After just one race across a seven week period, Formula 1 kicks back into life this weekend in Belgium. The race at the magnificent Circuit de Spa Francorchamps marks the start of a run of nine races in the space of 14 weeks as the V8 era of Formula 1 comes to an end.
Sebastian Vettel heads into the second half of the season with a healthy lead in the championship, but Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton remain in the hunt. But with such an intense run to Brazil, none of Vettel’s challengers can afford a slip-up if they are to prevent the German from becoming a four time world champion.
Spa-Francorchamps can trace its history back to the mid-1920s, when Antonio Ascari claimed victory. The race was held intermittently until 1950, when the circuit joined the Formula 1 world championship. The fearsome 14 kilometre circuit claimed the lives of several drivers as the Masta Kink, Stavelot and Blanchimont all had little scope for error. Attitudes began to change in the mid-1960s, most prominently following an enormous accident for Sir Jackie Stewart. One last race was held in 1970 but enough was enough; the old Spa circuit was not used again.
The race was subsequently shared between Zolder and Nivelles-Baulers for over a decade, the former primarily remembered for being the scene of the death of Gilles Villeneuve in 1982. A modified Spa-Francorchamps returned in 1983 and became a permanent fixture in 1985, albeit postponed after the tarmac broke up in the mid-summer heat.
Spa became notoriously connected with seven times world champion Michael Schumacher. The German driver grew up just across the border in Germany and made his debut at the circuit in 1991. A year later, he claimed his maiden win at the circuit and racked up another five wins at the track, before securing his final world title there in 2004.
The 1998 running of the race resulted in one of the biggest accidents in Formula 1 history. David Coulthard lost control exiting La Source and in atrocious weather conditions, the rest of the field could not avoid him. Flying wheels and debris emerged among the spray as half of the 22 runners were caught up in the incident. The race restarted an hour later, with Coulthard and Schumacher involved in an accident that left an irate Schumacher storming into the McLaren garage to confront his rival. Amid the carnage, Eddie Jordan’s eponymous team claimed a memorable first win in the sport.
The race was dropped for 2003 due to tobacco advertising restrictions and also made no appearance in 2006 while the circuit was improved for 2007. The Bus Stop chicane was modified while the start/finish straight was lengthened. Kimi Raikkonen won the race in 2004, 2005 and 2007 but crashed out in 2008 while duelling with Lewis Hamilton. The Brit was stripped of his win for corner cutting but made amends two years later in similarly tricky conditions. Last season, Jenson Button dominated for McLaren in a race remembered for a large accident at La Source, triggered by Romain Grosjean.
It’s becoming an increasingly rare commodity on the Formula 1 calendar but Spa-Francorchamps is a circuit that actually has corner names rather than simply ‘Turn 7’. The lap begins with a short blast across the start/finish line before the drivers brake for the La Source hairpin. The corner was modified in 2007 with run off added on the exit. The circuit bends ever so slightly to the right before the fearsome Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex. The corners are now taken flat out but it remains one of the most iconic sections on the Formula 1 calendar. Eau Rouge – named so due to the stream that runs beneath the corner – is the left kink at the bottom of the hill, with the circuit rising over the left hand crest at Raidillon. The right hander at Kemmel leads on to the Kemmel Straight and the end of sector one under braking for Les Combes. On a flying lap, the drivers will be flat out all the way from La Source to Les Combes. The circuit continues to rise under braking for Les Combes as drivers negotiate the right-left 90 degree corners, although not using the entire width of the circuit so that they are not compromised for the 90 degree right hander of Malmedy, the highest point of the track. The circuit drops downhill for the long hairpin of Rivage as drivers hug the inside kerb, wary of being spat out on the bumpy 180 degree corner. The ‘corner with no name’ (although it has been referred to as ‘Liege’) is next up, a tricky left hander with little run-off that has claimed several scalps over the years. The long left hander at Pouhon comes next. Despite the tarmac run-off, Pouhon is the biggest challenge in modern Formula 1 cars; the circuit continues to rapidly drop away and drivers will attempt the corner in sixth gear. The right-left hander of Fagnes – sometimes referred to as ‘Pif Paf’ will leave the drivers leaning on their cars in third or fourth gear, before the two right handers of Stavelot. Exiting the second Stavelot corner is vital for a good run all the way to the Bus Stop chicane as the left hander of Blanchimont is now easy flat. The run to Bus Stop presents one of the best overtaking opportunities of the lap as the drivers switch right and left in first or second gear. The off camber nature of Bus Stop gives the chicane a clumsy feel compared to its former layout.
Spa is something of a ‘bogey circuit’ for Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard is the only world champion in the field not to have won the race. Alonso has retired five times from nine starts in Belgium and has been hit on the first lap of the race for the past three years.
Michael Schumacher is the most successful driver at Spa, having taken six wins while out of the current drivers, Kimi Raikkonen’s speed at the circuit has resulted in four victories. Ferrari edges out McLaren as the most successful constructor in Belgium, by 16 wins to 14.
Jordan claimed their maiden victory at Spa-Francorchamps and the team in their present format, Force India, has also enjoyed success at the circuit. Giancarlo Fisichella claimed their only pole position in Belgium in 2009 and followed it up with second place in the race.
Weather Forecast: The pleasant summer across Western Europe is set to continue in Belgium this weekend with hot and sunny conditions expected for practice and qualifying. Sunday, however, is less clear, with rain possible. However, Spa’s location in the Ardennes Forest means that it’s impossible to rule out the chance of a shower.
Friday 23 August
- Practice 1: 10.00-11.30
- Practice 2: 14.00 – 15.30
Saturday 24 August
- Practice 3: 11.00-12.00
- Qualifying: 14.00-15.00
Sunday 25 August
- Race: 14.00
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