Spa. The name elicits associations, images and memories to evoke a misty-eyed reminiscence in any motorsport fan, and its sacrosanct position as the racing jewel in the F1 crown is unquestionable.
The challenge may have been diluted over the years, the sharp edges filed down to something more sanitised and palatable by 21st century standards, but Spa remains a throwback, a proper racing circuit for proper racers – adored by drivers and fans alike as a preserved reminder of the giddy thrill of motorsport.
One of the many defining traits of Spa is that it has always been a circuit that has allowed drivers to race, providing multiple overtaking opportunities through its wide curves and undulations – particularly through the iconic first sector.
Although the run from La Source to Les Combes owes its geography to nature, it's a perfect storm of overtaking opportunity: a daredevil launch into the huge flat-out vertical lift through Eau Rouge that increases the weight of a leading car, allowing rivals to follow closely through the corner and benefit from huge closing speeds over the blind crest of Radillon and onto the long Kemmel straight. It's the best passing spot on the calendar, and it's here we begin our look back at six of the best recent overtakes at Spa.
Mika Häkkinen on Michael Schumacher – Les Combes – 2000
Like great goals in football, the greatest overtakes are stand-alone collocations of circumstance; testaments to bravery, skill, and, frequently, opportunism. Context is key too – the weight of a move increased by its importance, the risk that much greater when fighting for the lead or in the heat of a championship battle when drivers have so much to lose. This classic pass combined all of these elements, at the culmination of one of the many races that year where Schumacher and Häkkinen, then equals as double world champions, were in a class of their own. Desperately trying to avenge an earlier spin, Häkkinen hauled in Schumacher's lead over a 10-lap charge before finding himself in the Ferrari's slipstream at the top of Radillon on lap 40. Attempting to claim the inside line to outbrake Schumacher into Les Combes, Häkkinen was firmly rebuffed, pushed onto the still damp extremities of the Kemmel straight. With a pre-DRS speed differential that brought the two rivals together perfectly in the braking zone, Häkkinen knew his chances of conventionally outwitting or forcing his way past his rival were slim. Opportunity knocked on the very next lap though, in the shape of backmarker Riccardo Zonta's BAR. As Häkkinen again caught the Ferrari tow down Kemmel, the Brazilian, about to be lapped, dutifully backed off the racing line into the middle of the straight. As the Ferrari and McLaren caught the BAR, Schumacher stayed on the racing line, Häkkinen flicked instinctively right to take the long way round Zonta, arriving into the braking zone at Les Combes on the inside – surprising Schumacher and forcefully claiming the corner, before romping home to victory and a seemingly unassailable championship lead. It remains a pass so revered that it deserved to define the era of Häkkinen and Schumacher, but the German put paid to such romantic notions by winning the final four races of the season to secure his first title in five years. Instead, the pass at Spa is remembered as Mika's last stand, a final tribute to one of F1's great rivalries and a fitting reminder of the fearlessness and skill for which Häkkinen is so vividly remembered.
Mark Webber on Fernando Alonso – Eau Rouge – 2011
Eau Rouge has a mystique as F1's most dangerous corner, and the accidents of Villeneuve, Zonta and Zanardi, among many others, stand as a testament to the consequences of pushing the limits at the lightning fast downhill-uphill left-right-left sequence. It's daunting enough for a driver when faced alone, but plunging into Eau Rouge two abreast is downright dangerous, and it takes two to tango with plenty of mutual respect if both drivers are to emerge unscathed on the other side. Mark Webber's opportunistic lap 9 pounce on Fernando Alonso as the Spaniard left the pits as reliant on the Australian's daredevil spirit as it was on Alonso's fair defence – leaving Webber just enough room to squeeze through on the inside kerb of the left hand entry before sweeping around the outside of the racing line up the hill, forcing Alonso to lift offline and cede the position. This was a pass made all the greater by the fact that the two arrived at the entry to the first part of the corner absolutely together, and in those milliseconds as the cars flashed left before adjusting their trajectory for ascent, both drivers knew that one had to lift if both were to crest the rise at Radillon. For once, it was Alonso who backed down. Webber had earned the racing world's eternal respect by passing its most uncompromising customer around the outside of its mightiest corner.
