Big crowds expected as F1 returns to action

A big crowd is expected to camp under the trees of the sweeping Ardennes forests and herald Formula One’s return to action at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Australian Daniel Ricciardo will be hoping to upstage local hero and Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen, while another home hope, Stoffel Vandoorne, will seek to mark his retention by McLaren with a strong showing in front of his home fans.

The 25-year-old Vandoorne will be a focus of attention along with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who starts his 200th Grand Prix, and Belgium-born Dutchman Verstappen, complete with his ‘orange army’. 

Vandoorne was on Wednesday confirmed by McLaren for 2018, despite a disappointing year to date, and will be Belgium’s first home representative since Jerome d’Ambrosio in 2012. He scored his first point this year in Hungary last month.

“I’m delighted that the team has announced that I will continue to race for them next year because I’ll be able to approach the second half of my rookie season with total focus on the job in hand,” said Vandoorne, who has struggled to match teammate Fernando Alonso this year.

Hamilton will be seeking a record-equalling 68th career pole position to draw level with German great Michael Schumacher, as well as his fifth win this year, as he bids to claw back points on Championship leader Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari.

Back in Europe after spending F1’s now-traditional European summer break in the Caribbean, Hamilton, who gave up third for teammate Valtteri Bottas in Hungary, lies 14 points behind Vettel.

Hamilton won at Spa in 2015, but was beaten by teammate Nico Rosberg last year and has had mixed results at the famous old sprawling and high-speed circuit.

In 2008, when Hamilton won his first title, he was relegated from first to third for cutting a chicane, and he has suffered in other incidents including a collision with Rosberg, that left him with a puncture, in 2014.

Seeking his third Belgian win, Hamilton will be the pre-race favourite to take the chequered flag again, but he knows Ferrari has regained the momentum in the title race following its dominant one-two finish led by Vettel in Hungary.

Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff has already warned his squad not to take anything for granted.

“Assumptions are dangerous,” he said.

“We have seen too many times already this season that the form book can be rewritten from one weekend to the next.”

The race may also be affected – as often in the past – by the capricious micro-climate of the region, which can mean parts of the track are under water in rainfall while others remain dry.

That, for Verstappen, may be a bonus as he bids to put a mixed season to date back on the road.

“I just love the track and it'll be nice seeing so many orange fans in the stands," he said.

“Spa is my favourite track – you have to get everything right, but when you get a good lap, it's very rewarding.”

That could also be said of Ferrari’s second driver and four-time Spa winner, Kimi Raikkonen, who has been confirmed as remaining with the team next year.

“It will not be easy for us, as Mercedes has the horsepower, but we will do what we can and who knows? Let’s see what happens,” he said.

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