Track Guide and History
This weekend is Round 13 of the 2008 Formula 1 championship, which sees the F1 circus pay its annual visit to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. This is probably the most loved F1 track and most likely source for a dramatic or unpredictable race. This weekend will mark the 53rd Belgium GP and the 41st to take place at Spa-Francorchamps.
The Spa-Francorchamps circuit was built in 1921 and hosted motorcycle races. Antonio Ascari won the first Belgium GP in 1925 (his son Alberto won the 1952 and 1953 races). Sadly, Antonio was killed in the very next race.
In 1972, Spa was considered far too dangerous for Formula 1, and the Belgium GP then alternated between Zolder and Nivielles. Sadly, Zolder will be best remembered for the death of Gilles Villeneuve (father of Jacques Villeneuve) during a qualifying session 1982 grand prix.
After this tragic Belgium GP weekend, the race returned to Spa in 1983 on a rebuilt track that was safer than before. However, all elements that made the track a classic still remained. The Belgium GP has remained at Spa ever since, despite a couple of gaps in 2003 and 2006.
Spa has to be the most special track on the F1 calendar. It has absolutely everything you could possibly want from an F1 track, and a lot of history and character, unlike some of the dull flat modern tracks creeping into Formula 1.
Spa has great scenery with its placement in the middle of Ardennes forest, a dramatic track full of great corners such as Eau Rouge, Pouhon, and Blanchimont, and a great atmosphere. Going to Spa has become an F1 pilgrimage and fans come from all the around the world.
The track is long, and the challenge is such that this is probably one of the only tracks left where the drivers can make a real difference. And of course there is the annual Spa guessing game. Will it rain or not?
The microclimate in the Ardennes forest ensures that team weather forecasters work very hard for their money. One minute it can be dry and the next the track can be covered in standing water. At one stage in the Belgium GP’s history, it had rained for 20 years on the trot!
Spa is so special that despite the fact that practically all the favourite classic tracks are threatened by Bernie’s axe, Spa has still survived.
Bernie has done all he can to keep Spa in F1 and, after a lot of work in the last few years, Spa has been upgraded and is still fit to hold F1 races for a long time to come.
The most famous corner on the Spa circuit is Eau Rouge, which is basically a kink on an incredibly steep hill.
The drivers exit La Source and then head downhill with a vision of the Eau Rouge hill in the foreground. Eau Rouge isn’t quite the challenge it used to be, due to the V8 F1 engines, which make it easier to go up Eau Rouge flat-out.
Even still, it is still one of the most daunting corners in F1 and one which drivers still get a lot of satisfaction from. When it's wet, it is still very challenging and, if you can go up Eau Rouge flat-out in the wet, then you can gain over 0.5 seconds.
Coming out of Eau Rouge, the drivers will be reaching speeds in excess of 300 km/h. Blanchimont is in my view the next most spectacular corner, which despite looking like a tight left hander is taken flat-out. This is very dramatic to watch. Drivers are going at nearly 300km/h here.
The only downside to the track is the bus stop chicane, which has changed a few times in the past. The change made to it in 2007 has ruined that corner. Now it is just a very simple and boring chicane. Although on the plus side, it does provide a realistic overtaking spot.
Many of the classic tracks these days don’t provide many opportunities for overtaking, but Spa is very good in this respect. The pit straight has been made longer so overtaking is more realistic going into La Source corner than in the past.
If you can stick close enough to the car in front coming out of La Source, then there is the long drag down the hill, up Eau Rouge, and down the long Kemmel straight leading to Les Combes corner. So there is a strong chance of getting a slipstream and getting past, going into Les Combes.
The other main chance for overtaking is the bus stop chicane, if a driver gets a very good run coming out of the fast Blanchimont section.
The Belgium GP has seen everything in the past from stunning wet drives, great bravery, incredible overtaking manuvers, shock results, terrifying crashes, and, in 2004, even crowned a champion as Michael Schumacher took his seventh title. What will we see this weekend?
