Belgium preview - let battle resume! 25 Aug 2011
The 2011 Formula 1 Shell Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps kicks off the second part of a gripping world championship fight, as the final European races bring an end to the summer break.
Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing are still firmly in the pound seats - with 234 and 383 points respectively. The Germans team mate Mark Webber is his current closest challenger, with 149 points, but the Australian has Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button breathing down his neck with 145, 145 and 134 points respectively. McLaren, winner of the last two races, have 280 points, while Ferrari are gathering pace too, with 215.
Any one of the three teams can win this weekend.
Lewis Hamilton, the winner last time out here, is desperate to make amends after his Hungarian disappointment, and adores Spa. After a month out of the cockpit, I think every driver on the grid is really looking forward to racing on a track like Spa-Francorchamps, which is easily one of the greatest circuits in the world, he says. Its always been one of my favourites - its a place where you really feel on the limit, and thats pretty awesome in a Formula One car. Im already looking forward to my first flying lap on Friday morning.
Corners like Eau Rouge, Pouhon and Blanchimont are fantastic, just because theyre so fast - Pouhon, in particular, is incredible, because youre really at the limit of the grip level, and youre gently playing with the throttle and trying not to scrub off too much speed with the steering. Getting it right is an amazing feeling.
I think we go into the race weekend in a pretty good place - weve won the last two Grands Prix and the car feels strong; weve worked hard to improve the set-up, so its really inspiring confidence at the moment, which means you can push it that little bit further, particularly in qualifying. Of course, the weekend is likely to be affected by the weather, which is always somewhat unpredictable at Spa. Id prefer a dry race, but, to be honest, Ill take any track condition: I just cant wait to get back out in my car!
Jenson Button, who heads into his 201st race after winning his 200th in such style in Budapest, is hooked up to do it again. I love racing at Spa, but, unfortunately havent done too much of it recently as Ive been taken out of the last two Belgian Grands Prix through no fault of my own, he says. This year, Ill be hoping for a little more luck!
It felt great to go into the summer break off the back of the win in Hungary. That was a race I think we could just as well have won in the dry as in the damp - which will be worth bearing in mind in Spa, as itll probably be wet and dry - and everything in between - at some point during the weekend.
Once again, our aim will be to put pressure on the championship frontrunners, particularly Red Bull. Our car definitely feels really driveable right now, so I dont think this weekends tyre compound selection will affect us too much. We learnt a lot about the Pirelli medium after the race in Valencia, and I think weve moved on quite a bit since then.
I dont think DRS will be as critical here as its been at some of the other circuits. Theres always been lots of opportunities to use the slipstream up the hill out of Eau Rouge to pass into Les Combes. Itll be interesting to see whether DRS can add even more to the show - it should hopefully be another great weekend for Formula One.
Vettel made it clear in Hungary that he isnt panicking about the newfound pace of McLaren and Ferrari, and why should he with such a big points advantage? Looking at the championship Hungary was a good race with a lot of people finishing behind us, except Jenson, so we will see, he says.
Theres still a very long way to go and we see with the races like this especially, how quickly things can change. I think the most important message is that especially McLaren in the last two races were very competitive and we are not happy with that. But we need to come back so we are pushing hard for Spa.
Alonso is also feeling hungry, and like the McLaren drivers will simply go as fast as he can over the final races and see where the chips fall by the end of the season.
I think we are confident that we can do a good second part of the championship, the Spaniard says. The car did improve a lot and we are fighting for podiums, for pole positions, now in the last few races. For us, I think it was a fantastic July month because I think we are still the drivers that have scored more points in July, in these three races, with three different conditions, three different tracks. We are happy and I think the team did a step forward. I think McLaren also did a step forward so the competition is quite fun for you to watch with three teams able to win races.
There is a driver change at Renault, with reserve Bruno Senna making his race debut in place of Nick Heidfeld (the injured Robert Kubicas stand-in). It marks the Brazilians first Grand Prix appearance since his last outing with HRT at the end of last season. And Senna's former HRT team mate Karun Chandhok will get a Friday practice outing at Team Lotus, taking over Heikki Kovalainen's car for the opening session. Similarly, Force India tester Nico Hulkenberg will drive Adrian Sutil's car in the second practice session.
Elsewhere it is set to be an emotional weekend for two drivers in particular. Mercedes Michael Schumacher celebrates the 20th anniversary of his Formula One race debut, while Virgins Jerome dAmbrosio will start his first home Grand Prix, becoming the first Belgian to race at Spa since Philippe Adams in 1994.
Pirelli will bring their P Zero white medium tyre and the yellow soft this weekend. Spas varied characteristics make it ideal territory for the medium tyre, which represents a good compromise between the soft and the hard rubber. With low temperatures expected, the rapid warm-up time and instant performance of the soft will be an important factor.
The FIA have opted to ban the use of DRS through the high-speed Eau-Rouge on safety grounds, to avoid the possibility of a driver entering the turn with his rear wing open when he thought it was closed. For the race, the DRS zone is on the Kemmel Straight heading into the right-left of Les Combes, with the detection point midway down the hill on the run into Eau-Rouge.
As ever, the weather in the Hautes Fagnes region is likely to be changeable, with rain almost certain at some point during the weekend and temperatures unlikely to get much above 20 degrees Celsius. The only change to the 7.004 kilometre (4.352 mile) circuit since 2010 is at Turn 8, the open-radius hairpin after Les Combes, which has been made wider, with its gravel run-off replaced by asphalt.
Sundays race, which begins at 1400 hours local time (1200 GMT), will be run over 44 laps or 308.052 kilometres (191.410 miles).
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