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Spa speed splashes spills and spunk – F1

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PHUKET: Well, F1 is back after the mid-season break. Before Hungary I asked if Lewis Hamilton could continue the trend of British global sporting dominance to win in Hungary. He could. I said Red Bull was looking very powerful, but Sebastian Vettel was not my favourite to win Hungary. As I predicted, Mercedes out-qualified him and Lotus outperformed him. But he still pulled further ahead in the Drivers’ Championship.

What now? There has been a month’s break which gave all teams a grand opportunity to prepare upgrades. And we must hope that there have been some breakthroughs to spice-up a season dominated by Red Bull. All teams have been predictably tight-lipped on that subject, so we have no clues.

As the Driver Progression Chart on this page shows, Vettel has dominated and how Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton have just scrapped amongst themselves for second place. Alonso and Hamilton were the most consistent, while the Iceman sometimes struggled – particularly on cool tracks.

Extrapolating the Driver Progression Chart, the season is doomed to a dreary Vettel supremacy, while the next three drivers could finish in any order. We could be back in the dreadful predictable Schumacher era when fans left in their droves.

But it does not have to be. Mercedes looks as if it may have learned how to manage tyres; Lotus may have developed ways to drive in cold weather; and Ferrari may have managed those upgrades it missed.

Mark Webber has outperformed the other “second drivers”. Nico Rosberg has had flashes of greatness, but Felipe Massa has been disappointing throughout, and Romain Grosjean has been erratic. That is why the Red Bull phenomenon is even more obvious looking at the Constructors Progression Chart on this page.

The next two GPs are amongst the greatest races of the season. Spa this weekend and Monza (6-8 September) are fast tracks that demand extreme courage as well as great speed. I have written before about the track in some detail so I won’t repeat it here. Spa should favour the Red Bull cars, particularly with easy going tyres. But the entire breakaway group is drivers with those characteristics. Spa is expecting rain and that could reward the followers more than Vettel. Mercedes is likely to qualify on pole, but Red Bull may well tuck-in near the top of the order. I suspect Lotus will struggle to qualify well, but both drivers could finish well if the team allows them to do so. Ferrari has a problem – Alonso might be in contention, but on form, Massa is going to finish near the bottom of the points, if he finishes at all.

But such predictions all assume that nothing has happened since July and that is a bad assumption. Red Bull may have pulled further ahead, or others may have closed the gap.

The Hungaroring is a hot twisty low-speed track with a dirty surface and very few overtaking opportunities. Spa is the exact opposite, an exciting cold high speed circuit; one of the most challenging in the world, with long flowing curves, twisty chicanes and hairpins, steep gradients, an average speed of 230 kilometers per hour and, at 7 km, the longest lap of the year.

Pirelli has selected the medium and hard compounds. The tyres will be very stressed by high-energy loads vertically with the big compressions such as Eau Rouge and laterally at fast corners like Blanchimont. Tyre strategy will be important, because parts of the circuit will be much wetter than others. I have a feeling that the intermediate tyres will be best. There could be significant differences in tyre degradation between strategies and overtaking opportunities are many.

Set-up is critical because the high-speed corners demand down force, but the cars need to lose the drag on the long straights, especially through Eau Rouge, and coming into the start and finish line. Looking after the tyres is very important, particularly as it’s such a long lap.

There are always accidents at Spa, and the safety car could work against Red Bull in favour of Lotus Ferrari and Mercedes. I am looking forward to it enormously!

The race is on Sunday at 7 pm and qualifying is on Saturday at the same time. Join The Digby at The Green Man to watch it on the Big Screen, where we are hoping for a “Big Surprise” (click here for map).

— The Digby

 

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