After four long weeks, F1 is back in business this weekend as the teams head to one of the most iconic circuits on the calendar: Spa-Francorchamps. The mid-season break came off the back of one of the most exciting races of the year, with Daniel Ricciardo edging out Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton to take his second win of 2014 in Hungary, but the title battle remains between Hamilton and championship leader Nico Rosberg in the two Mercedes'. Hamilton beat Rosberg at the end of July despite starting from the pit lane at the Hungaroring – with his team-mate on pole – and just 11 points separate the pair at the top of the standings. Spa represents a circuit which is likely to suit Mercedes and Williams due to its high-speed nature, but the Ardennes Forest often sees wet weather and this weekend looks set to be no exception.
Last year's Belgian Grand Prix was the start of a remarkable run of form from Sebastian Vettel that secured his fourth consecutive world championship and broke the challenge of his rivals. On a circuit that tended not to suit the Red Bull cars, a drying track in qualifying allowed Hamilton to take pole ahead of Vettel and Webber. While Hamilton led down in to Eau Rouge, Vettel breezed past on the Kemmel Straight and disappeared in to the distance, with Fernando Alonso working his way through the field – having started ninth – to finish second but unable to challenge Vettel. Hamilton finished third ahead of team-mate Rosberg and Mark Webber, while Kimi Raikkonen – who started the weekend as Vettel's closest title rival – retired for the first time in 27 races with brake failure caused by a loose visor tear-off getting stuck in a brake duct.
Most successful drivers at Spa-Francorchamps:
Michael Schumacher (6 wins)
Most successful team at Spa-Francorchamps:
Ferrari (12 wins)
2014 session times (All times local)
FP1: 1000 – 1130
FP2: 1400 – 1530
FP3: 1100 – 1200
Spa is an amazing circuit. You really feel like you're going somewhere here - up into the woods, around the back and then all way back down again. Heading down into Turn One, it's really important not to lock up and run wide as traction is usually pretty weak on the exit of the corner and you need good drive down onto the following straight. It's flat out down there and then on through the spectacular Eau Rouge - the corner everyone knows at Spa! Carrying good speed through the whole of this section is crucial, as a lot of time can be gained or lost.
The long straight down to Turn Five is the best overtaking opportunity around the circuit. With a low downforce configuration on the car, braking from such high speed into this corner can be really tricky. You're then straight into the second part of the chicane at Turn Six and accelerating through Turn Seven. This is another corner where good traction is required on exit before heading downhill into Turn Eight - a beautiful, long, sweeping right-handed corner. You then have to position the car quickly on the right to ensure you carry good speed through Turn Nine and can get on the power nice and early.
You need a decent lift on entry to Turn Ten, then it's straight back on the power again through Turn 11 and down a short straight into the Turn 12-13 chicane, where it's important to really hug the apex through the first part as you can quite often get understeer through the second. It's back on the brakes into Turn 14, but from there it's flat out through the kinks of Turns 15, 16 and 17. Through this section you have to keep the steering as smooth and straight as possible to avoid scrubbing off too much speed.
The final chicane of Turn 18-19 is tricky, as by this stage both your tyres and brakes have dropped a lot of temperature. It's so easy to lock up on entry and there's very little grip through this tight right-left combination, but it's important to get it right as a small mistake can put you on the back foot heading into the next lap - particularly if another car is close on your tail.
Spa often sees rain and rapidly-changing weather conditions, and this weekend looks set to be another where the wet Pirelli tyres are required. Friday practice is set to be dry but cool – with early forecasts predicting a high of 17C – and while the temperature will stay largely the same, the track conditions are unlikely to. Saturday is forecast to be wet throughout, while showers could hit the Spa-Francorchamps circuit on race day morning, with further low temperatures unlikely to dry the track at any speed.
Every race preview so far this season has featured a Mercedes driver as the tip for victory, but we're going to take a risk this weekend and not
back the championship leaders… Wet weather could make qualifying a tricky affair, and Williams has a very slippery car in terms of a low drag level which will be beneficial at Spa-Francorchamps. With Mercedes struggling with reliability issues in a number of recent races, Crash.net
is backing an underdog and tipping Valtteri Bottas to take his first F1 victory.