Following the four-week summer break, Formula One roars back into life for a Spa-treatment at the Belgian Grand Prix, which takes place at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
A remarkable and classic race track, this year’s race will be the 50th Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. It is the longest lap of the season and one of the fastest, with an average speed of 230kph and cars are flat out for about 70 percent of the time.
The circuit offers some of the most iconic corners on the entire calendar and arguably the best and toughest corner in Formula One; Eau Rogue - an uphill corner, which has rightly earned a reputation for testing the bravery and skills of drivers for decades. With the revamped cars for 2017 with added downforce and speed, watching cars sweeping through Eau Rogue this weekend will be a real marvel.
The first half of the season has ebbed and flowed between the two leading title contenders, and this weekend starts a run of nine races in the next 14 weeks until the season finale at the end of November in Abu Dhabi.
As we approach the closing stages of the season, everything is perfectly poised in the championship battle for a final title-race decider. The second part of the season could easily be decided by reliability issues and avoiding costly grid-place penalties for new parts, but expect the drama to continue.
Ferrari headed into the summer break with a dominant one-two finish in Hungary, with Vettel extending his championship lead to 14-points. Ferrari go to Spa quietly confident that their car is now very strong on many types of circuit. The Ferrari SF70H car has run well everywhere this season but has looked particularly formidable on slower-speed tracks – the polar opposite of Spa and the next race in Monza.
For most of the first part of the season, Vettel has looked in control of the championship and returns refreshed and focused on taking his fifth title. Recently, Helmut Marko, who worked with Vettel at Red Bull, has tipped the four-time champion to return ‘even stronger’ after the break and clinch the title. The question is whether the Ferrari gains are enough and whether the fabled Italian team can win the developmental race to Abu Dhabi against the Silver Arrows.
Speaking of Mercedes, they will be seeking to capitalise at a high-speed circuit which suits their power and aero strengths and regain the momentum. Hamilton will be racing in the 200th Grand Prix of his career in Belgium, and will be hoping to celebrate the milestone with a much-needed victory.
Hamilton’s sporting gesture in Hungary to move aside for his team-mate, Bottas, at the final corner, cost him three championship points, which at the end of the season may prove decisive. From his 199 races, the British driver has won three world titles, 57 wins, 110 total podiums and 67 pole positions. This weekend, the he could equal the great Michael Schumacher for the overall record of 68 poles.
Mercedes have won the last two Belgian Grands Prix, with now-retired 2016 world champion Rosberg triumphant from pole last year after Hamilton won in 2015. However, Bottas is only 19 points behind team-mate Hamilton after a strong start to the first half of the season. The Finn has already won twice and out-qualified Hamilton on a number of occasions and is still very much in the mix for the 2017 title. A DNF for Hamilton and Bottas could be leading the Mercedes title charge.
Renault are bringing engine updates to both Spa and Monza that they believe will help their teams on these two big power circuits. Red Bull have looked to have made progress in the last few races, and will be hoping the new Renault grunt propels them forward in Spa. Pirelli are bringing their three softest tyre compounds to Belgium; the P Zero purple ultrasofts, the red supersofts and the yellow softs. In terms of strategy, most teams will probably opt for two-stops.
The summer break is the perfect time for drivers and teams to finalise their 2018 plans. Raikkonen signed another one-year agreement with Ferrari, so will remain at the Italian team next season. The Finn is a massive 86 points behind team-mate Vettel in the championship but has proven an able ‘number 2’ to the German in this year’s title battle. Ferrari’s decision to retain Raikkonen is viewed as a clear sign Vettel is staying and will probably be announced in Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. Vettel has a strong relationship with Raikkonen and will know that the Finn’s stay offers zero threat to his number one status within the team.
The Belgian Grand Prix feels very much like a home race to Verstappen, whose legion of Dutch fans make the short trip from the Netherlands to turn the grandstands orange. However, the actual Belgian driver, Vandoorne, will compete in his home Grand Prix for the first time this weekend. Although, frustratingly, the Belgian needs a new power-unit, which mean a 35-place penalty and will inevitably start from the back of the grid.
Following his illness in Hungary, Massa has been declared fit for this weekend and will be racing again for Williams and normally goes well in Spa, where experience is key.
Spa is also famous for the changeable weather. The forecast for this weekend looks reasonable by Spa standards; there could be showers on Saturday when the temperature will climb to 24 before dropping back to 22 for Sunday, when there will be rain in the morning but, at this stage, most likely a dry race.
Adding rain and/or a wet and drying track into the mix plus the faster, higher downforce cars and a tight championship battle, and we have all the ingredients for another classic Belgian Grand Prix.
Spa is a high-speed, power circuit where aerodynamic efficiency is extremely important. These characteristics really suit the Mercedes. However, Spa can often be a lottery with its unpredictable weather and chaotic starts.
All things being equal, the prediction is for Hamilton to take both pole position and the race victory. However, Ferrari will be determined to do well at Monza and will have worked hard at developing their package for high-speed circuits. We will see how effective any gains are in Spa, but the only thing for certain is that Belgium will see another titanic battle between Hamilton and Vettel.