The Belgian Grand Prix Preview (21-23 August 2015)

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So the mid-season break has passed and we’re back in the thick of things at the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. The longest track on the calendar is one of only four surviving circuits to have featured in the inaugural 1950 season alongside Monza, Silverstone and Monaco. Lewis Hamilton will be hoping to stretch his lead at the top of the championship this weekend, but Nico Rosberg will be chasing him all the way, having never won in Spa. Here’s our Belgian Grand Prix Preview, packed full of all the stats, form and predictions.

Highlights from Hungary

Usually we give you a few key headlines and elaborate further on them, but the Hungarian Grand Prix was so long ago now and so full of incident that we wanted to give you a comprehensive team-by-team breakdown for a change.

Ferrari (Vettel: #1, Raikkonen: DNF): While Sebastian Vettel took a surprise victory in Hungary, Kimi Raikonnen’s bad luck continued after he was forced to retire from second place with a hybrid system failure. Vettel’s first ever victory in Hungary was the 41st of his illustrious career and put him level with Ayrton Senna, joint third in the all-time list (behind Prost on 51 and Schumacher on 91). The 25 points he gained from winning the race not only meant he closed the gap on Nico Rosberg to 21 points, but in the process became the highest point’s scorer in the history of the sport, overtaking Fernando Alonso.

Red Bull (Kvyat: #2, Ricciardo: #3): Red Bull had their best weekend of the 2015 season by a long way, securing 33 points and two podium positions. Daniil Kvyat managed his best ever race finish in F1 and first ever podium. His second place was also the highest finish for a Russian driver in the history of Formula 1. Daniel Ricciardo would have been elated if you’d offered him third at the start of the race, but in the end would have been disappointed with the result. It looked like the Australian could have grabbed consecutive wins at the Hungaroring with four laps to go, but as he overtook Nico Rosberg into second place, the German damaged his front wing. His charge was halted as he was forced to pit, denying him the chance to hunt down ex-team mate Sebastian Vettel.

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Toro Rosso (Verstappen: #4, Sainz Jr: #DNF): Max Verstappen came home fourth, which was the 17 year old’s best result in his short career. It appears inevitable that the young Dutchman will get his first podium and race win in the not so distant future. The best point’s haul that the Toro Rosso team had previously managed this year was in Malaysia, where 7th and 8th place from their drivers secured them 10 points- Verstappen’s 12 points in Hungary beat that single handed. In contrast, Carlos Sainz Jnr suffered his third retirement in a row and is now firmly on the back foot in the inter-team battle.

McLaren (Alonso: #5, Button: #9): What a turnaround for the Woking based constructor! Both drivers managed to keep their heads down, have a consistent day and basically stay out of trouble whilst absolute pandemonium broke out around them. Fernando Alonso managed his and McLaren’s best finish of the season by getting fifth place, and JB’s ninth place gave the team a total of 12 points from Hungary- their best return of the season by a long way.

Mercedes (Hamilton: #6, Rosberg: #8): A weekend to forget for the Champions elect. Lewis Hamilton said on Saturday that his pole was the most dominant of his career, but as pundits and fans alike crowned Lewis the winner before the race began, you got the feeling that the sport was going to throw up a curveball and make everyone look silly. Hungary ended up being the first time since the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix that any of the factory Mercedes cars failed to finish on the podium and the sixth and eighth places of Hamilton and Rosberg respectively were their worst finishes of the year. Despite his error ridden drive and poor get away, Hamilton somehow managed to extend his championship lead by 4 points after Rosberg’s late puncture.

Lotus (Grosjean: #7, Maldonado: #14): Romain Grosjean continued his solid 2015 season with another strong point’s finish, grabbing six more in Hungary for coming seventh, whilst Pastor Maldonado (pictured below) tried to break the record for the most amount of steward’s enquiries in one race. The hapless Venezuelan managed three penalties in the end for speeding in the pit lane, speeding behind the safety car and for an incident with Sergio Perez on Lap 19, and unsurprisingly finished outside of the points in the end.

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Sauber (Ericsson: #10, Nasr: #11): Marcus Ericsson managed to grab the last point in Hungary, whilst his team mate Felipe Nasr came 11th and missed out just 4 seconds down the road. The Sauber’s profited from the high profile retirements ahead of them, but have been very disappointing since Melbourne and regularly languish at the back, sitting above only pointless Manor and a resurgent McLaren.

