ROUND 11 - Belgium 23-25 August 2013
Venue: Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
Circuit Length: 7.004 kilometres
Lap Record: 1:45.108 = 238.931 km/h • Kimi Raïkkönen (McLaren Mercedes) • 2004
The great Ayrton Senna was on pole position four times at Spa-Francorchamps. He won the Belgian race five times, including a fabulous four-race streak from 1988-91. But despite setting 19 fastest race laps in his career, not one of them came at Spa. And yet… his nephew Bruno Senna achieved just one fastest race lap in his own short F1 career – at Spa last year.
Spa-Francorchamps is set in the rolling countryside of the Ardennes. No other Grand Prix circuit marries its local geography as effectively as Spa, originally a 14.08-km challenge first mastered by the great Juan Manuel Fangio in an Alfa Romeo in the inaugural World Championship in 1950. The best feature is that the track dips away from the start/finish straight, climbs up to the chicane at Les Combes, then swoops back down through the woods. High-speed sections come from Turns 1 to 5, the longest full-throttle period of the year (remember Mark Webber’s breathtaking pass on Fernando Alonso two years ago?), and again in the long left-handers preceding the chicane that leads on to the home straight. All teams will adopt a ‘low-drag’ aero package for the Belgian weekend.
Can they catch him?
That’s Sebastian Vettel, of course: Spa heralds the nine-race run-in to the 2013 world title, and at this stage Red Bull’s German star holds a 38-point advantage over Kimi Raïkkönen. History suggests that the Finn is unlikely to bridge that gap, but try telling that to the Lotus driver – or Fernando Alonso, just a further point behind, or Lewis Hamilton, nine points further back from the Ferrari man.
Of course the crucial thing about history is how you look at it. Ferrari’s Stefano Domenicali refuses to see anything but grounds for optimism in his own team’s past: “We are Ferrari and history teaches us that we must never accept we are beaten,” says the popular Italian. “Nine races means that a total of 225 driver points are available and rest assured that the goals we set ourselves at the start of the season are still perfectly attainable. It’s true we’ve gone through a difficult period, especially in July and now is the time to react in the way that Ferrari people know well.” Like any good leader, he puts the challenge succinctly: “Our task is very simple: namely to give Fernando and Felipe the quickest car possible.” Mercedes man Hamilton comes to Spa as the in-form contender, having won the last race before the break – his first success at the wheel of a Silver Arrow. “It feels like I have been out of the car for a very long time since the win in Hungary and I can’t wait to get going again,” says Hamilton, who won superbly at Spa three seasons ago for McLaren.
Raïkkönen, of course, is his usual pragmatic self: happy to be back in second spot but aware that finishing second won’t be enough to catch Vettel. Still, he waxes unusually lyrical when it comes to the circuit itself: “For me there have only been good memories from Spa and it’s great to go racing there. You can’t get the same kind of a feeling anywhere else. It’s great to race with a modern racing car at a proper circuit which has such a great tradition. I bet every driver likes Spa. For me it is the greatest racing circuit in the world. It is my favourite place. I have liked the place since my first ever visit there in 2000 with Formula Renault.”
Last year’s winner was Jenson Button for McLaren, a team which has enjoyed enormous success at Spa. “The thing about Spa is that it just feels awesome to nail a quick lap around there – you need a car that’s perfectly synced to the driver, because it’s such a long lap, and there are so many big corners, that you need to find that perfect balance,” says the Englishman. “And getting the set-up right – and running flat-out for nearly two minutes – feels incredible.” McLaren in 2013 are, of course, a pale shadow of the team that has won no fewer than 14 times at Spa, but Button is still looking forward to his weekend: “We don’t go to Spa with the package to win, but I’ll still be making the most of every single lap around this place – it’ll still feel incredible.”
Both Button and Vettel one-stopped on their way to last year’s podium, and Pirelli again bring a choice of their Medium and Hard compounds. Will the tyre controversy that has dogged the 2013 season be a thing of the past? “Spa is not only an epic circuit, but also one of the biggest challenges for our tyres all year,” says Pirelli’s Paul Hembery. “Mostly this is because of the very high-energy loads that go all the way through the tyres, both vertically – due to the big compressions such as Eau Rouge – and also laterally at fast corners like Blanchimont. Often, the tyres are subjected to forces acting in different directions at the same time, which increases the work still further. So looking after the tyres is very important, particularly as it’s such a long lap. This means that there are a very wide variety of possible strategies available at Spa as well, with plenty of time to be won and lost if the right tactics are chosen.”
For our two Australians, Spa could well be a significant milestone. For Red Bull’s Mark Webber it’s the last chance to win at a circuit he loves. With his deep respect for Grand Prix tradition, Webber would love to score his 10th Grand Prix victory either here or at Monza, which he is not alone in seeing as ‘real’ circuits. Mark’s been second twice at Spa, in 2010 and 2011. For Dan Ricciardo Spa is expected to bring confirmation that he will switch from Toro Rosso to Red Bull to replace his great compatriot in 2014.
Pole Position: Jenson Button (McLaren Mercedes) 1:47.573 = 234.393 km/h
1st: Jenson Button (McLaren Mercedes) 1:29.08.530 (av. speed 207.344 km/h)
2nd: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault) gap 13.624s
3rd: Kimi Raïkkönen (Lotus Renault) gap 25.334s
Fastest Lap: Bruno Senna (Williams Renault) 1:52.822 = 223.488 km/h on lap 43