The end of the summer break signals the start of the business end of the 2015 F1 World Championship, with Lewis Hamilton leading teammate Nico Rosberg by 21 points, with Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari the sole outside challenger to the throne a further 21 points behind.
Vettel optimistically said recently that he still believes he can take the fight to the Silver Arrows. Only time will tell if he is right, but it would be a tall order such is the dominance of the Mercedes package at present.
The original circuit was designed as a fifteen kilometre long test of skill on public roads in Belgium in 1920, with the first ever Grand Prix race held there five years later, won by Antonio Ascari as part of Alfa Romeo’s championship-winning 1925 season, and the last completed race of the Italian driver’s career before losing his life at the French Grand Prix one month later. Due to the high speeds possible at Spa, as well as legendary corners, it became very popular with drivers and fans alike, but due to these high speeds on roads not designed for racing, disasters often occurred, with 51 drivers and officials losing their lives there during the circuit’s long history.
This led to the organisers finding a new home for the Belgian Grand Prix in two places – Nivelles-Baulers and Circuit Zolder. The former hosted two events between 1972 and 1974, but poor finances and a deteriorating surface led to a rapid decline that ultimately saw it transformed into an industrial estate, although it is possible to see the track layout from space. The latter was also doomed to lose out to Spa-Francorchamps, although Zolder did host five times the number of Grands Prix, and has had a much more successful life post-F1, with events such as the World Touring Car Championship venturing there every year.
Formula One, however, reappeared at a much shorter and safer Spa circuit in 1983, and from 1985 all editions of the Belgian Grand Prix have been held there, albeit with minor one year absences in 2003 and 2006, while the track has occasionally been tweaked, most notably with the addition of a chicane at Eau Rouge that was promptly disposed of, and the modification of the Bus Stop chicane.
Unlike several of the newer circuits on the calendar, the track does not rely on F1 and its support races alone. Aside from this event, the Spa 24 Hours and 1000km of Spa are both important events held there, in addition to a round of the Formula Renault 3.5 Series.
The Spa Franchochamps circuit represents one of the most complete tests of driver skill on the calendar today, with fast flowing corners, elevation changes and tight turns. The long lap means there are plenty of opportunities for error and really allows the best to rise to the surface.
Over the short start finish straight staying to the left hand side into La Source, the first corner is one of the tightest on the calendar. Getting a good exit here is so important, too much kerb or wheel spin will reduce top speed at the end of the Kemmel straight, making you vulnerable to attack.
Heading down the hill, Eau Rouge looms before you like a wall. Compression at the bottom hits 5 g as the car is thrown over the first kerb, then with the right foot welded to the floor is fired over the crest onto the Kemmel straight, where adoring fans gather to see the cars flash past at over 200mph. This is the best overtaking spot on the circuit especially with DRS assistance.
Braking heavily just as the outside kerb comes up on the left, the Les Combes chicane needs to be attacked. Taking more kerb in the first part allows a tighter exit, which is key to setting up the right handed at Turn 9. The exit kerb here is very forgiving and taking liberties here will gain some laptime.
No time to rest as the tricky downhill braking zone into Bruxelles comes straight up, punishing the tardy with agonising understeer all the way around the 180 degree corner. Then a flick to the right side again for a slight lift through the Turn 11 fast left, taking a generous amount of exit kerb to carry momentum on to Pouhon.
Pouhon is still regarded as a fearsome corner, the double apex left handed is taken with barely a lift at over 150 mph and opens out on the exit, a real thrill especially in modern machinery with plenty of downforce. The Tarmac run off allows the drivers to throw the car in without too severe penalty if the car understeers wide over the rumble strip.
The next chicane at Campus is a mid speed right-left that tightens on exit, immediately followed by another tight right of Stavelot. This is one of the most important corners of the track as from here it is flat out all the way to the chicane, even through the reveared Blanchimont taken flat out at nearly 200 mph.
As soon as the car is settled from that spectacle the chicane arrives. Braking hard taking care not to lock, the kerbs are there for hopping to bring the car straight again past the pitwall.
Every single driver loves the challenge of the Spa circuit, Niki Lauda sums up why it has become so popular with fans and racers alike; “the great thing about Spa-Franchochamps is that it hasn’t changed over the years. The track is an old-style circuit and is still a great challenge to the drivers – and the surrounding area is still very beautiful“.
Water is never very far from the mind here. The natural springs in the Ardennes countryside give rise to the famous Spa brand bottled water which is sold all over the world. The unique micro-climate created by the forested hills around the circuit produce unpredictable weather that can change quickly without much warning. The circuit covers a wide area over two valleys and as a result it can be wet over at one side of the track and dry at the other. Once the track is wet it dries very slowly due the cover provided by the overhanging trees.
BRAKING WITH BREMBO:
At just under seven kilometres, this is the longest track of the season. Despite the presence of two braking sections (the “Les Combes” at the end of the Kemmel straight lines and the “Bus stop” chicane right before the finish line) which are characterised by extremely high energy forces, the rest of the track is rather light on the braking system because it is characterised by fast turns that translate into not-so-demanding braking and ensure excellent cooling of the system itself. Especially in adverse weather conditions, a situation which is quite common in this region, problems connected to excessive cooling can occur.
