Formula One ready to fight again - Belgian Grand Prix Preview

By on

Following a three-week deep breathing exercise, Formula One is slowly returning to action with the Belgian Grand Prix set to open the second half of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship. F1Technical's Balázs Szabó analyses some key aspects learnt from the first half of the season, and also takes a look at the forthcoming race at Spa.

After long years of Mercedes domination, Formula One is back in its finest shape with Red Bull posing a real threat to Mercedes in 2021. In fact, Ferrari was right on the Anglo-German team’s tail in 2017 and 2018, but their championship aspirations derailed in both years. However, in 2021, it seems that Red Bull managed to build a car that is on equal terms with the machine of the defending champion outfit.

With the relatively stable technical regulation and the dominance showed by Mercedes in 2020, it was suggested that the Brackley-based squad could carry its eye-catching form over. However, the Milton Keynes-based outfit got its act together for this year and, despite the misfortunate races at Silverstone and Budapest, it seems that they can keep Mercedes honest all through the 2021 season.

Red Bull experienced different problems with its car last year with the majority of the issues sourcing from correlation problems in the windtunnel. The team that has already won four F1 world championship titles was able to find remedy to these problems to come up with a much more rounded and refined concept for the last season with the current technical regulations.

Moreover, the Adrian Newey-led technical department was able to modify its car in a very effective way to adapt to new regulations regarding the the floor, bargeboards and rear brake ducts, although the team first believed that the changes would only further hinder their chances due to their high-rake concept.

The 2021 F1 season has also seen the resurgence of Formula One’s most successful teams. Ferrari, which struggled all through last year and recorded its worst championship position with a 6th place in the standings, suddenly and surprisingly started the year in a much more promising fashion, and is seemingly on course to fight for thid place in the Constructors' Championship.

Lessons learnt so far

Hamilton atop – The defending champion has currently the upper hand in the battle for the championship title. Although Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was on a great run in several consecutive races, the last two grands prix saw the Dutchman’s lead in the standings melt away. At Silverstone, Verstappen ended up in the barriers following a clash with Hamilton while at Budapest the Dutchman’s RB16B suffered a significant amount of damage in a first corner pile-up triggered by an overambitious Valtteri Bottas.

As a consequence of Verstappen’s misfortunes in the last two races, Hamilton finds himself back at the top of the championship, sitting on 195 points, followed by the Dutchman, who needs to overcome an eight-point deficit coming into Spa. McLaren’s Lando Norris is third in the standings, followed by Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez.

Following a successful Hungarian Grand Prix, Williams drivers Nicholas Latifi and George Russell collected a good amount of points, leaving only Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin without a single point in 2021.

Mercedes back at the front – Although Mercedes slipped down the order to second place in the Constructors’ Championship in June, the defending champions could make use of Red Bull’s misfortunes at Silverstone and Budapest to return to the top of the standings. The Brackley-based team will arrive at Spa with 303 points in its bag with Red Bull 12 points adrift.

Thanks to their great race pace in recent rounds following the troublesome French Grand Prix, Ferrari bounced back to improve to third in the standings, having collected the same number of points as McLaren in the first half of the season. The fight for 5th place continues between Alpine, AlphaTauri and Aston Martin as the three outfits are separated only by 29 points.

At the back end of the field, Williams secured a shocking result at Budapest by collecting ten points, making it very difficult for its direct rivals Alfa Romeo and Haas to fight for 8th place in the standings.

Looming penalties - Despite the planned 23-race for 2021, drivers have a very limited number of engine components for the entire season. Should a driver exceed that limit, grid penalties will apply, just as with engines (ICE) (three per season), motor generator units-heat (MGU-H) (three), turbochargers (TC) (three), energy stores (ES) (two), control electronics (CE) (two), and motor generator units-kinetic (MGU-K) (three).

There are already several drivers, who are on the verge of possible penalties. Alpine F1 Team has been long battling with the reliability of its exhaust system with Fernando Alonso having already used six and his team mate Esteban Ocon five. With only eight exhaust system allowed for the entire season, they both could brace for penalties later in the season.

The most critical point is understandably the heart of the power unit, the internal combustion engine. Coming into the Hungarian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel, Esteban Ocon and George Russell have already started to use their third and final ICE.

At Budapest, several other drivers joined this less-favourable group. Although Red Bull and its engine supplier Honda were hopeful that Max Verstappen’s engine that suffered a 51G impact in the Silverstone crash triggered by the overambitious Lewis Hamilton was raceable, the Japanese engine manufacturer detected cracks on the unit. It forced the team to install the a fresh engine into the Dutchman’s RB16B, meaning that he also uses his final unit.

Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc were victims in a multiple-car pile up at the start of the Hungarian Grand Prix when Valtteri Bottas and Lance Stroll both misjudged their braking points. The two separate incidents led to a relatively big damage, but the engine components should have come away with no damage. However, as the cooling system sustained damage, both teams, Ferrari and Red Bull will be forced to install a fresh engine, forcing the Mexican and the Monegasque driver to use their final ICE at Spa.

Carlos Sainz also joined this group of drivers at Budapest when Ferrari detected technical issues on the Spaniard’s ICE. As a consequence, the Spaniard started to use his final unit at Budapest.

The track designed by a chevalier

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 Raidillon 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.

Drivers’ favourite roller coaster

The 7.004km long track is made up of 19 corners. Following a relatively short start straight, drivers brake down to just 90kph for the first corner of the track, named La Source. An excellent acceleration is vital as the following section is the longest period spent at full throttle not just at Spa, but on the entire calendar. Turns 2-3-4, the famous Eau Rouge and Radillon are taken at full throttle in a modern F1 car, but it is still a big challange, mainly in race trim with degrading tyres or on damp surface.

The Kemmel straight is the continuation of this section where drivers spend around 18 seconds at full throttle. The end of the Kemmel straight offers the best overtaking opportunity and with DRS it could be a straighforward affair if drivers can stay close to their rival exiting Turn 1.

The second sector begins with the Les Combes corner. With Turn 7 and 8, this forms a fantastic sequence of corners where drivers needs a faultless car balance with a strong front end at Turns 6 and 8 and a very stable rear end at Turn 7.

The track goes downhill when drivers head towards Turn 9, the Rivage corner. It is a 180-degree bend where drivers need to show patience initially to have then a good exit. Turn 10 invites drivers to use th last inch of the wide kerbs to gain as much speed at the exit as they can for the next sequence of corners. Turn 11, Pouhon allows drivers to stay at full thorttle for almost the entire length of the corner. Turn 12, the Fagnes opens up a section of three medium-speed corners where excellent car balance and high-downforce levels are desired.

Sector 3 starts with Turn 15 which is called Stavelot. When drivers exit this medium-speed bend, they are in a rush to apply full throttle which they keep through Turns 16 and 18 until they arrive at the Bus Stop chicane that comprises two low-speed corners. At the exit of the final turn, drivers always are on the limit regarding the rear grip level, but they are adamant to apply full throttle as quickly as they can to complete the last metres of the longest circuit of the curent F1 calendar.