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Six key questions ahead of the race in Belgium

28 Aug 2016

Which is the right tyre to start on? Will Ocon star on his F1 debut? What can Hamilton really do from the back of the grid? We consider the key issues ahead of Sunday's 2016 Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix...

Are Mercedes in trouble?

Nico Rosberg took his sixth pole positon of the season, but it was Mercedes’ least convincing as Max Verstappen in a less powerful Renault-engined Red Bull was a mere 0.149s adrift. So have Mercedes been in trouble at Spa?

Yes is the answer, according to Rosberg, who admitted they’ve had a difficult weekend so far.

Part of the problem was that team mate Lewis Hamilton was not as usual focusing on pole position speed, because of the plan to take penalties here to ease his engine situation for the rest of the year. That meant that qualifying set-up work was being done on just one car while the other was working on race set-up.

Instead of pushing one another, Rosberg and Hamilton were working to different programmes. And, by Rosberg’s admission, they were off the pace in FP3 and had to make a lot of changes on his car to find the missing speed.

Much of the problem was the heat, and Pirelli’s decision on sticking with minimum tyre pressures originally mandated when the temperatures were much lower. Rosberg described it as a “different world out there,” but said they got things right just in time for qualifying.

Nevertheless, he isn’t expecting an easy race, as managing tyres is going to be critical for everyone regardless of what compound they start on. For him there is also the added memory of poor starts in Hungary and Germany, though from that point he’s relieved it’s only a short spurt from the start line down to La Source.

In short, we shouldn’t take a Mercedes victory as a sure thing here.

Can Hamilton win?

Given the above, does Lewis Hamilton have any chance of winning from the back of the grid? Nobody has yet done that in F1, but if anyone could do it, it’s the world champion.

Much will depend on how well he steers clear of the inevitable bottleneck at La Source at the start, and then avoiding contact as he works his way through traffic. He will doubtless have been hoping his main rivals qualified on the supersoft tyres and thus had to stop early, but Rosberg, Raikkonen, Vettel and Ricciardo all qualified on the softs, so perhaps he’ll look for something different in his own strategy to give himself a longer starting-stint advantage. A start on mediums, perhaps?

Really, this weekend has been all about damage limitation, of taking the penalties on a track where Mercedes power should count. But if he has been more successful on his race set-up work than his rivals were on their qualifying configurations, he might just find himself able to turn the tables on a fair few of them as he fights his way up the field.

Which is the right tyre, soft or supersoft?

It’s clear that few of the frontrunners were keen to start the race on the least-durable supersofts, especially in hot temperatures and with a full fuel load. Thus Rosberg, Raikkonen, Vettel and Ricciardo all opted for the softs in Q2.

Of the rest, they all pretty much had to use the red-banded rubber just to go fast enough to get into Q3. Except for Verstappen, who chose supersofts deliberately in the firm belief that they would give him the best strategy.

The Dutchman on his stickier rubber will be the cat amongst the pigeons at the start, but Rosberg believes he’ll be able to get his Mercedes into La Source first come what may. And Raikkonen doesn’t think there’ll be much difference between the different tyres getting off the line.

Verstappen cheerfully admits that his strategy is to start on the supersofts and then see where he ends up after a few laps. If that means pitting sooner, he is happy that there will be plenty of laps left to get things sorted out. But he is adamant that he wanted to run the supersofts rather than the softs in Q2 because he and the team believe that’s the best strategy.

Whether that proves to be the misguided optimism of youth, or a super-smart move, remains to be seen. But it’s one reason why this race has the hallmarks of something special and unpredictable.

“Here right now we still don’t know what the best option is,” said Red Bull chief Christian Horner. “The supersoft is going to need to pit earlier, but Max should be able to make real progress and possibly have track position compared to the other cars. A few years ago we stopped on lap two here and managed to win…”

Mindful of the drama that befell Vettel and Ferrari last year and which cost them a podium finish, Pirelli have recommended the maximum number of laps teams should aim for on each compound: 24 on the mediums; 16 on the softs; and nine on the supersofts.

