If the Valencia Street Circuit last weekend suited Brawn GP down to the ground with its tight, twisty nature and baking temperatures, then the cooler climes and fast, flowing nature of Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix this weekend is very much Red Bull Racing territory – meaning it is absolutely game on for the 2009 F1 World Championship drivers' crown.
Spa is widely rated amongst drivers, teams and fans alike as the best circuit on the F1 calendar – with competitors waxing lyrical about Eau Rouge, arguably the most daunting and fearsome corner the world over. On paper, Red Bull duo Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel should be in their element in the Adrian Newey-penned RB5, which has flown at other low-downforce tracks over the course of the campaign so far. Assuming the car is indeed the dominant force in the Ardennes, whichever of the two drivers gets the upper hand – and how they sit respectively in the title chase are at the end of the weekend – could be pivotal to the Milton Keynes-based squads approach to the final five grands prix, when surely one of the pair will have to support the other in the pursuit of Brawn GP's long-time championship leader Jenson Button.
The Englishman, indeed, would likely settle for a podium in Belgium – having not been near the top three since the Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul all the way back in early June. Unless Brawn has succeeded in making a genuine step forward in terms of warming up its tyres over the summer hiatus, the Mercedes-powered BGP 001 challenger looks set to struggle this weekend, meaning Button will do well to stave off the likes of Ferrari, Williams and Renault. The 29-year-old will also assuredly come under considerable threat from reborn team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who has vaulted himself firmly back into contention for the end-of-season honours courtesy of his superb European Grand Prix triumph four days ago – when Button could finish only seventh. Should the Brazilian prove to be faster again in Spa, questions really will need to be asked.
Amongst the other contenders for the podium and – on a good day, perhaps – the top step are Ferrari, though the Scuderia could find itself racing with one hand tied behind its back once more unless Luca Badoer proves capable of taking a quantum leap forward from his Spanish form, when the Italian returnee languished some way off the pace throughout practice and qualifying, if improving his lap times to a more respectable if still not particularly quick standard on race day. Happily for the Maranello-based outfit, 2007 F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen in the sister scarlet machine seems to have received something of a wake-up call as it has dawned upon him that he will need to impress if he is to secure alternative employment in the top flight in 2010, seeing that a Fernando Alonso/Felipe Massa combo is all-but officialised. The Finn has achieved podium finishes for the past two races in a row and a similar result at Spa – where he has triumphed more times than any other current driver, and where last year he looked set to make it a fourth success before duelling energetically and entertainingly with McLaren-Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and going on to crash out with less than a handful of laps to go – would complete the hat-trick.
Renault's form is harder to predict, but Alonso is one of a handful of drivers on the grid who can really make a difference and transcend the limits of his car at a place like Spa, whilst rookie team-mate Romain Grosjean will be keen to build upon the promising start he made in Valencia. At Williams, Nico Rosberg will be keen to demonstrate his mettle around a true drivers' circuit – with many in the paddock rating the young German as the driver of the season so far, with seven consecutive points-scoring finishes and nine from eleven starts. Such a strong vein of from has earned the son of 1982 F1 World Champion 25.5 points – comfortably a career best – and to put things into perspective somewhat, team-mate Kazuki Nakajima has tallied precisely none. Whilst the Japanese ace is clearly no slouch, his qualifying efforts still appear to be one step ahead of his race day performances – meaning if the rumours about Williams seeking a way out of its Toyota engine contract prove to be true, it could be sayonara Kazuki come Abu Dhabi in two months' time.
McLaren's form, like Renault's, is difficult to assess, but the MP4-24 is not expected to fare as well at Spa as it did around the tighter, high-downforce Hungaroring and Valencia circuits, where Hamilton finished respectively first and second. A points-scoring position for the reigning world champion is perhaps more realistic this weekend, and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen knows he will need to match or at least stay close to the Briton if he is not to be shown the door at season's end, with Rosberg reportedly waiting impatiently on the other side.
Toyota – so frustratingly inconsistent in 2009 – should perform better in Belgium than was the case in Budapest and Valencia, but even team members admit it is impossible to know just where in the field the TF109 will shake out when the timing clock starts ticking. Abject for most of the weekend in Spain, the big-budget Japanese manufacturer's challenger ended up posting the fastest lap of the grand prix in the hands of Timo Glock, and nobody could really explain why. Both the German and team-mate Jarno Trulli – something of a Spa specialist – have the pace; the only question is, does the car?
Force India remains in search of its first points of the campaign, and whilst the Mercedes-powered VJM01 has clearly taken a number of steps forward in recent months, still Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil might require a few drops of Ardennes precipitation in order to break that duck. BMW notched up its first point in four races courtesy of Robert Kubica in Valencia, but the year had long since turned into a lost cause for the departing and disillusioned Bavarian manufacturer. Scuderia Toro Rosso, meanwhile, remain facing an uphill battle with two inexperienced drivers in Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari, a car whose potential no-one seems able to unlock and little obvious direction within the team. Whilst Red Bull look set to lead from the front in Spa, its 'junior' outfit, you can't help but fear, may finds itself at the wrong end of the pecking order once again...
Crash.net's Tip for the Top: Mark Webber
Crash.net's One to Watch: Kimi Raikkonen