Formula 1 fans the world over, just like myself will spend their next few weekends eagerly awaiting round 12 of the World Championship, but as the saying goes, “Good things come to those who wait”
In this instance, we have the Belgian GP as a reward for our patience. For hardcore fans, this is a track that evokes so much history and emotion. This is a track where arguably the most dominant driver in the history of the sport, Jim Clark, admitted that he was scared witless every time he drove it.
It’s the place where Sir Jackie Stewart’s campaign for improved safety in the sport was sparked after he famously crashed into a ditch in his BRM and consequently spent the next 25 minutes of his life trapped in the car, injured, up to his waist in petrol that could have set him ablaze at any minute – a crusade that has improved the safety of every motorist in the world.
It is a track where men far braver than you and I, have felt fear.
A place where men more talented than us, have burned for their mistakes. Any serious fan knows that this is a place where men have died, had their bodies broken – the image of this track brings chills and has the same physical effect on you as the Nordschleife does, or anything else you respect and fear for that matter.
But this is what Formula 1 is about, no? Extremes. This track has been the scene of horror, but it has also provided us as spectators with some of the most spectacular, awe-inspiring and lasting memories that we have, and will forever treasure. The chills and dilated pupils are there for more than just fear.
When I see Spa, I remember the duel between Hakkinen and Schumacher for the lead in 2000, culminating in Hakkinen, Michael and backmarker Zonta going 3 abreast into the braking zone at Les Combes at around 200 MPH, with Hakkinen forcing his way into the lead with a beautiful opportunistic move on the penultimate lap.
In recent years, we’ve been lucky to see drivers dancing their way through Eau Rouge and Radillon, side by side at similar speeds in displays of not only bravery, but trust in and respect for the man you’re racing – most notably Mark Webber’s pass on Fernando Alonso.
The story of Clark winning a rain affected race by a completely inconceivable gap of more than 5 minutes, and the old images of him gently threading his Lotus through the track, hands adjusting to every bit of feedback the car gave – a driver really DRIVING the car through these high-speed corners, not the downforce doing it for him. It’s a special place, where special things happen and as a track it is precious and holy ground for any petrol head.
What makes the racing great is the track layout. It’s a beautiful ribbon of tarmac that rises and drops through its surrounding forest, the high G-force corners giving these aerodynamically advanced cars a chance to stun you as you watch them corner flat-out at speeds that as a spectator your eyes just don’t believe possible.
The chaos of La Source as they storm off the line. Eau Rouge has to be seen to be believed, words cannot do it justice.
The Kemmel straight offering the engines a chance to really open up as they power the car through the wall of air that keeps them glued to the ground at the top of Eau Rouge, to speeds of over 200MPH.
Where these world-class drivers then pick out the braking-point for Les Combes and throw the car in, experiencing violent physical forces and an assault on the senses as the car sheds 110MPH in the blink of an eye and the corners fly at the driver quicker than most of us can even think the words, “Left-right-left” – I could go on about the majesty of each and every corner on that track, but I’m sure most of you reading this share my love of this marvelous circuit.
If not, I hope you watch this race and you soon will!
So what can happen here in a few weeks to shape the fight for the 2014 World Championship?
At the front we have the two Mercedes-Benz cars, Rosberg leading Hamilton in the standings by a small margin. We have rarely seen a straight fight between the two this season. Between reliability issues for both and Hamilton’s “bad luck” in qualifying on Saturday afternoons.
Spa is not the place for straight-forward race weekends though! With rain affected sessions, opening lap chaos and extreme mechanical stress on the cars often causing issues, Spa is a place where an ability to keep it clean, manage all these extra variables and lady luck come into play. So far this season you have to say that’s gone in Rosberg’s favour, with the exception of Monaco…where a mistake also luckily worked in his favour!
I wouldn’t bet against Rosberg here either. I was fortunate enough to watch this race last year from Eau Rouge and he was visibly carrying more speed than Hamilton through that sector at least, owing to a clever line out of La Source to get the throttle opened earlier.
The team might be more cautious this time out after their drivers scrapping in Hungary gave Red Bull an opportunity to seize victory. They have had a comfortable lead, but not so comfortable they can afford to make a habit out of that sort of complacency – and the Bulls are charging closer and closer.
