After the humdrum that was provided by both the Hungaroring and Valencia in recent weeks, the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship moves onto what promises to be a race of rather more epic proportions this weekend - the Belgian Grand Prix around the spectacular Spa-Francorchamps circuit, a venue steeped in F1 history and tradition.

On 42 of the 54 occasions that Belgium has welcomed the top flight since the official inception of the world championship all the way back in 1950, Spa has been the venue, and its long, sweeping straights and tight, demanding corners combined with the rush of racing through the depths of the Ardennes forest in all weather conditions make it a firm favourite amongst most - if not all - of the sport's drivers.

Arriving at Spa - the 13th round of the 18-meeting schedule this year - Lewis Hamilton may have a six-point advantage in the title chase, but all the signs are pointing to Ferrari holding the aces this time around, with Felipe Massa incontrovertibly the man in-form as the campaign races towards what looks set to be a nail-biting conclusion, and Kimi Raikkonen remaining unbeaten in the race since 2002.

Whilst the defending world champion has slipped some 13 points adrift of Hamilton in the drivers' standings following a lacklustre mid-season run, many are expecting the Finn to fight back at Spa, a favourite stomping ground of the 28-year-old's and a track where in five races he has an average score of six points - and that with two failures to finish amongst them.

Massa, meanwhile, shadowed his team-mate all the way to the chequered flag this time last year in Belgium, and also finished fourth for Sauber-Petronas back in 2004. Given the almost effortless manner in which he has recently outpaced Raikkonen in both qualifying and the races, and his determination to overhaul Hamilton's championship lead, only a fool would write the Brazilian out of the equation for victory this weekend either as he seeks to establish himself as Maranello's de facto number one.

Hamilton, for his part, came home third in his only Belgian Grand Prix to-date in 2007, as McLaren-Mercedes suffered an 'off' weekend in the wake of the spy scandal that rocked the Woking-based outfit last summer.

Spa is, however, a circuit he very much likes, and the 23-year-old Briton is confident that the harder-compound tyres set to be brought into play for the meeting will hand the initiative back to the Silver Arrows, following a brace of outings in which he and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen - who can probably be counted upon to assume a supporting role as the title showdown closes in - have struggled to match the pace of the scarlet machines...or at least that of Massa.

Behind the two 'grandee' teams, it will be interesting to see whether Robert Kubica's fine form in 2008 allows the Pole to transcend the capabilities of his BMW-Sauber F1.08 around what is widely deemed to be the greatest drivers' circuit of them all. The Munich and Hinwil-based outfit's progress has stalled somewhat over the summer months in comparison to that of its rivals, but at least the nature of the circuit should permit Nick Heidfeld - surely one of F1's best overtakers - to make his way up the order if the German falls early in qualifying again.

A little further back still, Toyota and Renault seem to have edged clear both in terms of points and performance in the fraught tussle over the hotly-coveted fourth spot in the constructors' standings, with the Japanese concern focussed strongly on maintaining the upper hand and its French rival determined to wrest it away.

Spa is a track that should play to the strengths of all four drivers - Jarno Trulli, Fernando Alonso, Timo Glock and Nelsinho Piquet - so it will be fascinating to see who emerges ahead. Experienced hands Alonso and Trulli in particular have reason to aim high this weekend, with the former having never triumphed there and the latter suffering all manner of ill-fortune that has seen him register but a single point from nine previous appearances.

With Williams' late-season renaissance - kick-started by Nico Rosberg's return to form in Valencia a fortnight ago, the young German qualifying inside the top ten for only the fifth time this year and going on to score his first point in seven races around the harbour-side streets of Spain's third city - Red Bull Racing must see itself under some pressure to retain its sixth position in the constructors' title chase, let alone aim any higher.

The energy drinks-backed, Milton Keynes-based squad has now not got amongst the scorers since the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours back in June, and indeed in Valencia endured its worst double qualifying performance of the season, with neither Mark Webber nor David Coulthard making the top ten on the starting grid and left bemoaning a lack of grunt from the Renault engine in the back of the RB4.

That, indeed, allowed the Ferrari-powered Scuderia Toro Rosso cars of Red Bull-bound Sebastian Vettel and the under-pressure S?bastien Bourdais to leapfrog both RBRs in the pecking order - an embarrassing situation for the parent company and one that may prove more difficult to rectify than hoped, with Vettel in fine form and Bourdais finally beginning to come good in the top flight.

Honda, also, seem to be making steady progress, though whether those advances will prove enough to enable Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello - experienced hands both, and both former podium finishers at Spa too - to make the top ten on either Saturday or Sunday remains to be seen. Given a drop of precipitation, however - never to be ruled out in the notoriously unpredictable Ardennes region - the Brackley-based concern must fancy its chances more than usual this weekend.

Force India, finally, appeared to narrow the gap to its nearest competitors around the winding streets of Valencia, but there are fears the nature of Spa - at just over 7km, the longest circuit on the current F1 calendar - may highlight the weaknesses of the VJM01, Giancarlo Fisichella's impressive record at the track notwithstanding. Should it rain, though - and in Spa it frequently does - just about anything could happen.

by Russell Atkins