After a year on the sidelines, the most glorious course in Formula One returns to the calendar this weekend with the biggest facelift since it was shortened from a 14km thrash between towns.

Spa-Francorchamps rates highly among drivers of all eras, with its dips and twists through the Ardennes providing the biggest challenge of the year. Eau Rouge continues to attract mixed reviews from those that take it, but always attracts awe and recognition from those looking on, and the likes of Pouhon, Stavelot and Blanchimont still carry cache.

The track changes come at the unloved Bus Stop chicane, which is now altered to become a tight right-left S-bend onto the main start-finish straight with a faster entry from Blanchimnont. The La Source hairpin has also been moved to create a slightly longer straight, but remains essentially unaltered. Behind the scenes, a new pit and paddock area finally bring the circuit in line with more modern facilities, with brand new F1 garages being constructed and the entire paddock being revamped.

With just a week between the Italian and Belgian grands prix, there is no time for the teams to test, but all eleven equipes ran at the revamped Spa in early summer, so none will be entirely blind when the action gets underway on Friday.
FIA F1 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP NEWS

It may have only been a few days since the last grand prix, but something scandalous is rarely far from the headlines in Formula 1 and the word 'spying' has been on everyone's lips again since Fernando Alonso crossed the line at Monza.

Well, at least, the words 'spying' and 'new evidence', all of which is expected to come to light at the reconvening of the World Motor Sport Council this week to potentially put to rest the scandal that has swamped the sport for some months now.

Even so, Ferrari have already vowed to fight as long as possible until they believe they right a wrong against McLaren, ominously meaning that the announcement made on Thursday won't be the final chapter in an increasingly extraordinary story.

Indeed, much centres on the much anticipated 'new evidence' that has reportedly prompted the FIA to write to all teams and each McLaren driver. In it they urge them for information over what rumours are claiming to be a telling e-mail exchange between Fernando Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa. At the same time though, McLaren are thought to be prepared to get more teams involved in the situation as their defence. The case very much continues...

NEWS FROM THE TEAMS:
McLaren - Fernando Alonso (#1), Lewis Hamilton (#2):

It remains to be seen what frame of mind McLaren will be in when they head to Belgium on the back of the reconvening of the World Motor Sport Council, but whatever the outcome they still have a lead to protect.

McLaren's dominance in Italy is likely to be harder to repeat in Belgium where the high-speed bends will probably suit the more planted Ferrari than the supple MP4-22, ? la Silverstone and Istanbul.

Nonetheless, Monza winner Alonso is confident McLaren will be strong at his 'favourite circuit', not least because it is the track where he claimed his one and only Formula 3000 victory seven years ago and launched himself into the spotlight when he signed for Minardi soon after.

While Alonso is now going for a third straight title, the Spaniard insists there is still plenty of laps remaining over the final four races before he can be crowned champion.

"I am really excited to be going back to racing at Spa, it is my favourite track. It is very demanding and with the long lap and all the different characteristics, you need to work hard with the team to get the right balance.

"The Championship battles are really exciting, after this race we have only three left, so it is very important to have another good result here, but of course it is the same for Lewis, Kimi and Felipe, so we will have to wait and see how it goes. There are a lot of laps to be raced still, my goal is to win as many races as possible and I hope we can have an exciting end to the season for the fans."

The man Alonso is trying to chase down is team-mate Lewis Hamilton but while many rookies in his position would likely feel pressure, the Brit insists such a situation is 'extra motivation' for him as he vows to create history over the coming races and become the first person to win a championship in their maiden season.

"Spa is a track that everyone has always talked about and it is with good reason. I love the circuit, it does require a compromise with the set-up to account for the fast straights and corners whilst also ensure you can have the right amount of traction through the slower sections, and it is all about being precise.

"I raced here in 2005, race one was in the wet, race two in the dry, so I have some good experience and won race two. We tested here in July and completed some positive work with Bridgestone. Now I am just waiting to get out there and race in a Formula 1 car for the first time.