Belgium GP Information/Statistics
Number of Laps: 44
Circuit Length: 7.004km
Race Distance: 308.052km
Lap Record: 1:45.108—Kimi Raikkonen
Last 10 Winners
2007: Kimi Raikkonen
2005: Kimi Raikkonen
2004: Kimi Raikkonen
2002: Michael Schumacher
2001: Michael Schumacher
2000: Mika Hakkinen
1999: David Coulthard
1998: Damon Hill
1997: Michael Schumacher
1996: Michael Schumacher
Michael Schumacher: six wins
Ayrton Senna: five wins
Jim Clark: four wins
Juan Manual Fangio: three wins
Damon Hill: three wins
Kimi Raikkonen: three wins
Most Pole Positions
Juan Manual Fangio: four poles
Ayrton Senna: four poles
Graham Hill: three poles
Alain Prost: three poles
Mika Hakkinen: three poles
Most Points Scored in Belgium
Michael Schumacher: 80 points
Ayrton Senna: 57 points
Alain Prost: 45 points
Jim Clark: 39 points
Damon Hill: 39 points
Most Team Wins/Pole Positions
McLaren: 10 wins/nine pole positions
Ferrari: 10 wins/nine pole positions
Lotus: five wins/one pole position
Williams: three wins/seven pole positions
Ask any avid F1 fan about their favourite moments at Spa and they could well end up writing you a 500—page book. Most Belgium GPs have provided some great highlights, so instead of mentioning every single one I am going to summarize my personal two favourite Belgium GPs ever.
In 1998 there was a lot of rain falling before the race, and it seemed as if there might be a safety car start. Instead, the race started normally. Hakkinen got away from pole and Villeneuve and Irvine both made great starts.
However, Coulthard had a huge moment after La Source hitting the wall and rebounding to the other side of the track.
In the process, he collected around half of the grid with him as drivers collided into each other, leaving incoming drivers with nowhere to go but join in the right mess that was being created. The race was stopped.
It was a miracle everyone escaped unhurt, with just a few bruises here and there. Only five drivers completely escaped the accident. 18 drivers took the restart over an hour and a half later.
The race then restarted and this time Damon Hill made the best start and took the lead at La Source. The restart didn’t go so well for Hakkinen, and he spun at La Source battling with Schumacher and was hit by Herbert. Mika’s race was over.
Hill led for the first eight laps before an impressive move by Michael Schumacher to take the lead. Schumacher then extended his lead lap after lap and he was looking untouchable. However, disaster struck as he came round to lap Coulthard, who was in eighth position after an incident with Wurz earlier on.
Coulthard lifted to let Schumacher through, but this caught Schumacher out and he whacked the back of Coulthard’s McLaren. Both were out of the race (although Coulthard did come back later on to see if he could sneak a point).
Schumacher accused Coulthard of killing him and there was an ugly scene down in the pit lane as Schumacher got extremely angry. Coulthard was right to keep his helmet on.
Damon Hill was back into the lead. Giancarlo Fisichella then hit the back of Shinki Nakano, which brought out the safety car.
The front three was Hill, Ralf Schumacher, and Jean Alesi. They would stay this way until the chequered flag as Ralf was ordered to hold station behind Damon Hill despite being faster at the time.
This would also anger Michael Schumacher, so overall it was not a great day for him. This race had significantly helped Hakkinen’s championship, as with Hakkinen early crash, Schumacher had a chance to score 10 more points than his main championship rival.
Had Michael Schumacher won this race, he would have overtaken Mika Hakkinen for the lead by three points. Instead, he left Belgium seven points behind Mika Hakkinen, the same as it was when the F1 circus arrived.
This race was the most dramatic of the 1998 season with a shock result, and as it turned out it was the key turning point of the 1998 season.
Quote from Damon Hill after the race:
“I feel great. I said I wanted to give Jordan its first Grand Prix win and it is fantastic to have achieved that. We were strong all weekend here and knew we were in with a chance of winning. To finish first and second shows just how competitive we were.
