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Belgium preview - Williams' best chance yet to topple Mercedes

21 Aug 2014

So the summer break is over and everybody is raring to go again at one of the most popular circuits on the calendar - Spa-Francorchamps.

And while the odds continue to favour the Mercedes-engined cars, with their acknowledged power advantage, the question is whether Mercedes themselves will lead the charge - or whether they will be troubled by Williams, who believe that they have their best chance since Austria of winning a race in 2014.

"In theory Spa and Monza should be the next really good ones for us," Valtteri Bottas reckons. "Maybe the best opportunities of the season…"

As Williams' head of performance Rob Smedley explains, Spa's characteristics should play to the team's strengths: "The power sensitivity at Spa is very high and every horsepower you have is worth more here than at other tracks, but the drag sensitivity is also very high. And we know our car is very strong in those areas.

"Additionally, somewhere like Spa can make it hard to turn on the harder [tyre] compounds, and I think our car can do that - especially when it's a front-end problem. The middle sector is something we will have to work on throughout the weekend, and in qualifying we will need to have the tyres switched on for that sector. There is also always a chance for rain in Spa, so we have to be conscious of this throughout the weekend."

Mercedes, meanwhile, are gearing up for an escalation of the intra-team battle between title hopefuls Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, who are separated by just 11 points after the opening 11 races.

"The summer break was a good chance to relax and to reflect on what's been an incredible start to the year for us as a team," Hamilton says. "But personally, I can't wait to get back in the car and back into the battle. I had some difficult weekends in the first part of the season, but then a bit of good fortune at the last race in Budapest kept me from damaging my car on the wall during that first lap, so hopefully that was a sign that my fortunes are changing at just the right time.

"The aim is to put the more difficult times of some of the previous weekends behind us and to recreate the best moments at every race from now on. I love driving at Spa, so there are few better places to start."

Rosberg is similarly boosted by the break and anxious to put Hungary behind him by increasing his points lead here. "The last race didn't turn out how I had hoped after taking pole in tricky conditions the day before, but I still managed to come away with my championship lead intact and that's a good place to be heading into the next part of the year. My record [at Spa] hasn't been as good as at some other circuits in the past, but I'm determined to change that and get the season kicked off again in style!"

At Force India and McLaren, spirits are also high - with the former eager to make up for a failure to score points for the first time this year in Hungary with a strong weekend at Spa, the track where they scored their first pole position and podium back in 2009.

"I'm pleased we went into the summer break in fifth place," says team principal Vijay Mallya. "I think it's where we deserve to be at this stage of the season. Fourth place is not out of reach either with 38 points covering fourth to sixth place. One race can make all the difference.

"Spa is a high-speed track so it's an opportunity for the Mercedes-engined teams. The time has gone quickly since our breakthrough here, but since then the team has only become stronger. People sat up and started to take us seriously. I'm proud of where we are today."

McLaren believe they have pinpointed where they went wrong at the Hungaroring, and Button admits he's feeling both refreshed and positive heading into the weekend. "There's no better place to resume the season than at Spa," he says. "As ever, I'm really looking forward to driving out of the pits for the first time on Friday morning, and just throwing the car into some of the greatest corners in motorsport.

"I had one of my best weekends of the year at Spa last year, qualifying and finishing sixth after running closely with a bunch of cars through the whole race. It wasn't my best finish of the year, but it was positive because I got the maximum out of the package we had, and was able to fight closely with a number of other drivers, which felt satisfying. Hopefully, there will be positives to take out of this weekend as well."

Team mate Kevin Magnussen has also enjoyed success at Spa, having triumphed at the Belgian circuit in both British Formula Three and in two consecutive seasons in Formula Renault 3.5. He hopes this weekend will be the start of a strong run-in: "I just love the fast, flowing nature of the circuit - hooking up a quick lap there during qualifying is just fantastic, because the track just flows from one corner to the next, and the car is so fast and assured that it almost feels effortless. It's fantastic. We need to use these next eight races to assert ourselves - I think the second half of this season will be incredibly important for us."

Red Bull have admitted that their chances of victory are not likely to blossom again until Singapore, and doubtless Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel won't be looking forward to Spa's long climbs and straights - while team principal Christian Horner suggests the weekend will be an exercise in damage limitation.

Ferrari hold a similar sentiment heading into the weekend, although neither Fernando Alonso nor Kimi Raikkonen should be ruled out of contention - with the Finn citing 2009 as a previous example of when the Scuderia re-invigorated their season by triumphing on the Ardennes circuit.

At Caterham, meanwhile, changes have been rung not just to the car but to the driver line-up, with three-time Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer drafted in to replace Kamui Kobayashi for the weekend. The 32-year-old German is an interesting option given his lack of recent F1 experience - he will be making his Grand Prix debut at Spa, with previous outings limited to test runs for Jaguar in 2001 and '02.

In addition to bringing in Lotterer, the unloved CT05 will benefit from a significant upgrade here - including a Mercedes-like nose - as the team's new owners seek to snatch back 10th place in the constructors' championship.

Caterham aren’t the only team who will be fielding a revised driver line-up this weekend. Marussia have also made a last minute change, drafting in newly-appointed reserve driver Alexander Rossi to replace Max Chilton whilst contractual issues are resolved. The American will make his F1 race debut after four Friday practice appearances over three seasons for Caterham.

Spa is always a thrill for the drivers, but this year has an added element of intrigue and excitement: the mighty Eau Rouge is no longer certain to be a flat-out corner given the increased power and reduced downforce of the 2014 cars. Pouhon and Blanchimont, already classics, could also become more challenging.

Despite that, Pirelli are bringing softer tyre compound choices than last year, with their white-marked medium and yellow-marked soft tyres - which they still expect to capable of handling Spa's mixture of fast straights, flat-out corners, abrasive asphalt and swooping elevations.

Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery explains: "Spa is one of the most epic circuits of the year. An adaptable tyre is the key element, able to work equally well within the very wide range of track and weather conditions that we often see in Belgium. Despite the fact that tyre wear and degradation is traditionally high here as a result of the multiple energy loadings put through the tyres, we have been able to nominate the soft tyres here as well as the medium for the first time since 2011, with the softer option liable to be the preferred choice in qualifying due to a significant time gap."

Spa itself remains unchanged from last year, with new fencing and improved drainage at several corners the only superficial modifications. As before there will be two DRS zones. The first will be activated on the Kemmel Straight, 310m past Raidillon, with the detection zone 240m before Eau Rouge. The second will be activated 30m after the final chicane, with the detection zone 160m before.

The weekend's weather is forecast to be cool, with ambient temperatures struggling to reach 20 degrees Celsius, while showers are also predicted for Saturday. Sunday is expected to be cloudy but dry.

The 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).