From surprise cars on the second row to a Mercedes climbing through the field, and temperamental weather to a vulnerable pole-sitter, we highlight five key aspects to look out for in Sunday’s race at Spa-Francorchamps…
1. Force India spoiling the party
Racing Point Force India enjoyed a dream ‘debut’ qualifying session on Saturday as Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez took full advantage of the wet conditions to lockout the second row of the grid behind Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. But such a result should not overshadow how competitive the car already looked in the dry, with practice on Friday showing the Force India to be within a second of the ultimate pace, thanks in part to a Mercedes power unit upgrade.
The Force India car is extremely quick in a straight line, and starting from the second row will pose a threat to Hamilton and Vettel at the start. But more importantly, the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and the two Red Bull drivers trying to recover are likely to have a tough time finding a way past given the straight line speed performance. Red Bull are especially weak in that department, with the team having to run an extremely skinny rear wing – forgoing downforce to reduce drag – in order to try and be competitive on the straights.
With Romain Grosjean between the Force Indias and those three threats, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that Ocon and Perez will be quickly relegated from their lofty starting positions.
2. The run to Les Combes
Often when we reference the start of a race, it’s Turn 1 that gets the majority of the attention, but at Spa-Francorchamps there is a much more important section on the opening lap. After exiting La Source – the first corner on the track – the drivers will be at full throttle in the dry for over 20 seconds through Eau Rouge and Raidillon and along the Kemmel Straight.
It is the latter part of that section that proves particularly crucial at the start of the race, with the slipstream effect leaving the pole-sitter vulnerable to being overtaken before the field even reaches the braking zone for Les Combes. Just how tricky it can be to hold onto the lead on the opening lap is highlighted by the fact that only 45% of the last 11 races have been won from pole position, rising to 73% from the top two.
Force India might look like a comfortable buffer between the top two and their main rivals, but the team have been extremely fast on the straights and could also mix it with Hamilton and Vettel on Sunday, making the opening lap crucial to both drivers’ hopes of victory.
3. Two against one at the front
Another aspect that is likely to be key in the fight between Ferrari and Mercedes is the potential for one to gang up on the other. Qualifying played into Mercedes’ hands as Hamilton secured pole and Raikkonen was limited to sixth on the grid, but if the Finn can climb ahead of Grosjean and the two Force India drivers, he will be a headache for Mercedes.
Strategic options appear fairly limited if the race is dry, but with Ferrari showing impressive long run pace, they could split strategies between Vettel and Raikkonen to try and force Hamilton to react to the different threats.
That is likely to mean pitting Raikkonen early in order to try and undercut the Mercedes. If Hamilton responds, then that would leave Vettel to run in clear air and make use of what looked to be better long run pace. If the Raikkonen move is ignored, then the Finn could find himself jumping both of the title rivals and in with a strong chance of a fifth victory at Spa.
4. Bottas climbing through
Hamilton might be on his own from a Mercedes perspective, but that doesn’t mean his team mate Valtteri Bottas won’t be worth watching in the race. Bottas will start from 19th on the grid – one place ahead of Nico Hulkenberg – as a result of power unit penalties, and will have to utilise that new power unit to try and recover as far up the field as possible.
The penalty is taken at Spa given that it’s one of the easier circuits to overtake on, namely due to the aforementioned drag from La Source to Les Combes. Bottas has been focusing on race pace throughout the weekend and will hope that that work pays off when he tries to climb through from the back of the grid.
The Finn will also start on the soft tyre, having reached Q3 on that compound, meaning he plans on running long in the first stint and trying to make progress both on track and when other cars ahead of him on supersofts pit. Of course, if it rains then that opens up all sorts of possibilities for Bottas to make greater progress.