This weekend's Belgian Grand Prix is eagerly awaited
"Spa is my favourite circuit. I love the variety; it has lots of different kinds of corner and the best is Eau Rouge. That is very difficult to take flat. In qualifying it usually is, though not always, and this year that will depend on the weight of fuel you decide to carry.
I believe that there is a chance on this circuit for the drivers talent to make a difference. That makes it a very satisfying track on which to drive. And is why I have always been happy to race there. It is a more complete circuit than any other.
It happens to be Giancarlo Fisichella speaking, but most Formula One drivers will express similar sentiments about one of the greatest circuits in the world. Thats why everyone is so happy to be going back to the Belgian track, which returns to the calendar after missing the 2003 season.
Spa-Francorchamps, which nestles into the wooded Hautes-Fagnes region, famous for its capricious weather, is a seven-kilometre rollercoaster with a unique variety of corners. At the beginning of the lap there is the La Source hairpin, taken at only 60 kph. Despite this low speed, La Source was the scene of the biggest first-corner shunt in Formula One history, in the rain back in 1998.
Then, after a high-speed downhill dive, comes the infamous Eau Rouge, the most challenging corner in motorsport. In a good car in the right conditions this can be taken flat even though it comprises a downhill lunge followed by a right twist, a left curve and another right twist as it climbs so steeply that walking it is very arduous. It is not just the speed that makes it so demanding and unforgiving, but the fact that whereas the entry compresses the car on its suspension, the climb tends to unload it.
On the run up through Raidillon to Les Combes, and later after Blanchimont (which is taken at 300 kph/186 mph), speeds reach 350 kph/217 mph before the Bus Stop chicane is taken at 60 kph/37 mph again. This particular corner has been slightly relocated to provide greater run-off area and slow the cars down slightly but otherwise the circuit, which boasts an average lap speed around 230 kph/143 mph, is largely unchanged.
The wide variety of corners presents a significant challenge to engineers and drivers in setting up their cars, and puts a lot of stress on engines but not brakes. Besides plenty of horsepower, a driver also wants good balance for high-speed precision.
Since the summer testing ban will not be lifted until after this race, everybody has been working in their wind tunnels on bespoke medium-downforce aero packages for this race, most of which will be untried until Friday morning.
Ferrari naturally start favourite, on the track where Michael Schumacher made such a remarkable debut in 1991 as he set off on his fantastic journey in Formula One racing. The champion took his first Grand Prix victory here in 1992, and won last time out here in 2002 when he also started from pole position with a lap of 1m 43.726s. He holds the lap record at 1m 47.176s, too. The track will suit the F2004s down to the ground, and victory here could seal his seventh world championship title.
However, Spa will also enable BAR and Williams to flex their muscle in the horsepower stakes, while Renault and McLaren will also be strong given the excellence of their aerodynamics. Remember how well Fisichella ran to take third place in an underpowered Renault in 2001? McLaren, however, have yet to get to the bottom of their poor performance in Hungary which rather deflated the strong showing the MP4-19B was able to make at Hockenheim. There was, apparently, more to the weak run at Hungaroring than merely an incorrect tyre choice.
Sauber also have very high hopes for a circuit that should suit the Ferrari-engined C23 as well as Silverstone did, and Toyota will be another hoping to capitalise on the power of their V10.
On the driver front, Antonio Pizzonia will remain aboard the second Williams, even though Ralf Schumacher is recovering well and was able to attend a recent sponsor function at Rockingham; Ricardo Zonta is still racing the second Toyota, and Ryan Briscoe continues in his new role as third driver.
Tyre wear is traditionally quite high here, due to the heavy cornering forces involved and the abrasive track. However, with around half the lap having been resurfaced for this years race, things could alter slightly this weekend. The 44-lap race starts at 1400 hours local time and is usually run with a two-stop strategy.