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Belgium - What to Watch for... 24 Aug 2014

Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB10 and Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W05 in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 23 August 2014 (L to R): Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 (2nd) and Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 (pole position) in the post qualifying Press Conference.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 23 August 2014 Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 W05 takes the chequered flag at the end of the session.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 23 August 2014 (L to R): Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing, pole sitter Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 and Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 celebrate in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 23 August 2014 Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB10.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 23 August 2014 Adrian Newey (GBR) Red Bull Racing Chief Technical Officer, Christian Horner (GBR) Red Bull Racing Team Principal and Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Williams FW36.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 23 August 2014 Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Force India F1.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 23 August 2014 Andre Lotterer (GER) Caterham CT05.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Practice, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Friday, 22 August 2014 Pirelli tyre.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Practice, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Friday, 22 August 2014 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F14 T and Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W05.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 23 August 2014

From the epic battle brewing at the front of the field to Red Bull's hopes resting on their low downforce gamble, and from Williams' desire for a dry race to the ever-present threat of rain, we break down the key themes to look out for in Sunday's 2014 Formula 1 Shell Belgian Grand Prix...

Rosberg and Hamilton head-to-head from the start
Nico Rosberg took his fourth successive pole in Belgium on Saturday, but significantly, for the first time since Canada five races ago, his Mercedes team mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton will line up alongside him on the grid.

That raises the tantalising prospect of a race-long battle between two drivers whose strained relationship was almost pushed to breaking point at the last round in Hungary when Hamilton ignored requests to move over for Rosberg, who was on a different pit strategy.

That hard-nosed decision paid dividends for the Briton as he finished ahead of his German colleague, but though Rosberg snatched back the advantage in qualifying at Spa, Hamilton will take heart from the fact that unlike in Austria, Great Britain, Germany and Hungary, he'll be able to attack his team mate from the start in Belgium.

The 2008 world champion even believes that starting from P2 could work to his advantage, citing as evidence last year's race when he started from pole but lost the lead to a slipstreaming Sebastian Vettel as the field ran up to Les Combes on the first lap. Gaining an early lead could be crucial to Hamilton's chances, given that Mercedes tend to give strategy priority to the driver who is ahead at the time of the first pit stops.

Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff has said that his drivers will be free to fight for victory in the race, but whether we're treated to the kind of ding-dong battle we saw in Bahrain or a more sedate squabble remains to be seen. What is certain is that with both drivers desperate for victory, we're set for an unmissable race.

Red Bull hoping low downforce gamble pays off
Once upon a time Spa-Francorchamps was Red Bull's bogey track, such was their propensity for producing cars that sacrificed ultimate straight-line speed for high downforce. However, this year in a bid to bring them closer to the front, the reigning world champions have chosen to trim back on wing - and as a result they've been at or around the top of the speed trap all weekend.

Given the conditions, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo did exceptionally well to qualify in third and fifth positions respectively, and with such low downforce set-ups they should be considerably less vulnerable to attack from their more powerful rivals in Sunday's race.

For Vettel, last year's winner here, his grid slot presents him with not only a good opportunity to beat team mate Ricciardo, but also a great chance to reach the podium for just the second time this year.

Williams hoping for dry weather
Williams arrived in Belgium optimistic that Spa's unique characteristics would play to the FW36's strengths and bring them closer to Mercedes, but though they looked to have decent long-run pace in Friday's dry sessions, in wet qualifying they could only manage sixth (Bottas) and ninth (Massa).

Their hopes of defeating the Red Bulls, Ferraris and McLarens look likely to hinge on the race being run in dry conditions - and of that there's no guarantee...

Hulkenberg out to arrest 'mini slump'
Prior to the last race in Hungary, Nico Hulkenberg was one of just two drivers (the other being Fernando Alonso) to have scored points in every round. He then had what can only be described as a nightmare race in Budapest, crashing out after contact with - of all people - his Force India team mate, Sergio Perez.

Unfortunately for the German, qualifying would suggest he's carried his uncharacteristically lacklustre form into Belgium as a string of minor mistakes saw him knocked out in Q1. Hulkenberg will line up 18th for today's race - comfortably his lowest grid slot of the year - but is hopeful that if the weather stays dry, his long-run pace will enable him to move up the order and possibly get him back into points-scoring contention.

Lotterer to thrive in baptism of fire
Andre Lotterer has been thrown in at the deep end this weekend - almost literally given the deluge he and the field had to contend with in qualifying - but he has impressed throughout. That isn't a shock in itself - his class has long been established in single-seaters and sportscars - but it should not be forgotten that, prior to Friday, the German's only F1 experience was a handful of tests 10 years ago and a single day in the Caterham simulator.

Having eclipsed team mate Marcus Ericsson for 21st on the grid, what then can the 32-year-old expect to achieve on Sunday? Miracles are unlikely, but given his race experience - and the fact he has been learning on his feet all weekend - both he and Caterham will be hoping for a consummate performance. Caterham's deficit to their rivals might put the likes of Marussia and Sauber out of reach, but beating Ericsson would constitute a very impressive Grand Prix debut.

Two stops the quickest way to go - if it stays dry...
Wet qualifying means that if conditions are dry on race day, the teams will have a full stock of slick tyres from which to choose and the option to start on either the medium or soft compound.

Pirelli say that in 'normal circumstances' - which, it has to be said, rarely occur at Spa thanks to the region's unique weather patterns - the best way to tackle the 44-lap race is with a two-stop strategy, starting on the soft tyres, stopping for more softs around lap 15 and then pitting for mediums on lap 29.

It never rains, it pours
Of course, the best laid plans of every team could be washed out the window if rain returns on Sunday. Forecasts remain dry, but the notoriously capricious Ardennes climate has a habit of throwing up the unexpected - as proved on Saturday afternoon when the heavens opened at the start of the GP2 race, only for slicks to be the tyre of choice when GP3 cars took to the grid shortly after. Given how many teams' performances swung due to the pre-qualifying downpour, forecasters up and down the grid will have an anxious eye on their radar screens throughout Sunday's Grand Prix.

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