Preview 10: Belgian Grand Prix
Ten things to watch out for at everybody's favourite grand prix, including JEV's manager working overtime...
Spa-Francorchamp is everything an F1 circuit should be - it's fast, historic, with fearsome corners, unpredictable weather and some great spectator vantage points. In the past it's seen some epic encounters - Schumi's first win, Schumacher vs Hakkinen, a Jordan GP 1-2 from Damon Hill and Ralf Schumacher. Occasionally there's carnage at the start, most recently courtesy of Romain Grosjean, and a little further back in time, Coulthard and Irvine caused an accident that decimated the field in 1998. Then there was that time that DC converted Michael's car into a three-wheeler and Lewis got one of the most outrageous penalties in the history of the sport. It's in every drivers' top three circuits, and most drivers' top one circuits. It's unmissable.
Dan Ricciardo gives us the drivers' POV on Spa: "Above all, Spa is a racing circuit - one that really encourages exciting wheel-to-wheel action. That said, F1 has changed over the years and whereas Eau Rouge and Blanchimont were once the standout sections, now it's probably the Pouhon downhill left-hander at Turns 10 and 11. That's seriously, seriously fast - and probably a good place to watch the race from for anyone prepared for a bit of a hike through the Ardennes."
Although it's traditionally been a circuit where Ferrari have done well, this year they might be struggling against the greater power of the Mercedes hybrid units. Force India first started punching above their weight at Spa in 2009 when Giancarlo Fischella put his car on pole position and finished just a second behind Kimi Raikkonen without KERS on the car. It was their first ever podium
Force India boss Veejay Mallya hasn't let the summer break dim his enthusiasm for a top four finish and knows the next two power races (Monza's next) will suit his car: "'I'm pleased we went into the summer break in fifth place. I think it's where we deserve to be at this stage of the season. Fourth place is not out of reach either with 38 points covering fourth to sixth place. One race can make all the difference, and the last race, with double points, could prove to be decisive."
Williams' director of Trackside Engineering, Rob Smedley, is hoping that the team can push Mercedes every bit as hard as they did in Austria and believes they have the package to do so: "Power sensitivity at Spa is very high; every horsepower you have is worth more there than at other tracks. The drag sensitivity is very high. And we know our car is very strong in those areas. Additionally, I think at somewhere like Spa, with harder compounds, it can sometimes be quite difficult to get the tyres turned on and I think our car can do that - especially when it's a front-end problem."
The weather for nearby Liege (which admittedly isn't so deeply embedded in the misty Ardennes) is predicted to be dry and cloudy on Friday, but only around 17C. On Saturday there are chances of showers all day and certainly for Qualifying at lunchtime; while on Sunday it's cloudy and 17C again. The low track temperatures could certainly help Williams qualify well given that they can switch their tyres on. Austria was like that, too.
Spa is the longest lap in F1, so it's important to be on the right tyre at the right time. Making a too-late call to come in and change can lose several seconds (and places). Plus there's always the chance of rain and the key is knowing when to switch on to Inters or Wets, because it can be raining on one part of the circuit and not on another. Or, it might be raining on McLaren's radar but not on anybody elses's...arf.
Pirelli think that there is a big time difference between the two tyres they are bringing, especially given the longer lap distance, as motorsport director Paul Hembery explains: "Despite the fact that tyre wear and degradation is traditionally high at Spa - the result of the multiple energy loadings put through the tyres - we have been able to nominate the soft tyres here as well as the medium for the first time since 2011, with the softer option liable to be the preferred choice in qualifying due to a significant time gap."
The paddock will be awash with stories on F1's youngest debutant in 2015, Max Verstappen. Verstappen's STR drive will finally put a Dutchman in a good car. Dutch fans might have hoped and expected that Robin Frijns would get there first, but according to Autosport's highly respected journo Marcus Simmons, Max Verstappen is very special (and you'd certainly take Marcus' word over Helmut Marko's). It's going to add an extra dimension to the paddock having his dad, the volatile Jos Verstappen on hand. It will also make Daniil Kvyat the veteran of the team at 20 years old.
Despite languishing behind Force India, Eric Boullier is bullish about McLaren's chances in the remaining races this year. It's a familiar tune that he's been humming from a time before the Bahrain Grand Prix: "It won't be until Singapore - where we resume with a more conventional set-up - that we'll get a clearer read on our progress, but I think we have reasons to be optimistic. The operational changes we've implemented over the course of the season have taken time to bed-in, but I think we'll certainly see a more pronounced upswing in performance over these final eight races of the year."