TYRES WITH PIRELLI:
The second half of the 2015 Formula One season gets underway with arguably the most epic circuit on the calendar: Spa-Francorchamps, characterised by a long seven- kilometre lap, high speeds, sweeping changes of elevation, fast corners and variable weather. To cope with this wide-ranging set of demands, the most versatile tyres in the range are called for, which is why Pirelli has nominated the P Zero White medium and P Zero Yellow soft: the most popular tyre combination of all the grands prix held so far this year. The Cinturato intermediate and wet tyres are also very likely to feature at some point during the Spa weekend, given the region’s microclimate.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli motorsport director: “We have the same tyre nomination for Spa as we did for the Hungaroring – which turned out to be one of the most thrilling races of the season – but the two circuits present a very marked contrast. Whereas Hungary was tight and twisty, Spa is open and flat-out, making it a favourite among all the drivers.
We’ve got plenty of high-energy loads going through the tyres in many directions due to all the different forces at work, but ambient temperatures still tend to be quite low, so the soft and medium tyres represent the best compromise between performance and durability. Spa is a race where anything can happen, with a high incidence of safety cars and changing weather, so tyre strategy is important, as well as each team’s ability to constantly read the race and react quickly to any opportunities that present themselves.
The recent Spa 24 Hours – which is our biggest event of the year – featured more changes of lead than you could count, as well as a succession of incidents and safety cars in the first half of the race. That showcases just what a spectacular and unpredictable competition this amazing circuit can regularly provide.”
The biggest challenges for the tyres:
Managing the amount of energy going through the tyres is one of the keys to success at Spa. This consists of not only forces exerted through cornering, braking, and acceleration but also the loads generated by the huge changes in elevation, typified by the famous Eau Rouge-Raidillon complex (which subjects the tyre structure and shoulder to an unparalleled 1g compression).
The biggest difficulty with the variable weather in Spa is that many variations exist over the course of just a single lap, making it hard to identify the correct tyre when it rains. It’s possible for one part of the circuit to be completely soaked, but another part to be a hundred per cent dry. Drainage is an issue, meaning that it’s easy to be caught out by streams of water running across the track surface.
The medium tyre is a low working range compound, capable of achieving optimal performance even at a wide range of low temperatures – which is often the case at Spa. The soft tyre by contrast is a high working range compound, suitable for higher temperatures.
￼Last year’s strategy and how the race was won: Daniel Ricciardo won his second consecutive race for Red Bull (the third victory of his career) using a two-stop strategy for the 44-lap race from fifth on the grid. He did two stints on the soft tyre and a final stint on the medium tyre, stopping on laps 11 and 26. He set the fastest lap of the race on the final tour with the medium tyre, underlining the consistency of the compound even over a long stint.
Expected performance gap between the two compounds: 1.8 – 2.0 seconds per lap.
1985 – The Belgian Grand Prix was moved to September due to poor track conditions previously, and while Alain Prost had been looking in good form, rainy conditions saw Ayrton Senna’s Lotus-Renault take victory.
1995 – Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill did not have the best grid positions, but the failure of David Coulthard’s car while he was in the lead allowed the duo to battle it out on track for the victory, as Schumacher emerged victorious in a contest that entertained many fans around the world.
1998 – After a serious pile up at the start of the race due to limited visibility, the restarted race saw Schumacher lead comfortably before crashing into the back of David Coulthard after a major misunderstanding as the German attempted to lap the McLaren driver in conditions with visibility still impaired; the aftermath of which would see Schumacher march down to the McLaren garage in anger in order to confront the Scot. Up front, team orders led to Damon Hill taking the first victory for Eddie Jordan’s F1 team ahead of Ralf Schumacher.
2008 – Notable because of the stunning conclusion to the race – once again, rain caused havoc, as Raikkonen’s comfortable advantage was eroded by Lewis Hamilton. The Brit then overtook Raikkonen by going wide at the Bus Stop chicane and then appeared to give the place back, before overtaking him after the finish line. Kimi then crashed out, Hamilton got a penalty for being judged to have not given the place back, and Felipe Massa won instead.
2009 – Kimi Raikkonen took his last victory for Ferrari by getting past surprise polesitter Giancarlo Fisichella’s Force India thanks to good pit strategy and the advantage of being able to use a KERS system on such a long circuit. As the battle at the front distracted us from the championship battle between Brawn GP and Red Bull Racing (also due to the championship leader being taken out by some rookie called Romain Grosjean), it was good to see Fisichella get the team’s first pole position and podium finish
We were robbed of a battle between the Mercedes last year when the two Silver Arrows controversially came together at Les Combes. Hopefully this year we shall see a clean fight around this special circuit.
Kimi Raikkonen usually performs well at the Spa circuit and may be able to challenge his teammate at this circuit. With contract negotiations ongoing for his seat next year, now would be the time for the Finn to fly.
Max Verstappen came fourth in Hungary and will be looking to carry that momentum into the tail end of the season. Unfortunately the hilly Spa circuit puts a reasonable demand on the power unit that may make a repeat unlikely this weekend.
As with most European Formula 1 races we will see GP2 and GP3 races as support acts. Joining them is the familiar Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup cars. All three ‘lower’ tier sports are well worth a watch as they clearly support the tag line “rubbing is racing”.
Last time out in the Porsche Supercup, young German Sven Müller romped to his first win of the 2015 season with a lights-to-flag victory at the Hungaroring. In the GP2 series Vandoorne is light years ahead of his closest Championship challenger. Last season the Dutchman finished 5th but with his form this year (and possible McLaren or other F1 drive next year) he is bound to impress.
In GP3 Luca Ghiotto (Trident) leads Marvin Kirchhöfer (ART Grand Prix) and Esteban Ocon (ART Grand Prix) by 23 and 25 points respectively.
|2014||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull-Renault|
|2013||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|
|2011||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|