
Another things that will hearten Ferrari in advance is that Kimi Raikkonen long has been viewed a circuit specialist - with reason as he has four Spa wins as well as several other strong performances. He tends to go well on tracks where there are big fast turns to attack.

Ferrari's main problem is that it hasn't always converted its recent pace advantage to results - for one reason or another.

Red Bull may, as at Silverstone, turn up to a track with fast sweeps you'd think would suit its chassis only to find them in effect full throttle zones - which in turn is bad news for its breathless Renault unit. Still the pair showed up fairly well here 12 months ago - Max Verstappen was just eight tenths off the pole on the long lap while Daniel Ricciardo finished third ahead of Raikkonen (albeit Kimi had a penalty) and Valtteri Bottas.

As for the rest, the Silverstone evidence - and the evidence of Ferrari's prodigious grunt lately - is that the Ferrari engine customers will go well as in Britain both Haas and Charles Leclerc's Sauber qualified in the top 10 as the best three of 'Class B'. While Renault is the closest thing F1 has to a best of the rest fixture and it comes to Spa with a floor and aero upgrade.

But at Spa it doesn't always pay to extrapolate. First off there is the local perennial. As the name indicates water is hard to escape here - the track is situated in a notorious micro-climate meaning rain can and does arrive with little warning and often in vast quantities. Weather forecasts, even localised ones, are often of little consequence. Virtually no Spa weekend passes without wet running at some point and - accepting what I just said about forecasts - the forecasts we have now have rain on all three days. And this likely would tilt things back to Mercedes and particularly Hamilton.

Kimi Raikkonen is a Spa specialist
Photo: Octane Photography
You can add to this too that with Spa's long lap covering a vast area - it's the longest in modern F1 and more than twice the length of Monaco - conditions within a lap can vary beyond recognition. The extended laptime also means being on the wrong tyre at the wrong moment can really be punished.

This is one of several set-up challenges here, as even in the best of weather a compromise has to be found at Spa between the lengthy flat out sections and the more twisty middle sector. Compounding this, rain can curtail time in practice to refine set-ups as can accidents and red flags - as another part of Spa's old school characteristics is that its room for error isn't as generous as at other tracks.

It all came into sharp focus in the 2012 meeting, as the famous Spa rain reduced dry practice running to a handful of laps, and Jenson Button by luck or judgement landed upon an ideal set-up that prioritised straightline speed. And it contributed to a surprise, and surprisingly dominant, pole and win, as well as to a jumbled-up grid with the Saubers and Pastor Maldonado's Williams high up, Hamilton just seventh and Vettel tenth.

Strategy is appropriately intriguing too. Tyre wear is high at Spa with its high lateral, longitudinal and even vertical loads (particularly at Eau Rouge-Raidillon), and the temperature also can vary wildly from hot to positively chilly - again sometimes in a blink - and all of these factors combined can create blistering problems. Eking out a one-stopper can be risky, demonstrated by Vettel's puncture late on in the 2015 race.

La Source at the start is one of the many challenges
Photo: Octane Photography
Last year the strategy battle boiled down to Mercedes using an extra set of tyres in qualifying so to get pole and control the race, and Ferrari saving a fresh set for a late potential switch to a two-stopper or a safety car intervention (which as noted is not unusual here). As it was it just worked out for Mercedes, even though the safety car did arrive, as typical-for-F1 overtaking was not straightforward - even at Spa.

Pirelli last year at Spa went ultra aggressive by bringing the three softest compounds here for the first time, and it was successful in creating some rare strategy variation. And while it's ostensibly gone more cautious this year - bringing the medium, soft and super-soft - Pirelli's pointed out that the compounds are generally softer 12 months on so the selection is in fact the same. And choices among the teams again have been fairly diverse.

The length of the Spa lap makes pitstop timing even more critical than usual. If practice is disrupted this further confuses calculations. Further the frequent safety cars and virtual safety cars in Spa races can dictate (and ruin) approaches. There's been the odd race red flag here too.

But another good thing about Spa is that a poor qualifying slot isn't necessarily the end of your hopes as passing is a bit more presentable than at most other tracks.

And there's yet another variable - the race's opening seconds. The tight La Source hairpin first time through is the scene of plenty of carnage and order jumbles, plus there then is the 25 second full throttle run to Les Combes, which with the resultant slipstreaming has led some to theorise that starting second is better than first.

Yet even over and above all of this Spa has another intangible quality - things, somehow, happen here. Things unimaginable in advance. Make sure you're in place.

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