"The situation in both Championships is very close, and people keep talking about pressure, but it just provides me with extra motivation, I certainly don't feel any stress. There are four races to go, including Belgium, and I will take them all individually and do my best to try and win them."
Renault - Giancarlo Fisichella (#3), Heikki Kovalainen (#4):

Renault arrives at Spa with mixed emotions in the camp, after Heikki Kovalainen added further points to his slowly growing tally at Monza, but veteran team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella missed out after qualifying problems. Although this weekend will be Kovalainen's first race at Spa in F1, the Finn is no stranger to the circuit.

"I'm very excited!" he enthused, "Spa is a fantastic circuit, and I have very good memories from my races in GP2. The track layout is very nice, with lots of elevation changes and some really good sequences of corners which put the drivers and the engineers to the test. It is certainly one of the best races of the year, and a fantastic challenge for the drivers - especially through the famous section of Eau Rouge.

"This is what I would call an old-style circuit - not in terms of the facilities, which have been improved a lot this year, but in terms of the track design. There are many demanding, high-speed corners and it is a real driver's circuit, where we can make a big difference at the wheel. Even if the car does not have the perfect set-up, or if it is not the fastest on the grid, a very brave driver can go into the corners faster, accelerate earlier or not lift where others do. This is a circuit where you can really see who the good drivers are.

"We were a bit disappointed not to finish higher [at Monza], and not to have taken advantage of Massa's retirement to score more points, but we made no mistakes during the race, so I have to admit we finished where we probably deserved to. It was good to finish the race and maintain my 100 per cent record, and to score points for the fifth race in a row."

With Renault's 2008 line-up set to be decided within days, Fisichella knows that the pressure is on to perform if he is to continue partnering Kovalainen next season.

"This is a circuit where the driver can really make the difference," he said, perhaps hoping that that will count in his favour, "It is an exceptional circuit, and without a doubt the best for the drivers. Eau Rouge is a fabulous corner, and really impressive from the cockpit, even though it is not quite as demanding with the V8 engines as it once was.

"After I was held up in qualifying [at Monza], I knew I was in for a tough weekend. Fifteenth isn't the place to start from if you want a good result, but I still pushed hard all the way through the race. There are still four races left, and we will be aiming to put in a strong performance at each one."

THe Italian is confident that the R27 is capable of a strong performance at Spa.

"We have already seen this season that our car is quite competitive in low downforce configuration, notwithstanding the performance last week in Monza," he explained, "We run higher downforce than in Italy but, despite this, we still have relatively little wing in order to get good top speeds. I think this is a good opportunity for us to be competitive."

Ferrari - Felipe Massa (#5), Kimi Raikkonen (#6):

With little time to lick its wounds after being soundly beaten on home soil, the Scuderia will be desperate to turn the tables on McLaren at Spa, the outcome of Thursday's World Motor Sport Council meeting notwithstanding.

While every team ran a circuit-specific aerodynamic package at Monza, Ferrari chief designer Nikolas Tombazis reckons that aerodynamic performance will be even more important in Belgium, and is optimistic that the F20007 will be on the apce.

"Generally speaking, Spa is the type of circuit where the performance difference between the cars gets amplified," he revealed, "Compared to the circuits where we have been quite strong, Spa has actually got a lower level of downforce, so cars have higher top speeds with less downforce. But nonetheless, in common with the tracks that appear to have suited us, Spa also has some very high-speed corners, which do stress the tyres quite a lot and that, for us, is a positive aspect. Furthermore, with long straights there is also a high emphasis on engine power here. I think all in all, I am hopeful we can be quite competitive here with the F2007.

"We were looking not too bad when we had our first ever Spa test session back in July. However, the cars have evolved since then and therefore it's difficult to know exactly which of two teams - ourselves and our nearest rivals - has made the most progress since then. But I am reasonably optimistic."

Kimi Raikkonen will arrive in Belgium hoping that any lingering effects from his Monza practice shunt have dissipated, allowing him to take the fight to McLaren more than he could in Italy.

"I still don't know what exactly happened," he said of the shunt at the Ascari chicane, "The impact was very hard, but the consequences, as often happens in these kind of accidents, I could only feel the next day; and unfortunately it was the day of the race. My neck really hurt, even though we did everything we could to put me back in shape, but there was not enough time left. This was undeniably the most painful race I've ever had.

