F1 2013 has seen some considerable shocks, surprises and controversy since the season began in Melbourne back in March – from McLaren’s struggle for points to Mark Webber’s Red Bull departure; Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari struggles to Mercedes’ ascendancy to power – but as we head into the second leg of the season the racing promises even more thrills, twists and turns as Sebastian Vettel bids for that record fourth world title.
And what better place to begin this rollercoaster than Belgium? The rolling hills and unbroken forests of the Ardennes region hold many a secret, none more revered than the hallowed asphalt of the Circuit Spa-Francorchamps near Malmedy. Along with Monaco, Monza and Silverstone, the track is one of the classic quartet of racing circuits that have featured almost continuously on the World Championship calendar since its inception in 1950 – and the plunging cliffs and sweeping corners lend themselves perfectly to the gladitorially-staged contests that have graced its bends.
Spa encapsulates everything Formula One is about, from overtaking bravery (Mark Webber’s ‘balls-out’ pass on Fernando Alonso into Eau Rouge in 2011) to tactical superiority (Sebastian Vettel’s rise from 11th to 2nd here last year). 2013 may see another element added to the mix, with Pirelli’s now-notorious tyres still a talking point as compounds have shifted sensitivity and durability from one weekend to the next. Notwithstanding major developments that may have altered the pecking order over the summer break, who is likely to conquer this fearsome mountain?
Chief among the contenders for victory this weekend is Mercedes, a team on the crest of a wave after twin victories for Nico Rosberg earlier in the season and a maiden win last time out for Lewis Hamilton in Hungary. The F1W04 was susceptible to tyre degradation for the first part of the year but has been fettled into a weapon that has surpassed the limits of even Adrian Newey’s RB9 – it boasts both lightning qualifying pace (an average of 0.3 quicker than its rivals for the first part of the year) and the speed to carry an alternative race strategy to fruition. With Hamilton’s monkey off his back and Rosberg’s quest to better his team mate still very much alive, the team dynamics may prove as explosive as their bid for the twin world titles.
Should Mercedes want to secure that crown, they must overcome the imposing figure of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bulll – a combination that has reached the Spa podium three times in the last four years. The RB9 may no longer enjoy the unrivalled edge in qualifying the Milton Keynes-based team has managed to achieve in recent seasons, but it remains a close challenger to the Mercedes cars on a full race setup. Mark Webber has enjoyed a similarly succesful history at Spa, although not quite at the same level as his World Champion team-mate. In what will be his final outing at the track in F1 machinery he will be looking to improve on his previous best of 2nd in 2010.
Fernando Alonso and Ferrari’s trials and tribulations over the summer break have been well-documented, with the Spaniard refusing to put to bed rumours about his dalliance with opposing teams (even if some of those, most notably Red Bull, have denied they want the 2005 & 2006 World Champion on board). The F138 enabled Alonso to claim early victories in China and Spain, but they owed more to strategical brilliance than the Scuderia’s design excellence; as rival teams have got on top of their tyre woes the scarlet cars have slipped further down the order, with muted performances from Alonso in both Monaco and Hungary showing this season might not live up to that battling 2012 performance. Felipe Massa has equally faded after a promising start to the season that saw him take 3rd in Spain, and the Brazilian once again faces speculation over his future in Maranello red. (Main suspects to replace him include Nico Hulkenberg and Jules Bianchi, but this is talk for another day).
The half-term break will have given McLaren time to take stock of their unfamiliar position – though one would expect they have already spent a great deal of time analysing their fall from grace. Winners in the final Grand Prix of 2012, it is now nine months since a McLaren driver stood on an F1 podium, an undesirable record not equalled since 1980. Sergio Perez ‘enjoyed’ a baptism of fire into the Woking team and responded with gusto to criticism of his driving prowess, only to attract more vitriol for his strong-arm tactics in Monaco and Bahrain. The Mexican has scored decent points in recent events, backing up good drives from team leader Jenson Button. However positively results may be improving, the bitter fact remains that McLaren’s only realistic aim for 2013 is now to beat Force India for 5th in the constructors championship.
Lotus endured their share of media attention over the summer break with questions raised over their plans for 2014 – seemingly many people had forgotten Kimi Raikkonen is still in with a serious chance of being the 2013 World Drivers Champion. The Finn waited until last week to end rumours over his anticipated move to Red Bull, while Romain Grosjean finds himself in his own struggle for a seat. In his case, the choice is not between two top teams but between greatness and oblivion. The Frenchman has certainly tamed his driving demons that blighted his 2012 season, but returning to Spa, the scene of his most famous ‘incident’, may not be the way to begin his defence of that all-important Lotus drive for 2014. This is Grosjean’s third visit to the Belgian circuit in F1 machinery, but remarkably he has yet to complete a single racing lap there; in 2009 he bundled Jenson Button off into the wall at Les Combes on the opening tour and started a four-car pile-up that also claimed Lewis Hamilton.
The Spa circuit itself is something of an enigma among modern F1 tracks, chiefly down to its current placement on the calendar. As first race after the summer break, until the cars hit the track on Friday it is impossible to judge just who has improved, who has stayed still and who has lost ground. The most likely outcome this season will be a refinement of the pecking order a la Hungary – Mercedes and Red Bull will still go head-to-head for laurels, while Ferrari may or may not have pulled back a little amount of time. Lotus tend not to go too well at Spa thanks to the nature of their car design philosophy, but Raikkonen’s 3rd last season will serve to encourage a squad that has looked like losing touch with the leaders at certain points earlier in the year.
Spa’s sector one, including the legendary Eau Rouge, is most definitely Mercedes territory – with only one corner to speak of and a flat-out blast up the Kemmel Straight, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will be looking to secure a healthy margin over the less-powerful Renault-engined Red Bull’s into Les Combes. Sector two provides Sebastian Vettel with a healthy chance of regaining his now-infamous qualifying pole position on Saturday, with a sequence of high speed turns culminating in the fearsome downhill left-hander at Pouhon suiting the aero-centric Red Bull. Sector three will be a test of both cars, with high speeds tempered by sweeping curves at Blanchimont before drivers tackle the stop-start sequence of the Bus Stop chicane.
Whoever tames this unyielding 4.3 mile ribbon of tarmac will go down in motor racing folklore, as do all who triumph at this most prestigious of circuits.