Belgian GP – Preview (Track layout and setup)

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Belgium, Circuit De Spa-Francorchampsbe

Returning from its summer break, Formula One visits Belgium for the 12th Grand Prix of the 2017 Championship. The miraculous Spa race track will play host to the opening event of the second half of this year’s campaign.

Track characteristics and setup

The Spa race track is the longest circuit on the current calendar with its ‘eyeful’ 7004 metres which evokes the lengths of the old, traditional race circuits. This length means drivers are entertained by a variety of corners. However, it also results in the fact that fans only see the cars 44 times passing by.

Drivers circulate clockwise on the track which has 19 corners. 10 of them are left-handed while the remaining 9 are right-handed. Drivers take six corners at speeds about 250kph while in three corners the apex speed stays under 100kph. Drivers spend around 69 per cent of the lap on full throttle.

Drivers reach around 345kph on the Kemmel straight. The distance from the first row to the first corner is only 271m, but the tight nature of La Source often causes troubles during the tumultuous start. Drivers change gears around 42 times. Fuel consumption is 2.2kg per lap.

There are eight braking zones on the circuit, two of them are heavy, one is the section into the first corner, the second one is into the last chicane.

The straights and location of corners endow the track with a unique layout and rhythm. The first sector features a hard braking zone to the slow first corner called La Source. From there on, drivers spend around 20 seconds, 2015 metres on full throttle as the frightening due of corners –Eau Rouge and Raidillion- has been taken flat-out due to the ever-increasing downforce levels. The second sector is dominated by wide, medium and high-speed corners which requires perfect chassis chassis balance. The last sector consists of a middle-speed corner baptised Stavelot, a long full-throttle section and a slowish chicane.

This unique layout forces engineers to conduct even more intensive setup work and analysis. The past indicates that compromises between the straights which would require minimum downforce and the high speed corners demanding high downforce have not paid off. Setup concentrated on the straights can lead to huge gain in the first sector, but a loss of more than half a second in the middle part of the track. Interestingly, the difference between the lower and higher downforce configuration usually shrinks to around 2 tenth in the last sector despite its very long full-throttle section.

Drivers and engineers, helped live by the factory-based support team, have to find the best setup for the actual car. It often means drivers try out very different aerodynamic configurations on Friday before they opt for the ultimate optimal setup. It can also occur that team-mates opt for different setups as was the case with the former McLaren driver pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button back in 2012. Sacrificing top speed and therefore losing a lot of time in the first sector does not always result in lack of pace as was the case with Toyota or Red Bull back in 2009. The list of interesting variations in setup directions could follow.

Strategies and tyres

Strategists have tended to aim at the lowest number of pit stops over the last years. Last year’s winner Nico Rosberg visited the box two times.

In the 49 Belgian GPs, the 17 pole-sitters managed to convert the first starting position into a race victory. The 2016 race saw a number of 85 overtaking manoeuvres, 26 of them were completed with the help of DRS.

Pirelli’s bold and brave selection for this event sees the trio of ultrasofts, supersofts and softs serve for the first time at Spa. This combination follows some criticism towards the Milan-based company’s compounds which all have proved to be too durable so far over the first eleven races. Speaking to F1technical.net, Pirelli’s director Mario Isola revealed that the company awaits an unusual approach from the teams regarding the way they use their tyres and a mixtures of possible race-winning strategies.