Toyotas Pascal Vasselon on Spa-Francorchamps 03 Sep 2008
With its taxing corners, long straights and unpredictable weather, Spa-Francorchamps is one of the most popular circuits on the Formula One calendar. And one of the Belgium tracks biggest fans is Pascal Vasselon, Toyotas senior general manager (chassis), who counts the Belgian race as his home event. Ahead of this weekends Grand Prix, Vasselon discusses the circuit's distinctive set-up requirements and tries to explain its unique appeal
Q: Would it be fair to describe you as a big Spa-Francorchamps fan?
Pascal Vasselon: I live close to the circuit, it's really my home Grand Prix and yes, I love the place.
Q: So do you commute from Spa to Cologne every day?
PV: Yes, but it's not too bad, 100 kilometres each way and not so demanding for my Toyota! I can put it in cruise control and it's actually quite relaxing. I leave at 6.20am and get back after 9.30pm - a Formula One working day! So traffic is not a problem at that time.
Q: So why does a Frenchman live in Belgium?
PV: First of all it is good for my family because it is a French-speaking area. Also the people seem to have a different approach to life. It is very easy to integrate whereas in the small village I used to live in near Clermont Ferrand in France it took me three years to know my neighbours. In Belgium we had a social life and a lot of friends after a couple of months. The people are very relaxed, it's a nice way of life and the area has a lot of different cultures - move 20kms to the east and you are in a German-speaking area, move 20kms to the north and you are in a Dutch-speaking area, then around Liege you have a nice French-speaking area.
Q: And you think the circuit itself is a bit special?
PV: Absolutely, and I'm not alone there. It's just one of those places where you feel the enthusiasm in the drivers and to be there is just fantastic. To see Formula One cars through Eau Rouge is fabulous - it is so quick. The only slight problem now is that Eau Rouge is flat-out and while it is still impressive you know that the cars are not at the very limit anymore. Drivers, engineers, everyone in the team loves going to Spa - even when it rains. But when the sun shines it is fantastic.
Q: Is Eau Rouge flat-out in any conditions - qualifying and race?
PV: With the V8s it's easily flat except in the rain. If I remember correctly, with the V10s it was flat-out in qualifying but with the V8s it's always flat-out whatever the fuel load or tyre degradation is. The thing that is still outstanding about Eau Rouge is the loading and the forces generated through the corner. They are close to the limit thanks to the downforce at high speed, the tyre grip and the compression that you have. We all design suspension to be able to face extreme conditions and Eau Rouge at Spa is an extreme corner. When we are designing suspension parts, Eau Rouge is a reference point for extremely high loading. But it's not just the suspension; the tyres are also under a lot of stress.
Q: How would you describe the whole lap from a technical perspective?
PV: In terms of lay-out, Spa is very specific. You have a lot of high-speed corners that would normally require high downforce but the aero efficiency requirement of the track, because of the long straights, means that you cannot go high downforce. It's really medium/low downforce and a unique lay-out which is tough on most aspects of the car. The only item that has an easy time in Spa is the braking system because you have plenty of cooling and relatively little heavy braking.
Q: What are the main tyre considerations?
PV: It's severe for both main tyre degradation factors. It's severe in graining because of the long high-speed corners and it's severe also in blistering because of the high average speeds. We will be using the two hardest compounds from the Bridgestone range. From our side we prefer to be on the soft side with tyres because usually when there are tyre issues we tend to perform better than the others.
Q: What can you do to prepare for unpredictable weather?
PV: If you look statistically at the last races at Spa it has not rained so much but it does have that reputation. You have to be careful too because it is not just the weather that is unpredictable; the track conditions vary as well when it rains. For example, in 1995 it was possible to set fast lap times on slick tyres just three laps after the rain ended because the surface dried so quickly in the sunshine but in 2005 it was completely the opposite and it took forever to dry out when the rain stopped. There was less sun but you also have to consider what has happened in the days leading up to the Grand Prix. Is the ground flooded or not? Is it waterlogged? Considering those things you can estimate how quickly the track will drain. It is very difficult to predict accurately what will happen at Spa.
Q: Will you have anything new on the car at Spa?
PV: We will have normal development bits on the aero package. It is not our baseline package, so that will be different for a start. We had the Monza test last week but the main consideration there was preparation for the Italian Grand Prix, as Monza has a unique low downforce set-up.