• Belgian Grand Prix preview

The beginning of the end

Laurence Edmondson August 25, 2010

Over the next 12 weeks Formula One will travel to seven different countries to decide the outcome of the 2010 world championship. Red Bull is in the ascendancy but the team has struggled to turn pole positions into wins throughout the season and the pressure is only going to increase during the run-in to the Abu Dhabi season finale. This weekend's Belgian Grand Prix will be crucial. Spa Francorchamps is a circuit that has the ability to throw up random results and go against the grain of a season. If McLaren or Ferrari - which have shared the last nine victories at the circuit between them - can win, they will take the pressure off at Singapore, Japan and Brazil, which are likely to be Red Bull stomping grounds. What's more there is no better venue on the F1 calendar to fire life back into the championship after four sleepy weeks away.

On Form

Red Bull has taken 11 pole positions from 12 races this season but remarkably only six victories and just two one-two finishes. In Hungary Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were so dominant in qualifying that Fernando Alonso - third on the grid - couldn't get within 1.2 seconds of the pole time, yet still Red Bull failed to take maximum points. But while the inconsistent results will give hope to its rivals, the RB6's all-conquering pace will not. The car is working in perfect harmony and no matter how much other teams focus on front wings, blown diffusers and F-ducts, it's going to be incredibly difficult to match the Red Bull's overall package. However, Spa Francorchamps is a very different circuit to the Hungaroring and while the car will still be strong it might struggle for straight-line speed on the slog up to Les Combes. It might just be the chink in its armour McLaren and Ferrari are looking for.

Out of Form

Mercedes has been consistently taking one step forward and two steps back this season. At times the improvements to the car have been dramatic but have all too often been followed by a disappointing result. In Hungary the team failed to score a point - the first time it has done so this season - and over the last four races has been outscored by Williams and Renault. It appears as though it is still trying to iron out a few niggles with the W01 but it may well be time to abandon the project and focus on 2011, if it hasn't already.

Giancarlo Fisichella and Force India were exceptionally quick in 2009 © Getty Images
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One to Watch

Force India took a shock pole position and podium at the Belgian Grand Prix last year, as Spa Francorchamps threw up one of the most bizarre results of the season. The one-off success was attributed to the car's high top speed and stability in fast corners and wasn't replicated at any other circuit. This year it is not expecting a repeat performance but the car does have impressive straight-line speed and a fully working F-duct so points are certainly a possibility. Tonio Liuzzi's impressive qualifying at the similarly low-downforce Montreal is another reason to keep an eye on Force India this weekend.

Talking Points

Flexible front wings
Red Bull's mind-boggling speed in Hungary was widely attributed to its car's front wing running low to the ground and generating extra downforce. Quite how the team achieved this is still a matter of debate, with suggestions that it is in fact a part of the floor that is flexing, allowing the wing to dip down. Whatever the reason, all cars will have to undergo more rigorous flexibility tests at Spa, with the weight being applied to the endplates in scrutineering being doubled from 50kg to 100kg along with a linear increase in the permissible flex, up from 10mm to 20mm. Red Bull says it has no worries about the more stringent tests but it will be interesting to see if the on-board footage still shows some movement in the wing.

Rubens Barrichello 's 300th race
Barrichello will be celebrating his 300th grand prix start this weekend despite some records suggesting it is his 297th. The three races in contention are the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, at which he failed to make the restart after a huge accident and therefore did not officially start, and two races in 2002 when the car did not make it away from the grid. But if Rubens wants to celebrate his 300th race then nobody is going to stand in his way. Keep an eye out for a special helmet design and t-shirt he will be sporting this weekend.

Spa's future
Despite being a favourite among fans and drivers alike, Spa Francorchamp's position on the calendar is still not a certainty. Organisers are confident that they can break even with ticket sales this year but with potential venues popping up around the world, nothing is certain for the future. It is understood that Bernie Ecclestone cut a special deal with the venue that allowed it to make a €140,000 profit last year and stay in the black.

Spa Francorchamps is a circuit steeped in history © Getty Images
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Trivia

  • The Belgian Grand Prix is one of only four events surviving from the original 1950 world championship, the others are the Monaco, British and Italian Grands Prix
  • No Belgian has ever won the Belgian Grand Prix. Of the 22 Belgians that have raced in Formula One, Jacky Ickx and Thierry Boutsen are the only two that have won grands prix
  • Three venues have hosted the Belgian Grand Prix since 1950: Spa-Francorchamps (42 times), Zolder (10: 1973, 1975-1982, 1984) and Nivelles (twice: 1972 and 1974)
  • The Eau Rouge corner is named after a stream that passes underneath the track at that point of the circuit. The stream has particularly geomorphologic interest as it appears to have taken over the old position of the Warche river after the last ice age. Of greater general interest, F1 cars pass over it at 185mph while pulling 3G

Fast facts

  • Michael Schumacher has won at Spa more times than any other drivers with six victories at the circuit. He also took his maiden win there in 1992
  • Kimi Raikkonen holds the lap record with a time of 1:45.108 during the 2004 race. He has also won four of the last five races at the circuit
  • Jarno Trulli set the fastest qualifying time in 2009 with a lap of 1:44.503 during the Q2 session
  • At 4.352 miles, Spa is the longest circuit on the F1 calendar

Circuit

Ever since Spa hosted its first race in 1922 on closed public roads, the circuit has been both loved and respected by drivers. Its high-speed nature gives the ultimate adrenaline rush but has also seen some horrific accidents. In the 1960 race alone both Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey died in accidents while Stirling Moss broke his legs. After the 1970 race the old 9.3 mile track was considered too dangerous for F1 cars and the Belgian Grand Prix didn't return to the circuit until 1983. The new circuit was cut to around 4 miles and has seen a number of minor changes since. Nowadays it is one of the most exciting tracks on the calendar although the centrepiece Eau Rouge corner is now flatout and relatively easy in the dry. The most challenging corner for the drivers is Pouhon, although mistakes, as with much of the track, are no longer punished by a gravel trap. Overtaking is possible into Les Combes after the long drag through Eau Rouge and up the Kemmel Straight. It's also possible to make a pass at the final chicane.

© ESPNF1
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Weather

Rain and Spa Francorchamps are synonymous and it looks as though the teams could be set for another dousing this weekend. Friday practice will likely be wet and then showers are also forecast during Sunday's race. This could mix up the order massively on a circuit where freak results are common. If it is dry, cold temperatures could cause problems for some drivers when trying to get heat into their harder compound tyres.

Betting

On the strength of Red Bull's Hungarian Grand Prix performance Sebastian Vettel is the favourite at 2/1 ahead of Fernando Alonso (11/4) and Mark Webber (7/2). Considering wet weather is on the cards and McLaren should enjoy a top speed advantage, Lewis Hamilton (5/1) and Jenson Button (10/1) could be worth a flutter.

ESPNF1 prediction

If it hadn't been for a misunderstanding behind the safety car in Hungary, Sebastian Vettel would be leading the championship heading to Spa. He's been on pole at all of the last four races and it's only a matter of time before he wins again. The circuit may not be ideally suited to the Red Bull but its stability through high-speed corners (as witnessed at turn 8 in Turkey) should mean it is by far the fastest car in the vital second sector of the lap.

Laurence Edmondson is an assistant editor on ESPNF1

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Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1 Laurence Edmondson grew up on a Sunday afternoon diet of Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell and first stepped in the paddock as a Bridgestone competition finalist in 2005. He worked for ITV-F1 after graduating from university and has been ESPNF1's deputy editor since 2010