Belgian Grand Prix – Preview

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

After a well-deserved, albeit – for the fans – too lengthy summer break, Formula One is about to kick off the last European leg of the 2019 championship. The Belgian Grand Prix is Round 13 and the second-to-last station of the season before the field heads to Monza, Italy for its usual farewell to the European races.

The Spa-Francorchamps race track was designed by the chevalier Jules de Thier in 1920 who wanted to revive the La Meuse Cup, a car race which was run before the World War One. The site for the circuit was marked in a triangle formed by the routes 32, 23 and 440 connecting Spa-Francorchamps to Malmedy and Stavelot.

The first race was cancelled because there was only one entrant. The next event which became the first ever race on the 15.820km long track was entered by 23 motorbikes.

In 1922, the Royal Automobile Club of Beligum organized the first ever race for cars on the track which was an endurance race. The first ever GP was held in 1925 which was won by Alfa Romeo’s Alberto Ascari.

Three years later, tarmac was laid down to avoid stones being thrown up. 1939 saw a big change in the layout of the track. The old Customs bend was removed and replaced by the high-speed turn baptised Raidillon. It resulted in the creation of the corner complex of Eau Rouge and Raidillion which are connected by a steep uphill section of an incline of 17 per cent. It contributed to the international fame and reputation of the circuit.

In 1951, the track was enlarged and the Stavelot bend was created. In 1963, the first safety rails were installed to the high-speed circuit. In 1979, a shorter layout was created in a length of 6.9km. 2007 saw the last major overhaul of the track. The famous, but problematic bus stop chicane was removed and the run-off area at many fast corners have been extended.

Schumacher in front of Senna

It is perhaps no surprise that Michael Schumacher is the most successful in the Belgian Grand Prix history as he is on many other race venues. The German claimed a total of six victories at Spa, two for Benetton and another four for Ferrari. Ayrton Senna is the second most successful driver with five victories followed by the duo of Kimi Räikkönen and Jim Clark with four triumphs apiece. The quartet of Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Damon Hill and Juan Manuel Fangio have all three wins to their names while Alberto Ascari, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Emerson Fittipaldi won the Belgian Grand Prix on two occasions.

Of the constructors, Ferrari stands out with a record number of wins. The Italian have claimed victory on seventeen times so far. Second on this list is McLaren with fourteen triumphs followed by Lotus with eight wins. Mercedes and Williams have both claimed victories on four times. Red Bull is also among the elite group of the most successful constructors with three wins while the duo of Alfa Romeo and Benetteon have won twice.

One of the most enjoyable track characteristics

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 only 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 duo 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.