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Belgium preview - can Mercedes conquer Spa-Francorchamps? 22 Aug 2013

Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 W03.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 1 September 2012 Grid before the formation lap.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Race, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 2 September 2012 Sergio Perez (MEX) Sauber C31. Romain Grosjean (FRA) Lotus E20, Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4-27 and Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F2012 crash at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Race, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 2 September 2012 Pole position sitter Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 in the post qualifying Press Conference.
Formula One World Championship, Rd10, Hungarian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Hungaroring, Hungary. Saturday, 27 July 2013 Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB8.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 1 September 2012 Paul Hembery (GBR) Pirelli Motorsport Director.
Formula One World Championship, Rd10, Hungarian Grand Prix, Race Day, Hungaroring, Hungary. Sunday, 28 July 2013 Red Bull Racing and Pirelli tyres.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Thursday, 30 August 2012 Race winner Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4-27 celebrates at the end of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 2 September 2012 (L to R): Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Lotus E20 and Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 W03.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 2 September 2012 Grid girls.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 2 September 2012

From one of the slowest tracks to one of the fastest: the F1 paddock travels from Hungaroring to Spa-Francorchamps this weekend to resume the season after the summer break. And the big questions going into the 2013 Formula 1 Shell Belgian Grand Prix are whether Mercedes can continue to carry the fight to Red Bull, and whether Jenson Button’s optimism for McLaren’s performance here will see them get on terms with Ferrari and Lotus and clear of the clutches of Force India. Can the latter get back into the points after two disappointing outings, and will Sauber and Williams build on recent progress?

Everyone goes to Belgium buoyed by the mandatory break, refreshed and ready for the onslaught of races that take us through to Brazil in November.

Mercedes’ performance in Hungary on Pirelli’s revised tyres and in very high ambient and track temperature took everyone by surprise, race winner Lewis Hamilton included. Prior to that race the F1 W04 ate its tyres in high temperatures, but in Hungary Hamilton won going away and said afterwards: “If the car can work on these tyres in these temperatures, it bodes very well for the future races.”

Now the 2008 champion says: “It feels like I have been out of the car for a very long time since the win in Hungary and I can't wait to get going again. I was at the factory yesterday to meet up with my engineers and get in some practice on the simulator so it was nice to see everyone and to feel the enthusiasm around the factory after the summer break.

“Spa is a fantastic circuit and it's so much fun to drive. We're all looking forward to the second half of the season and the opportunity to bring home some more good results.”

Red Bull, meanwhile, see no reason to worry unduly as the RB9 is a car that has proved well suited to all types of circuit, as has the Lotus E21. And Ferrari hope that development carried out on the F138 will give it the qualifying pace that has hitherto been lacking. However, Spa’s characteristics - the longest full-throttle section of the season at 22.7 seconds over 1.84 kilometres from Turns 1 to 5; full throttle for 72 percent of the lap; and 11 of the 14 corners are taken in fourth gear or higher - mean everyone will have their work cut out and tyres could again play a critical role.

Pirelli are bringing their P Zero Orange hard and P Zero White medium rubber to Belgium. The two hardest compounds in their range are ideal to deal with the high-energy demands of the circuit and its very high-speed fast compressions such as the legendary Eau Rouge down and uphill swoop which loads the front tyres to 1000 kg.

“Spa is not only an epic circuit, but also one of the biggest challenges for our tyres all year,” says Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery. “Mostly this is because of the very high-energy loads that go all the way through the tyres, both vertically - due to the big compressions such as Eau Rouge - and also laterally at fast corners like Blanchimont. Often, the tyres are subjected to forces acting in different directions at the same time, which increases the work still further. So looking after the tyres is very important, particularly as it’s such a long lap.

“This means that there are a very wide variety of possible strategies available at Spa as well, with plenty of time to be won and lost if the right tactics are chosen. However, any strategy has to be very flexible, because it’s the changing weather that often makes Spa such a fascinating race. The conditions can change extremely quickly, which then makes how the teams use the intermediate and wet tyres the key to success - as we have seen so often in the past. Both our wet-weather tyres have proved their performance over previous races; with the intermediate tyre in particular showing how well suited it is even to inconsistent and drying conditions. There are plenty of overtaking opportunities, and the blend of performance and durability offered by our nominated tyres should maximise those chances this weekend.”

Last year’s winner Jenson Button and runner-up Sebastian Vettel used single-stop strategies, while the third podium placeman Kimi Raikkonen pitted twice. There was also plenty of variation in the start tyres selected: while most drivers started on the mediums, Nico Hulkenberg started his Force India on the hard tyre and finished fourth with a two-stop strategy. Pirelli expect the performance gap between the hard and medium tyre to be more than a second a lap.

The weather forecast appears to be settled and benign. The ambient temperature high will be 26 degrees Celsius on Friday, with sun and partial cloud, and conditions will be similar on Saturday with 25 degrees, and 24 on Sunday. There are chances of rain, however, near qualifying time and around the start of the race.

A second DRS zone has been added for 2013. The first remains on the Kemmel Straight, with detection midway down the hill into Eau Rouge, while the second is on the start-finish straight with detection just prior to the final chicane.

The 7.004-kilometre (4.352 mile) Spa-Francorchamps circuit is unchanged since 2012 apart from improvements to some kerbs and Sunday’s race, which begins at 1400 hours local time (two hours ahead of GMT), will be run over 44 laps or 308.052 kilometres (191.417 miles).

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