"I think this is a greatly deserved victory. I went for a lower downforce set-up at the restart, but that worked against me and Michael Schumacher was able to get past because my car was aquaplaning on certain parts of the circuit. The conditions were very difficult (I touched a Prost at one point). It was raining very hard in some places, and there were lots of incidents.
"I am going to have a party tonight to celebrate this. This result is due to some incredibly hard work by everyone at Jordan, at Mugen-Honda and Goodyear. Now we have achieved it; let’s go on to even greater things!”
In the 2000 Belgium GP, Mika Hakkinen was mega fast in qualifying and took pole position by over 0.7 seconds. Jenson Button surprised with third position on the grid.
The race started in wet conditions (which would soon turn dry) and amidst fear there could be a similar accident to the one seen in 1998, the drivers chose to start the race behind the safety car.
Hakkinen was clear into the first corner and, as it was a rolling start, there wasn’t much to report on the first lap.
Next, Button tried to overtake Jarno Trulli, but this move didn’t work and they touched, putting Trulli out of the race. Soon after this, Button had to concede a position to Michael Schumacher, who was following this battle closely.
Mika Hakkinen was looking strong in the lead and there probably wasn’t much Schumacher was going to be able to do about Mika.
However, Hakkinen got caught out by some dampness on the kerbs and was forced into a wild spin. He was lucky not to hit any walls and was able to continue.
However, he lost the lead to Schumacher and had over three seconds to make up.
Hakkinen lowered that gap very quickly and was soon in Schumacher’s slipstream. He had one go at him into Les Combes, but Schumacher defended very aggressively and Hakkinen nearly ran out of track.
However, the next attempt would bring one of the best overtakes in F1 history.
Hakkinen got a good slipstream from Schumacher again and Schumacher was forced to have to defend very early on in the straight after Eau Rouge.
Both men came up to lap Riccardo Zonta.
Schumacher went to the left of Zonta and Hakkinen to the right. Hakkinen got a bigger slipstream thanks to the presence of Zonta, and he had the inside line, and simply hung Michael out to dry and gave Michael no way back. It was a brilliant overtaking move, wonderfully executed.
After this win, Mika Hakkinen took a six-point lead in the 2000 championship.
Quote from Hakkinen after the race:
“This was an enjoyable race, and I'm really happy to leave Belgium with 10 points. I lost the lead to Schumacher when I spun at Stavelot. I don't really know what happened but the curbs were very slippery. The rear end just snapped away but I managed to keep the engine going.
"After my second pit stop, I was closing on Schumacher and tried to get past him at the end of the straight but that didn't work. However, I was much quicker coming out of La Source. I would probably have been close enough coming up the hill to overtake him anyway, but because of the back-marker I got an additional tow and was able to go past and pull away.”
What to Expect at This Weekend’s Belgium GP
This weekend is extremely important for Kimi Raikkonen’s championship chances.
After struggling at the last few rounds, he is seven points behind teammate Felipe Massa with six rounds to go. He simply has to get a great result this weekend; otherwise, he will be left to play second fiddle and help Felipe Massa win the title.
Will Kimi Raikkonen respond to the hurry-up call and raise his game to stay in the championship? I think we may well see an improvement from Kimi, as Spa is Kimi’s favourite track on the F1 calendar. He has won last three F1 races at the circuit and has been unstoppable around these parts.
However, Raikkonen’s main problem is getting the speed over a single lap.
He simply has to get onto the front row to win the race. When you start further back, as Raikkonen has been doing recently, it’s very hard to fight forward due to the time you lose stuck behind another car in its turbulent air.
This has been the story for Raikkonen in this part of the season.
Massa won’t be easy to beat. His pace and form has improved this season, and he is getting stronger. Massa has better one-lap pace than Raikkonen, and if he can start at the front and settle into a rhythm, he is an unstoppable force at the moment. Raikkonen has to make sure he prevents Massa from getting into a rhythm.
Ferrari completely dominated this race last season, as their car was far superior to McLaren’s in fast corners. This has led most pundits to think the same this season; however, I don’t think Ferrari will have their own way here.