They also offered predictions for possible pit-stop strategies.

Quickest: Two-stopper - two stints on soft of 15 laps each, plus one 14-lap stint on medium.

Second-quickest: Two-stopper - two stints on soft of 11 laps each, plus one 22-lap stint on medium.

Third-quickest: Two-stopper - one eight-lap stint on supersoft, plus one 14-lap stint on soft and one 22-lap stint on medium.

Slowest: Three-stopper - two stints on supersoft of seven laps each, plus two 15-lap stints on soft.

Interestingly, Hamilton chose three sets of mediums, six sets of softs and four sets of supersofts for this meeting, Rosberg four, five and four. At Ferrari the respective figures for Raikkonen and Vettel are one, five and seven, and at Red Bull for Ricciardo and Verstappen, four, three and six.

Is this Ferrari’s best chance of a win?

A Mercedes on pole and a Red Bull a surprising second… That might not appear to give Ferrari a lot of hope for a much-needed victory. But Raikkonen was adamant that he could have taken pole had he not lost a few tenths as his Ferrari’s rear end had given up its grip by the Bus Stop chicane. Vettel also complained of a similar problem. But both point out that if you compare where they qualified here - third and fourth - with where they qualified in the last few races, they have to be satisfied.

As noted above, Ferrari have opted for more supersoft tyres than any of the other front-running teams, but Raikkonen said he doesn’t believe that will compromise them. It’s likely to be a bit of a lottery in any case, because of the weather and the minimum tyre pressures, and he believes Ferrari have sufficient tyres to suit their planned strategy.

Tyre management will be crucial to success, and while Mercedes have a half-second advantage over the red cars, on recent performance they in turn have had better success with their tyre choice than Red Bull. Much may depend upon what Verstappen and Red Bull can do at the start; if the Dutchman can pass Rosberg the Ferraris may be able to gang up on the German, who has looked vulnerable in recent races…

Force India v Williams: A crucial race for both

Force India have been catching Williams fast in recent races. Since Baku, the Grove team have scored 15 points, whereas their Silverstone rivals have scored 39.

Thus Williams’ return to form here is timely, and Massa’s fastest time in Q1 was a boost. Unfortunately, it could not be sustained in Q2 or Q3, and in the end Force India had Perez in sixth and Hulkenberg in seventh, as Bottas took eighth and Massa 10th.

Both teams had to use supersofts in Q2 to make Q3. Where Perez was happy, Hulkenberg said a small issue with his engine hurt him on the straights and cost a few tenths. Both Williams also encountered software issue, and the team said that cost them positions. Massa also only had one run in Q3 and a lock-up going into La Source prevented him going any quicker than his fifth-row slot.

The two teams’ race pace isn’t dissimilar, so much will come down to their individual strategies, and on recent evidence Force India could have the advantage there. Either way the battle for fourth overall in the world championship for constructors is worth keeping an eye on.

How will new boy Ocon fare against Wehrlein?

Within three laps on Friday, Manor team chief Dave Ryan was convinced by Esteban Ocon. Aided by his previous experience with Lotus and Renault in FP1 sessions, the 19 year-old looked at home immediately and ended his first morning as a proper F1 racer in 16th place, three ahead of team mate Pascal Wehrlein who himself has made a serious impression since coming into F1 earlier this year.

The more experienced German moved ahead in FP2, with a startling 11th place to the Frenchman’s 21st, though the latter had lost some time with a problem. “An incredibly impressive debut,” was how Ryan described it.

Wehrlein continued to push hard in FP3, taking 15th to Ocon’s 20th, and they went on to qualify 15th and 18th respectively. The German was a remarkable ninth in Q1, but in retrospect the team wish they had believed in themselves more and used their tyres slightly differently, as he had no fresh supersofts left for Q2.

Ocon admitted that he needs more time in the car to get the best from supersofts, and to deal with traffic, but the team were delighted with his performance first time out.

If he beats Wehrlein in the race it would be sensational. If he doesn’t, it’s hardly a crime. Either way, Manor can only benefit from having the two Mercedes proteges, each pushing the other as hard as possible.