"We had a good test at Spa-Francorchamps last July and I'm 100 per cent fit in terms of physical fitness. It's a wonderful place - I always loved to race there and I like the latest modifications of the track. There are some very fast and challenging corners, where we could exploit some of the qualities of the F2007. I've been twice on the central step of the podium there and I want to get back there next Sunday!"

Team-mate Felipe Massa will also be hoping to bounce back, having posted a rare retirement early in Ferrari's home event. Like Raikkonen, the Brazilian refuses to count himself out of the title race.

"I have nothing much more to say about what happened in Monza, except to repeat how disappointed I was," he sighed, "To do just a handful of laps in Ferrari's home grand prix and at such a critical stage in the championship was not a good feeling. Impossible is not a word I like to use but, in terms of the drivers' championship, if it is not impossible for me to win it, it is certainly looking very difficult indeed. However, I never give up and I will keep trying, and I don't think it will change my approach to the races that are left. Between now and the end of the year, I just want to get as many victories as possible all the way to the last race."
Honda - Jenson Button (#7), Rubens Barrichello (#8):

After an improved showing at the Italian Grand Prix, where Jenson Button finished in the points and both drivers were in the top ten, Honda naturally hopes to carry its upturn in performance through to Belgium.

"It was a boost for the whole team to see an improved performance from the RA107 over the Italian Grand Prix weekend," senior technical director Shuhei Nakamoto, "Belgium this weekend will be a tougher challenge for us as the Spa circuit requires a higher level of downforce than Monza. High-speed aerodynamic stability is the absolutely key to precise handling on this circuit and we will have a lot of work to do as the car has changed a lot since our test there back in July."

Button doubled his season's tally at Monza and is looking forward to retaking the challenge of Spa.

"It is one of my absolute favourite circuits and I am really excited that it is back on the calendar for this year," the Briton admitted, "As everyone acknowledges, Spa is a real drivers' track where your skill and commitment are tested to the absolute limit on every lap. The only other track that really compares to the challenge is probably Suzuka - it's a flowing circuit which you can really get into a rhythm around. You can overtake at the top of the hill into Les Combes, hopefully into the new chicane and you can also squeeze by at the first corner, La Source, but the biggest challenge is the double left-hander Pouhon and it is really satisfying to get that right."

Team-mate Rubens Barrichello has yet to score this year, but shares Button's enthusiasm for Spa.

"It is a well-known favourite for every driver and it is a fantastic feeling to drive around there in a Formula One car," the Brazilian commented, "After a year away, it will be good to return and it is certainly safer since they have made the modifications to the circuit layout. It is one of the best circuits of the year, and with the unpredictable weather and the opportunities for overtaking, you always expect a good fun race.

"The test in July at Spa was not one of our best, but we have made a lot of progress on the car since then, as the weekend in Italy has shown, so I go to Spa in a positive frame of mind and hoping for a good race."

BMW Sauber - Nick Heidfeld (#9), Robert Kubica (#10):

Having tested a modern F1 car around the old Nurburgring earlier in the year, Spa-Francorchamps' 'old world' atmosphere should suit BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld, one of the few drivers not to have participated in July's group test.

"I am happy Spa is back on the calendar," he agreed, "The last time I was there was in 2004 and, in those days, I was in a car which wasn't competitive at all, so it will be different this time."

Remarkably, the German isn't that familiar with the venue, despite opportunities to race there.

"Although Spa isn't too far from my home town of M?nchengladbach, I didn't race there very often [in the junior formulae]," he explained, "The circuit wasn't on the Formula Ford and F3 calendar when I was racing, and I had to miss the 2005 Formula One race after I injured myself in a bicycle accident. However, Spa is a very beautiful circuit, with some very special parts. The combination of turns that make up Eau Rouge through the depression is world famous, and for spectators it is a must."

Team-mate Robert Kubica has greater experience of the track in its former guise, having raced there in F3 and Formula Renault, but will be making his competitive F1 debut there this year having only graduated to the top flight in 2006.

For more see Part 2 of our European Grand Prix preview...

 

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