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The Belgian Grand Prix preview - drivers eager for Spa challenge 04 Sep 2008

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2007 has his brakes smoking at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 14, Belgian Grand Prix, Race, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 16 September 2007 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4/23 on the grid.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, European Grand Prix, Race, Valencia, Spain, Sunday, 24 August 2008 Race winner Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, European Grand Prix, Race, Valencia, Spain, Sunday, 24 August 2008 Jenson Button (GBR) Honda RA108.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, European Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Valencia, Spain, Saturday, 23 August 2008 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari F2008 retired from the race with a blown engine.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, European Grand Prix, Race, Valencia, Spain, Sunday, 24 August 2008

Who doesn’t love Spa-Francorchamps? Ask any of the drivers, and they will tell you it ranks at the top, or very close to the top, of their favourite tracks.

Located in picturesque Hautes Fagnes region of the heavily-forested Ardennes, the original Spa was dropped from the calendar in 1970 amid growing fears that Formula One machinery had outgrown its original configuration. Now the dramatically revised track, commissioned in 1979, has successfully retained much of the original’s demanding uphill and downhill swoops while halving the length to a more manageable 7.004 kilometres (4.352 miles).

“It’s one of my all-time favourites,” says championship points leader Lewis Hamilton, whose McLaren team are celebrating the 40th anniversary of founder Bruce McLaren scoring the marque’s maiden victory here on June 9, 1968.

“Even before I first came here, which was back in 2002 for a Formula Renault race, I played it on my computer - it was always one of the best tracks. It has probably the most exciting corner in Formula One, Eau Rouge, and it’s one of the few circuits where you really feel like you’re actually going somewhere; you blast off into the forest and get to the top of the hill and can feel the whole circuit beneath you. It’s one of the best challenges in Formula One.

"I prefer the more historic circuits like Monza, Silverstone and Monaco. You really feel the history of those places whenever you race there; they have real character. Each time they are refurbished, they lose a little more of their individuality - but they are made safer, so we can continue to race on them - so that’s a good compromise."

Both Ferrari drivers love Spa, too. “I have won here,” says Kimi Raikkonen, “and that always feels like a major accomplishment. It is something special at a place like this.”

“How can you be a racing driver and not love this place?” says European Grand Prix winner Felipe Massa, who aims to add Spa to the growing list of venues on which he has been successful.

Over at Renault Fernando Alonso, who won here in F3000 in 2000, admits: “Spa is one of those exceptional circuits on the Formula One calendar. Like all the older tracks, there is always a very special and warm atmosphere. For the drivers, it is an unbelievable challenge and is a very enjoyable place to drive a Formula One car. I have never won at Spa [in F1] and hope that one day I can add a win here to my list of achievements.

“It’s a very long circuit, which generally emphasises the gaps between the cars. It requires a very complete car and so we will have to work hard on the set-up to make sure we are competitive in the quick sections as well as in the slower corners.”

Jenson Button, who has high hopes with Honda if, as seems likely, it is wet this weekend, says: “All the drivers love going to Spa, and for me, it is one of the most beautiful circuits that we race on with fantastically green surroundings. For a driver, the circuit has one of those layouts which has everything and gives you a real buzz to drive, just like Suzuka and Silverstone.

“Eau Rouge is a legendary corner and the feeling when you hit the bottom of the hill, the car touches the ground and you shoot straight back up again is amazing. It's a crazy corner in the dry and even more so in the wet. The weather can play a big part in the race weekend, which is great for us as the car goes well in the wet. It can be raining at one end of the lap but completely dry at the other so you have to be ready and react quickly to whatever the weather throws at you."

The Spa lap contains every type of corner and some long straights, and thus requires a compromise when it comes to aerodynamic set-up. Cars that are quick in sector two, the twisty middle section of the lap from Pouhon to Blanchimont, tend to have an advantage because they can then tune their downforce levels for the straights that dominate sectors one and three. If a car is not so strong in sector two, there is little choice but to put on more wing and that inevitably increases drag and thus affects straightline speed.

Since the introduction of the 2.4-litre V8 engines Eau Rouge has been comfortably flat in top gear for everyone. However, drivers have to be careful not to scrub off too much speed through the corner in order to maintain momentum on the crucial climb which follows all the way up to Les Combes.

Bridgestone are bringing their medium and hard rubber compounds for the race, so graining should not be an issue for anyone. Ironically, given the high-speed nature of the track, it is one of the easiest on brakes, but the engines run at full throttle for 68 per cent of the lap. After their recent failures, that must be something that concerns Ferrari.