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Belgium preview - let battle recommence

25 Aug 2016

The summer break is over, and it's full-tilt back into the fight for the 2016 FIA Formula One World Championship. Suffused with fresh energy, the teams and drivers have arrived at Spa-Francorchamps, one of the calendar's most spectacular and fearsome circuits - and the perfect venue to kick off the second half of the season...

Does a penalty loom for Hamilton?

Lewis Hamilton arrives in Belgium with a healthy 19-point lead over Mercedes team mate and title rival Nico Rosberg - but despite his momentum, he might start the race on the back foot after Mercedes conceded he might take an engine penalty here.

"It's crazy how quickly this year is going by," Hamilton admits. "It seems like a few weeks ago we were in Barcelona for winter testing and now we're through the summer break, heading to Spa. 

"The first half of the season was a bit of a rollercoaster, so it's great to be in the position I'm in with more than half of the races behind us. There will be more up and downs to come, I'm sure. But I'm feeling refreshed, re-energised and ready to go after a fun few weeks off, so hopefully everyone else has had a good rest too and we'll come out fighting. 

"It's been such a proud few weeks for British sport, with the Olympics and then Cal Crutchlow becoming the first British MotoGP winner in more than 30 years. I'll do my best to keep the flag flying this weekend." 

Rosberg, meanwhile, has finished second for the past two seasons at Spa, but is determined to finally add his name to the winners' list at such an illustrious venue.

"It's such an awesome track, with so many challenges. Ask any driver - they will tell you how much they love racing here," Rosberg says. 

"If you look back through the years, there have been some great moments too - that mega move from Mika Häkkinen on Michael Schumacher up the Kemmel straight, for example. All of that history just makes it even more special, so I'd love to add my name to the winner's list. I'm feeling strong in myself, I know I'll have the best car out there and I'm massively pumped to be back on track."


New engine - and a new face - at McLaren

There will be strong focus on McLaren-Honda this weekend, particularly after confirmation that former Volkswagen director of motorsport Jost Capito will be taking up his new role as CEO of McLaren Racing.

These are very different times for the Woking team. Where last year Honda's programme was full of failed promises, the Japanese manufacturer now has a much more cohesive and fruitful development programme that is beginning to pay dividends. They also have two more upgrades planned before the season is over - the first of which is set to appear this weekend.

The team have spent seven of their 10 remaining tokens on upgrading its combustion chamber, turbo and compressor, with both drivers set to run all-new components.

"Sakura is always developing, so as soon as we are ready, we will introduce it," Hasegawa explains. "We only have nine races, so even if you have an idea, we only have two chances to introduce it. We have one chance at Spa and one more after that - and the plan is still to use all of the tokens."

The team also have a clear aim to finish the year as the fourth-best team - if not in points, then at least in form.

"Everyone was hurt a little bit last year," Alonso explains. "They [Honda] changed completely - they changed everything. They understood everything very quickly. Even the communication between McLaren and Honda, the link between the English culture and the Japanese, is day and night compared to last year.

"The technical group that we have at McLaren now, the designers, the structure, the organisation, our technical directors, everyone is very professional. We are one year behind, but we're learning very quickly."


Ocon steps up at Manor

Soon after last month's Hockenheim race, which Manor had allowed Rio Haryanto to do in order to give him the lifeline to find further funding, the Banbury team announced that Mercedes protege and Renault test driver Esteban Ocon would join them for the rest of the season, with his Grand Prix debut therefore coming at Spa. Haryanto will remain with the team as test and reserve driver.

The 19 year-old Frenchman from Evreux, who beat Max Verstappen to the 2014 European F3 title and won last year's GP3 Series, is very highly rated, and has driven for Renault several times in FP1 this year.

"Thanks to all the tests and my preparation this year, I feel ready for it", Ocon says of the weekend. "I never thought that I would be offered this opportunity quite so soon. At the same time, I'm very happy about it and I'm looking forward immensely to my first Formula One race weekend in Belgium."

Ocon's arrival also means the current grid now boasts 20 drivers who have been champions in F1 or the junior formulae - making this arguably one of the most decorated grids in F1 history. The only two exceptions are also two of the brightest talents at present - Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen.


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Sauber get much-needed update

After the fresh hope delivered by their new owners, Sauber have another cause for optimism - the C35 will receive some long overdue and much-needed updates this weekend at Spa.

Having tried a new rear wing in Hungary, the team will also have the new front wing - held back previously by budget concerns - in the search for greater downforce and less drag. The team also hope a new floor can be manufactured and shipped in time for this weekend.

"We knew the new rear wing was not really a standalone part that would give us massive performance, but it now has performed the way we expected it," team principal Monisha Kaltenborn says. "But we knew that in itself it would not be a big step; that it has to be seen in combination with all of its bits and pieces."

The team have also confirmed the appointment of Xevi Pujolar as new head of track engineering. The 43-year old Catalan started at Sauber's headquarters in Hinwil after the summer break and will work in this capacity from Singapore onwards. He has worked for several Formula One teams, notably as senior race engineer for Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso. Paul Russell, who took over the role of chief race engineer on an interim basis, will revert to his previous position as head of performance integration.


Hulkenberg and Rosberg to trial the halo

Both Force India's Nico Hulkenberg and Mercedes' Nico Rosberg will evaluate the halo cockpit protection device during first practice at Spa this weekend.

While the concept won't be adopted for the 2017 season, tests are ongoing as the FIA push for every team to have trial the system this season. Spa was deemed a particularly important testing ground given the undulating nature of the circuit, with the 12-storey incline of Eau Rouge and Raidillon a good test of any potential visibility issues.


How aggressive will teams be on strategy?

Pirelli have brought their P Zero white medium, yellow soft and red supersoft tyre compounds again this weekend - but there is a wide variety in terms of team selections.

Mercedes, for example, have been relatively conservative, choosing three sets of mediums (four for Rosberg) and four sets of supersofts on a track that creates some of the biggest tyre loads of the season, especially through the compression at Eau Rouge. 

Ferrari in contrast have just one set of mediums for the whole weekend, but seven supersofts apiece for both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Red Bull, meanwhile, are in the middle - they have loaded up with three sets of mediums and six sets of supersofts, but have just three sets of softs (Hamilton has six).

How those different selections will affect the racing remains to be seen, but it is worth remembering that Hamilton won last year's race with a simple two-stop strategy, pitting first on lap 13 and again on lap 30.

The race itself will run over 44 laps (or 308.052 kilometres) of the 7.004 kilometre circuit, and will start at 1400 hours local time, 1200 GMT. Somewhat unusually for Spa, the weather appears relatively settled, with temperatures in excess of 25 degrees Celsius forecast throughout the weekend.