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Belgium Preview - break over, who'll take Spa spoils? 26 Aug 2010

Looking down the hill at Eau Rouge.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 13, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Thursday, 26 August 2010 Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB5.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 29 August 2009 Ferrari F10.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 13, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Thursday, 26 August 2010 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Williams.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 13, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Thursday, 26 August 2010 (L to R): Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP in the FIA Press Conference.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 13, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Thursday, 26 August 2010

The world championship fight could not be better poised as it enters its final European stage after the summer break, with only 20 points - less than you get for a win - separating the top five drivers.

In Hungary Red Bull’s Mark Webber moved up to the lead with 161 points after becoming the only driver to win four times this season. He is chased by McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton on 157, Red Bull team mate Sebastian Vettel on 151, McLaren’s Jenson Button on 147, and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso on 141.

In the constructors’ stakes the battle is far from over too, with Red Bull newly back in the lead with 312 points from McLaren on 304, Ferrari on 238, and Mercedes on 132. Further back, Force India on 47 are under attack from Williams, who have 40 and have been garnering points like crazy in the last two races.

The top five drivers all rate their chances this weekend, with Red Bull and Ferrari out to exploit their aerodynamic excellence, even with the FIA's new stricter front-wing flex tests, and McLaren their straight-line speed advantage.

“I expect we can do well here,” Webber said. “But whether it’s as well as I did in Budapest is a question for everyone. But I know the team are ready.”

Team mate Vettel made an oblique reference to the perceived difference in power between Renault’s engine and those of Mercedes and Ferrari, when he said: “Our weakness will be the long straights and with uphill sections too we know that it won’t be easy for us.” But the German said he is nevertheless optimistic.

At McLaren, Lewis Hamilton said: “Although it’s been great for the whole team to have had the factory shutdown and a well-deserved holiday, I think we’re all really looking forward to getting back into the title fight. The break gave us some valuable thinking time to consider how to improve our car for the remainder of the season - and we head into these two races not only optimistic of some better results, but also of stronger pace for the rest of the year.

“Neither Jenson nor I had a great race at Spa last year - I didn’t see much of it from the cockpit, but I think Jenson was pushed into a spin from behind at Les Combes and the resulting accident took me out too. So it was weird to watch the whole race back in the garage.”

Button added: “We come into the Belgian Grand Prix knowing that we have some catching-up do to; we didn’t have a particularly strong race in Hungary, and the whole team wants to get back to the front again as quickly as possible.

“While we’re optimistic that the bodywork rules clarification will close the gap among the top teams, and that both Spa and Monza should suit our package better than the Hungaroring, it’s still important that we regain the momentum we’d reached earlier this season.

“While I don’t think these two European races will be pivotal to the title fight, it will nonetheless be harder to introduce bigger upgrades to the car at the end-of-season flyaways, so it’s important for the whole team that we score well in both events.”

Over at Ferrari, Felipe Massa said: "We look in good shape, with some new parts coming as part of our constant development programme on the F10. The last time I raced here was in 2008 and it's not just because I won the race that I love this track. I think all the drivers look forward to racing on this fabulous circuit. It is high speed, requiring less downforce than at many of the other tracks and fortunately, in the last few races, we showed that we have returned to being very competitive, even better than we had expected.

"But it is very hard to predict what could happen, as the small differences between the top teams means that performance has been very much track-specific in terms of who had the slight advantage over the rest. As usual we need to wait and see how free practice goes before knowing what to expect."

Meanwhile, Renault will have their F-duct for the first time at Spa, while Williams and Force India (who starred here last year with their low-drag VJM02) have revised aero packages for the battle. HRT will again have Sakon Yamamoto at the wheel in place of Karun Chandhok, while Williams’ will no doubt be in celebratory mood as Rubens Barrichello marks his 300th Grand Prix.

At Mercedes GP Michael Schumacher’s Belgian Grand Prix will be hamstrung by the 10-place grid penalty he was handed in Budapest following his clash with Barrichello in the closing laps. Schumacher started his Spa weekend by texting his former team mate a personal apology, as well as congratulating the Brazilian on his landmark race.

Every driver adores the 7.004 kilometre Spa-Francorchamps track. Hautes Fagnes is a beautiful region of the Ardennes, with its thick forests, and the weather is often unsettled. To complicate the issue further, Spa comprises a mixture of challenging corners and very long straights, thus demanding compromises on aerodynamic set-up. Too much downforce for Sector Two in particular, from Pouhon to Blanchimont, will penalise a car elsewhere.

Unlike last year when they brought their soft and medium compounds, Bridgestone are bringing their soft and hard tyres. “Spa-Francorchamps is a circuit with many secrets,” said Hirohide Hamashima, director of motorsport tyre development, on the company’s last appearance here. “It is the longest circuit of the season, and there are many different characteristics to it. Tyres are put under big loads here, and the circuit is too punishing for the use of our super-soft tyre. Eau Rouge and sector two are particularly punishing.

“Despite the high speeds we see, the requirements of a lap mean that relatively high downforce configurations are used on the cars, placing the tyres under even higher loads. The change from downhill to uphill through Eau Rouge puts the tyres under severe compression forces at high speed added to the downforce and inertia loads.”

Early forecasts suggest, not surprisingly, that the Spa weather may be less than clement. The prediction for Friday is some heavy showers and 19 degrees Celsius, then lighter showers and 14 degrees on Saturday. Raceday, however, should be sunny with partial cloud and 15 degrees.

Sunday’s race begins at 1400 hours local time (two hours ahead of GMT) and will be run over 44 laps or 308.052 kilometres (191.410 miles).