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Belgium preview - new start procedures under the spotlight at Spa

20 Aug 2015

After a well-earned summer break, the 2015 season swings back into life this weekend at Spa-Francorchamps where there is an added frisson of excitement and uncertainty surrounding the FIA’s changes to the rules governing start procedures.

The basic premise is that the teams will be limited in the information they can give their drivers over the radio as they prepare for the off. Primarily, the clutch bite point will now be fixed by the time the cars leave the pits for the grid prior to the start of the race. In the past drivers could experiment with the bite point and make adjustments with help from their team during the formation laps.

With the twin clutches employed on an F1 car, drivers would set one lever at the chosen bite point and have the other fully disengaged just before the start. They’d then release the second lever at the start and begin the juggling act with power, torque, engine mapping and wheelspin to make the best start they can.

What’s different now is that the teams can’t help them find the crucial bite point; now each driver has to do that himself in the old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants way.

Of course, much attention will be on the two Mercedes drivers, who are likely to be on the front row of the grid again. Lewis Hamilton has made poor starts in Austria, Britain and Hungary, Rosberg in the latter two. The Silver Arrows duo managed to get back in front at Silverstone, but lost in Budapest as a direct result of poor getaways. So the reigning champions are going to be on red alert to make sure it doesn’t happen again and that they get the new technique right from the off.

“I’m very concerned,” team boss Toto Wolff admitted after Hungary. “Maybe it will be better for us in Belgium. We got jumped by two Williams last time and then jumped by two Ferraris. We need to get on top of the situation. It is not acceptable and needs to be analysed.” That’s one of the things Mercedes engineers will have been pondering most during the break.

But if Hamilton and Rosberg arguably have the most to fear with the new rules, it remains to be seen whether the regulation change will create problems for others too.

“It’s going to be very interesting,” Hamilton says. “The starts might not change or they might be disastrous. It could make for more weaving, who knows? I expect more unpredictable starts. I imagine it is going to get worse. But it’s not dangerous, it’s racing.”

Rosberg, meanwhile, hopes the rules will enable him to forge an advantage.

“It's going to make it even more exciting because it will be even more in our hands - and even more difficult - to do a good start,” he says. “It will throw in a lot of variables. It will be much more difficult - and much more difficult to predict the outcome of the start. Hopefully I can use it to my advantage."

Of course, nobody is likely to forget the clash between the two Mercedes drivers in last year’s race, which led to the biggest flashpoint of their 2014 season, and both are very aware that Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel isn’t a huge distance behind them in the points race. Hamilton has 202, Rosberg 181 and Vettel 160 – and the German comes here on a high after his superb victory in Hungary.

Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene said after Malaysia that he wanted to see two victories this season, and now that the Scuderia have achieved that with nine races left the black horse is ready to start prancing again. Vettel - a two-time winner in Spa - is expected to be strong this weekend, and so is team mate Kimi Raikkonen, who has four Belgian wins to his name and comes to the race fresh from signing a deal to remain with Ferrari in 2016. But will the two SF15-Ts be strong enough to take the fight to Mercedes again, or was Hungary, like Malaysia, a matter of circuit and weather conditions favouring the red cars once they’d beaten the Silver Arrows at the start? Therein lies another of the fascinations ahead of this race.

One thing is for sure; Williams will be much stronger on a track that will suit not just their Mercedes power unit but also the characteristics of the slippery FW37. Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas still hanker after the team’s first victory since Spain 2012, and at the very least a return to the podium.

Force India have their tails up after the performance of their revised VJM08 in Hungary, structural failures notwithstanding, and Lotus too with similar Mercedes power have high hopes even if Romain Grosjean will again lose FP1 as reserve driver Jolyon Palmer gets another Friday morning run.

McLaren and Honda were cautiously optimistic that they turned a corner in Hungary, where their cars ran much better and scored points with both drivers for the first time. Spa will be a crucial race, as Honda are bringing a revised version of their powerplant and hope they will have the horsepower to rival Ferrari after significant modifications to the combustion chamber, air intake, gear-train system and exhaust. Everyone in the team is expecting a big step, though reactions at Woking have been low-key.

"I'm really looking forward to getting back into the car and seeing where we stand among our nearest competitors,” Jenson Button says. “We can't pretend that we're expecting a huge jump forward in performance - especially at this circuit, as it doesn't suit our car's characteristics - but, after the break, I'm feeling refreshed, positive, and ready to continue the solid progress we've made so far.

"I love Spa, I won here back in 2012, and, even when I'm not battling for the lead, I really enjoy the racing there as it usually produces fantastic Grands Prix. It's a privilege as a Formula One driver to be able to go to the circuit in the morning, get in the car, and race through some of the most legendary corners in motorsport."

Despite his optimism about the new unit’s power output, Honda’s Yasuhisa Arai is cautious. “This weekend's free practices will be important to test the pairing of the power units to the cars. The Belgian race, however, will surely be a difficult one for the team and drivers, with expected grid penalties and a long and unforgiving power circuit.”

Meanwhile, Red Bull and Toro Rosso expect to struggle again after strong races in Hungary, as Sauber look forward to running the latest specification Ferrari motor.

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On the tyre front, Pirelli are bringing their white-marked medium and yellow-marked soft compounds for the classic seven-kilometre circuit with its high-speed sweeps and changes of elevation which place a wide-ranging set of demands on tyres.

“We have the same tyre nomination for Spa as we did for the Hungaroring - which turned out to be one of the most thrilling races of the season - but the two circuits present a very marked contrast,” says Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery. “Whereas Hungary was tight and twisty, Spa is open and flat-out, making it a favourite among all the drivers. We’ve got plenty of high-energy loads going through the tyres in many directions due to all the different forces at work, but ambient temperatures still tend to be quite low, so the soft and medium tyres represent the best compromise between performance and durability.

“Spa is a race where anything can happen, with a high incidence of safety cars and changing weather, so tyre strategy is important, as well as each team’s ability to constantly read the race and react quickly to any opportunities that present themselves. The recent Spa 24 Hours - which is our biggest event of the year - featured more changes of lead than you could count, as well as a succession of incidents and safety cars in the first half of the race. That showcases just what a spectacular and unpredictable competition this amazing circuit can regularly provide.”

There have been a few minor changes to kerbs and run-off areas at the circuit since last year’s race, but the layout remains as before. Two DRS zones will again be in operation - the first on the Kemmel Straight (between Turns 4 and 5) and the second on the pit straight.

Sunday’s race will run over 44 laps or 308.052 kilometres (191.414 miles), and will start at 1400 hours local time (1200 GMT). The forecast for the weekend is for settled weather - but as always in Spa, expect the unexpected!