McLaren have closed right in on Ferrari on the fast circuits. We saw this very evidently all the way back in Turkey, where Lewis Hamilton battled with Massa despite being on an inferior strategy.
The McLaren was also very quick in Silverstone, another of Formula 1’s very fast circuits. At the moment, there isn't much to separate McLaren and Ferrari at all.
However, Ferrari does have one trump card up their sleeve, which is that they can look after their tyres better in the hot conditions. We saw this clearly in Hungary, where the baking hot summer sunshine gave Ferrari the edge over the long race stints. The last race at Valencia also proved that theory correct.
As we don’t ever get hot weekends in Spa and another cool one with rain is predicted, Ferrari won’t be able to use this trump card. Overall I think McLaren will have the edge this weekend.
With rain predicted this weekend, this will also suit McLaren better than Ferrari. The McLaren works better in the wet than the Ferrari. In recent crazy races where Safety cars and rain have given the pit wall critical decisions to make, Ferrari have been getting it wrong.
McLaren, on the other hand, have made some shrewd decisions this season. Since the beginning of 2006, Ferrari have only won two out of the seven rain-affected races (China 06 and China 07). McLaren have won four (Nurburgring 2007, Japan 2007, Monaco 2008 and Britain 2008).
Out of the contending drivers, I rate Lewis Hamilton as by far the best wet—weather driver at the moment.
In fact, the championship leader may well be doing a rain dance, as he has won three out of five of the rain-affected races he has taken part in so far in his career. He has won both this season’s wet races in dominant fashion. His style of driving really suits the wet and slippery conditions.
So as for my predictions this weekend, the forecast does look quite bleak, so rain will certainly strike at some point and it will be very cool all weekend. I reckon we will definitely see more from Kimi Raikkonen this weekend, as he responded instantly to a hurry-up from Ferrari before last season’s French GP.
After this hurry-up, he won the French GP and The British GP and took pole for the European GP but suffered reliability problems. He is very good at Spa and there is no way he will want to be forced to help his teammate win the title.
So I reckon he will work and drive out of his skin this weekend and prove some of his critics wrong. Those critics are everywhere, all the way from the fans and people throughout the paddock to those at the top of F1, including Bernie Ecclestone.
I don’t think it would be inaccurate to call this the most important race weekend of his career. If it doesn’t happen for him this weekend, then it won’t at all for the rest of the season.
Behind the front battle, I very much doubt there will be any challengers to Ferrari and McLaren unless it rains. A lot of the midfield teams are now focusing more on the 2009 season and making sure they adapt to the rules the best they can.
Robert Kubica will probably feature well in qualifying, as even in an inferior car he is brilliant at extracting a wonderful single lap. He's one of those drivers that Kimi Raikkonen simply has to qualify ahead of.
Toyota will want to hold onto their fourth position, and they should fare pretty well here, as their car has very good downforce levels. Red Bull and Renault will be looking for an improvement on previous form. Red Bull really struggled in Valencia and were outclassed by their sister team Toro Rosso.
The drivers both blamed the lack of engine power from their Renault engine as being one of the main reasons why they struggled so badly in Valencia. Spa is also a quick circuit, so if their theory is correct it’s going to be another tough weekend for Red Bull.
Overall, I think Red Bull and Renault’s best chance of breaking Toyota’s stranglehold on fourth place this weekend is if it rains, and Red Bull and Renault can get some big points with Toyota struggling.
Toyota’s wet weather record is far from exemplary, so this would certainly represent an opportunity for Red Bull and Renault to close the gap in the championship.
In conclusion, I think it will be a straight fight between Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton this weekend. If it is dry, I think Raikkonen will just edge it in the race, but if it’s wet, the McLaren team will end up out front.
However, Raikkonen is stronger than Massa in the wet so even if he struggles to beat McLaren in these conditions, he should at least gain points on Massa.
So my final prediction is that we will see rain appear at some point and the result will be as follows:
- Hamilton 2. Raikkonen 3. Alonso
However, at Spa absolutely anything has been known to happen and predictions to be totally ripped to shreds after the race.
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