Williams (Massa: #12, #Bottas: #13): If Mercedes thought they had a race to forget, then it was nothing on Williams’s weekend. The pair came 12th and 13th respectively, collecting 0 points and losing huge ground on closest rivals Ferrari. It was hoped that their form was on the up after Britain, but they really came down with a bump in Hungary. Massa’s race was ruined by missing his marks on the grid and getting a five second stop and go penalty, whereas Bottas suffered a puncture after the restart and could not climb back through the field.

Manor (Merhi: #15, Stevens: DNF): Manor spent the whole weekend at the back of the grid as usual, with Roberto Merhi finishing 15th and Will Stevens retiring four laps before the end. Was a very tough weekend for the team who had to say goodbye to Jules Bianchi earlier on in the week.

Force India (Hulkenberg: DNF, Perez: DNF): Force India’s main contribution to Hungary was the excitement caused by Nico Hulkenberg’s total front wing failure. Consequently he suffered a pretty heavy crash which he thankfully walked away from, but it was the resulting safety car that gave the race its late drama. Both Force India cars failed to last the race distance and the team would have been thoroughly disappointed at their showing in Hungary.

The Belgian Grand Prix

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An outline of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps including named corners, by Will Pittenger via Wikimedia Commons.

Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium is steeped in history and is simply one of the greatest tracks that Formula 1 has ever seen. It hosted its first non-Championship race all the way back in 1924 and the narrow street circuit was both extremely fast and incredibly long, measuring a phenomenal 14.9km in its original format. Spa’s ‘old circuit’ was still 14km long when it staged its final Grand Prix in 1970, but when it was reintroduced in 1983, it had been markedly reduced. Its current layout still uses much of the original track and still lays claim to being the longest circuit on the calendar at just over 7km in length.

Of the current drivers, Kimi Raikonnen has been by far the most successful here, winning four times between 2004 and 2009. Last year he came fourth which was the first time he had finished around this track and not made it onto the podium, but it was his best result of the season. Although it has been six years since his last victory, who would bet against the Finn adding to his tally, fresh off the back of signing a new contract for 2016 with Ferrari?

Well, two times winner around Spa and Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel might have something to say about that after winning the last race, whilst Felipe Massa (2008), Lewis Hamilton (2010), Jenson Button (2012) and Daniel Ricciardo (2014) each have one victory at the classic venue to their name so far.

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Lewis Hamilton’s form in qualifying this year has been breath-taking but will sitting on pole actually be an advantage this weekend? Well Spa has a history of crowning winners who didn’t start from pole position- Michael Schumacher, for example, is the most decorated man around this track with six victories, five of which he didn’t start from the front. Jim Clark won around here four times, none of which were from pole and in the last eight races, only two men have converted their pole position into a win. Neither time Lewis has started the race in P1, has he finished in that position, so maybe qualifying won’t be as important this weekend.

Predictions

After everything that happened in Hungary, it was probably a good thing we had a break and Nico Rosberg must have been doing a lot of reflecting on what could have been in these weeks we’ve had off. He’s looked the fastest so far in the practice sessions in Spa, so we think it’s a good bet he’ll grab pole position on Saturday.

However, based on the historical evidence we’ve seen, we’re not going to say he’s going to go on and win it. Lewis Hamilton, will of course be wanting to make up for his mistakes in the previous race, but with the new start procedures coming into effect in Spa, will the Mercedes boys get dropped at the start again? Look out for Sebastian Vettel sniffing a fifth world championship title that looked so unlikely at the start of the year- can he close the gap on the leaders even further?

Perhaps, but we think the Flying Finn is going to be victorious come Sunday afternoon. He might not have form this season, but Kimi Raikonnen’s just secured his future at Scuderia Ferrari for another year and he absolutely loves this track- watch this space!

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Two drivers that will not be fighting for victory are Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. McLaren have changed their engines to have an upgraded Honda power unit and turbochargers, meaning a combined 55-place grid penalty for the race. The resulting, multiple grid penalties – a 30-place drop in total for Alonso, and 25 for Button – mean that they are certain to fall to the back of the grid. It also means Alonso and Button are now on to their seventh engine of the season, two more than the regulations permit for new engine manufacturers.

Other drivers to be penalised are the impressive Romain Grosjean, who is set to lose five places for a gearbox change (his previous box having not completed the required six-race cycle), while the promising Max Verstappen is expected to drop ten places for an engine change. It’s unlikely then that either of these guys will trouble the scorers too much on Sunday, so expect the Red Bull heroes of Hungary to feature prominently again and a return to form from the Williams duo.

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