Chasing them, as mentioned before, we have the Red Bulls of Ricciardo and Vettel. With Daniel being the only non Mercedes AMG driver to claim race wins this year, will the Red Bulls be able to claw their way back into contention for the constructors, or even Driver’s championships?
Both are extremely unlikely propositions, but anything can happen and if any team can develop a car its Red Bull. Daniel has shown that if Merc drop the ball, he is there to catch it, and he will fight tooth and nail for it.
It will be an interesting battle between the teammates as always, as Vettel still struggles to get a handle on his new teammate who you have to say has firmly shown up the 4 time World Champion so far.
Eyes will be on Ferrari. Last time out in Hungary the team looked to have found more pace with both cars going well on Sunday and a good strategy on Alonso’s side of the garage bringing him into contention for the win. Contrast to what was going on in Raikkonen’s garage on Saturday where they seemed determined to make things difficult by not sending him out for a second run in Q1, leading to him being eliminated early and starting at the back of the field despite the strategists telling him he “100%” didn’t need to go out again. I doubt they will be as competitive here – it is a power track, and Ferrari’s engine is down on that relative to Mercedes.
Ironic, given that last season Luca De Montezemolo was bullishly posturing in the press that “Downforce is for people who can’t build engines.”, owing to the fact that Red Bull had made an aerodynamically superior car to them. Perhaps soon he will be shouting that horsepower is for people who can’t generate downforce?
Their car has proven reliable, and with the ever determined Alonso and the best yet to come from Raikkonen a solid strategy and the two wise heads in the cockpits could get a decent points haul if the race is as chaotic as it has been previously.
Williams will be another team whose performance will arouse curiosity after falling short of expectations last time out in Hungary. I do think the track layout will play to their car’s strengths on race day, but as we’ve seen the car seems to be on or off depending on the conditions and temperatures.
I look forward to seeing what Bottas can do around here with a competitive car, his racing’s been spectacular this season. Hopefully Massa can keep out of trouble and stamp his authority as the more experienced driver on the team, he’s been dramatically outshone by the young Finn at the halfway point of the season.
Not just in terms of speed and racecraft, I would also argue in the maturity of his attitude and how he handles himself in the press.
Mclaren are in a strange place right now, it’s been a while since they’ve fallen this far out of contention for a title of any description. Like Ferrari, there are big changes going on to get them back up there with the cream of the crop where everyone expects them to be, and time will tell if these changes are successful.
The last season and a half has simply been unacceptable by their standards. Jenson Button doesn’t seem to be able to drag the car up the grid like some more experienced drivers have done in sub-standard machinery, and Kevin Magnussen has only shown glimpses of his promise – hopefully Boullier can rough out the edges with him as he did with Grosjean because the potential is obviously there.
Force India, much like Williams will be looking to make up lost ground in the battle for best of the rest after a disaster of a showing in Hungary with both drivers making mistakes in the tough conditions – very uncharacteristic of Hulkenberg, maybe not so much Perez.
I would expect the ever consistent Hulkenberg to come out on top, but Perez has shown that on his day he can better the German.
With Spa often throwing up mixed conditions it may be a chance at Torro Rosso for Jean-Eric Vergne to steal the lime light from rookie teammate Daniil Kvyat , who’s been impressive in his debut season with the exception of maybe getting too hungry to impress in Germany and ending up in the gravel trap after attempting a bold pass around the outside in the stadium section.
The rain always seems to bring Vergne and his Torro Rosso up the grid, if he can’t outshine Daniil in those conditions, or get on terms with him in the dry then you have to say the men in charge at Torro Rosso may start looking for another young driver to take his seat, and there are plenty young drivers people are eager to slot into F1 cars.
Behind them it’ will be an attempt for teams to recover a poor start to the season and catch these guys up.
With the exception of Bianchi’s determined and forceful drive at Monaco claiming Marussia’s maiden points and Grosjean picking up scraps on a few occasions, there’s been little joy for the teams struggling at the back of the field.
Spa is, however the start of the second half of the season. This is when we see teams making big gains, but just like the opening race of the season it will throw up drama and surprises.
With so many struggles for power and drivers keen to shower themselves in glory and outshine their teammates, we may just see one of these races that contribute to the chills we fans get at the sight or mention of Spa Francorchamps.