Lewis Hamilton on Kimi Räikkönen – Bus Stop/La Source – 2008
The overtake at the heart of one of the contentious on-track incidents of recent times. Hamilton, hauling in Spa specialist Räikkönen for the lead three laps from home on slicks on a rapidly dampening track, launched out of the Finn's slipstream into the Bus Stop, only to run out of room as the Ferrari squeezed the McLaren to the outside of the track. With nowhere else to go, Hamilton cut across the escape road, before backing off over the start-finish line just enough to let Räikkönen re-take the place. The position returned, Hamilton duly twitched out from behind the Ferrari's gearbox and catapulted up the inside into La Source, parking on the apex and collecting a nudge as he put paid to Räikkönen's attempted switchback out of the turn. A wonderful piece of driving initiative and daring on a damp tracked deserved so much more than a 25 second penalty and relegation to third place – the stewards deeming that Hamilton had gained an advantage despite giving the place back immediately. Niki Lauda called it 'the worst judgment in the history of F1', and although that may have been heat-of-the-moment hyperbole, it's a shame that a great race-winning pass ultimately counted for nothing.
Kimi Räikkönen on Michael Schumacher – Eau Rouge – 2012
It may have been seconds from their wheel to wheel dice in 2004, but Kimi Räikkönen's pass on Michael Schumacher into Eau Rouge in 2012 was the more spectacular of the two. Schumacher, running an ultra-low downforce set-up, was heading a train of cars including Räikkönen, Nico Hulkenberg and Mark Webber, none of whom could touch the Mercedes on the long flat-out approaches to Les Combes or the Bus Stop. A lock-up from the seven-time champion into La Source on lap 27 gave Räikkönen a chance to get a run into Eau Rouge, and the Finn pounced – unloading his KERS and slipstreaming Schumacher on the run downhill from the hairpin before courageously flicking to the left at 185 mph and taking a chunk of inside kerb before cutting back onto the racing line for the climb up the hill, forcing Schumacher to back off over the crest through Radillion and into the clutches of Hulkenberg's Force India. Given Schumacher's reputation for uncompromising defence, Räikkönen's move took no small amount of faith as well as immense courage.
Kimi Räikkönen on Giancarlo Fisichella – Kemmel Straight – 2009
Winless in 25 races, and struggling for form and motivation with the KERS-addled Ferrari F60, Kimi Räikkönen woke from a year-long slumber at Spa in 2009. His race-winning pass on Giancarlo Fisichella's Force India was opportunism at its finest, seizing his chance against the Italian at the restart following an early safety car. From 6th on the grid, Kimi worked his way up to 2nd with a lightning start, and remained poised behind the surprise pole-sitter Fisichella as the field toured behind the safety car. With the Force India quicker than the KERS-laden Ferrari across the whole lap, Räikkonen knew that the restart was his only chance to use his KERS to get within range of Fisichella and make the pass. Accordingly, he positioned himself on the gearbox of the Force India as the safety car retreated, and following a speculative look into La Source, ran up through Eau Rouge in Fisichella's slipstream, before gunning his KERS through Radillon and blasting past for a lead that would never be relinquished – Fisichella spending the entire race chasing within a second or two of Räikkönen, but never able to mount a straight-line challenge.
Jenson Button on Vitaly Petrov and Sergio Perez – La Source – 2011
After qualifying a lowly 13th at Spa, Jenson Button's road to recovery and an ultimate third place owed a lot to a stunning midfield double pass. With the pack closed up by the safety car, Button took the opportunity to scythe his way through the lower-order of the points scorers – taking a two-for-one special on Petrov and Perez into La Source on lap 18. Dicing side-by-side with the Renault through the Bus Stop chicane, Button gained better traction out of the last corner, inching ahead of the Petrov along the start finish straight as both homed in on the back of Perez's Sauber. Some overly defensive early braking on the inside from the Mexican forced Petrov to abandon his planned defence, and as both the Sauber and the Renault struggled for traction offline, Button swooped around the outside, gaining tremendous drive out of La Source and heading the pair into Eau Rouge.
by Will Saunders