Spa: 'It's a circuit with a soul'

Hungry for action after the mid-season break? If so, would you like some F1 with your pommes frites? That’s the menu for this weekend as the Championship chase resumes in Belgium.

Few experiences can compare with standing down at the bottom of the steep descent to Eau Rouge, your cornet of frites and mayonnaise in hand, watching the world’s fastest cars scream through the zig-zag and up the sheer wall towards Le Raidillon.

Fortunately for all concerned, Spa-Francorchamps comes with a healthy serving of history and emotion as well as Belgian cuisine.

‘A circuit with a soul’? That’s a native French speaker describing the wonderful track in the Ardennes, and who are we to argue with the likes of Romain Grosjean?

The Lotus driver sums up this weekend’s venue to perfection. For every driver and fan with racing in the blood, Spa is a reminder of the sport’s traditions, and a welcome change from the contrived blandness of many modern tracks.

Not that we’re living in the past: to their credit, today’s drivers carry on that tradition with the reverence they show towards the mighty Belgian circuit that was on the original World Championship calendar back in 1950.

(Here’s one for the older hands and the real F1 nuts: who won that inaugural Spa race in 1950? Answer at the end)

The most recent winner, of course, was Daniel Ricciardo for Red Bull Renault in his stellar mid-season burst in 2014. Even the ultra-cool, totally modern Aussie can relate to the history that will surround him this weekend.

‘A proper old-school grand prix for the real racing enthusiast,’ is how Dan describes it – even if there seems little chance of a repeat victory in Belgium this year.

In Championship terms, the man who really needs to win at Spa this year is Nico Rosberg. The German has never finished first in Belgium in his 10-year F1 career, in fact his second place last season behind Ricciardo was his first visit to the Spa podium.

Just before the break, two races where Lewis Hamilton contrived to overcome minor disasters and extend his lead saw Rosberg fall 21 points behind his Mercedes teammate.

‘When you’re in such a close battle for the Championship,’ he says, ‘any opportunity to gain points is crucial and it’s up to me to take those chances – but also to make them for myself.’

In the 21st century Spa-Francorchamps has been dominated by Ferrari with five victories, although the most recent of those was as long ago as 2009. The Scuderia will arrive with all guns blazing to mark this, their 900th Grand Prix.

It’s at Spa that driver negotiations usually start to get serious, so current Ferrari incumbent Kimi Raikkonen will be doubly delighted to have been confirmed this week as a Ferrari driver again in 2016.

The team must be expecting a return to the form that has seen him win four times in Belgium, twice for McLaren and twice for the Scuderia. Yes, it’s a track that favours the quick guys…

Those guys will need to be not only quick but also quick-witted: Spa is also where the new FIA rules in relation to race starts, and the limitation on team inputs, come into force. What are the odds that we see an aborted start after a couple of them stall?

The lap itself is like a Formula 1 Hall of Fame: La Source… Eau Rouge and Les Combes… Pouhon… Blanchimont… the names roll off the tongue as the years roll away.

Over 70% of the seven-kilometre lap is spent at full throttle, with an average lap speed in excess of 230 km/h: no wonder real racing drivers relish the prospect of returning.

Just ask Jenson Button: ‘ Every single lap feels sensational,’ says the 2012 Spa-Francorchamps winner. ‘It’s a privilege as a Formula 1 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.’

See? It’s not just the circuit that has a soul…

(Answer: Juan Manuel Fangio won at Spa-Francorchamps in an Alfa Romeo in 1950)

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