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Fast Tracks May Put Dan Back In The Pack

Round 12 takes us to the spectacular Spa-Francorchamps circuit, a track loved by all the drivers and a very welcome sight as F1 returns from its summer break. The cars will face 44 laps of the 7.004-km circuit, the longest on the 19-race calendar, with qualifying and race scheduled for 22:00 starts (Australian time) on Saturday and Sunday respectively.

The man with the best record at Spa among the current drivers is Kimi Raikkonen, who won for McLaren Mercedes in 2004 and 2005, then repeated the feat as a Ferrari star in 2007 and 2009. The best-performed team since Belgium’s round of the World Championship returned to Spa in 1985 is McLaren, with 11 victories. How the beleaguered English outfit would love a 12th this year…

The lap record on the 7.004 km layout used since 2007 belongs to Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault) and stands at 1:47.263, an average lap speed of 235.070 km/h which he set in 2009.

Best Moments

The stand-out in recent years is THAT pass by Mark Webber on Fernando Alonso at Eau Rouge in 2011. On lap 37 the Aussie sized his Spanish opponent up on the downhill run to the famous corner and decided to trust him – and his own judgment. “At that point,” he said, “you don’t have much time to get the calculator out…”

Eleven years earlier, in 2000, Mika Hakkinen produced a similar moment of magic. This time there were just three laps left as the Finn’s McLaren Mercedes hunted down race leader Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari. On the flat-out run up to Les Combes, Schumacher went left to pass back-marker Ricardo Zonta in the BAR. Undaunted, Hakkinen stormed up the inside and made it stick.

Two years before that, Damon Hill claimed his third victory at Spa-Francorchamps. The point to remember is that the 1996 World Champion was, by 1998, in a Jordan Mugen. Eddie’s team had been in F1 since 1991; this was their 127th Grand Prix – and their first victory. Hill took full advantage of the wet conditions to post the 22nd and final win of his own F1 career. With Ralf Schumacher second in the sister car it was a truly memorable day for the Irish.

Boy of the Moment

No, you didn’t read that wrongly, and we mean no disrespect, but Max Verstappen is unquestionably the F1 name of the moment – at 16, he has been named as replacement for Jean-Eric Vergne in the Scuderia Toro Rosso driver line-up next year. He will be 17 and the youngest F1 driver in history by two years when he lines up on the grid in Melbourne in March. Son of ‘Jos the Boss’ Verstappen, Max was born in September 1997 – just over a week before his father jetted off to race for Tyrrell in the Japanese Grand Prix. What’s even more staggering is that Max is currently in his first season as a single-seater racer. Eight victories in 27 European F3 races to date show what he’s made of, and he is with the same Van Amersfoort Racing outfit for whom Jos won the Formula Opel Lotus Benelux title in 1992.

Big issues

For Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo there is just one: pace, or the lack of it. The Mercedes engine is stronger than Renault’s and that fact will only be underlined by the long, testing Spa-Francorchamps layout. Just ask Renault Sport’s Rémi Taffin: “It’s fair to say that Spa is the hardest circuit of the year for the Power Units. There are long periods of wide open throttle, sweeping, high speed corners, hard stops and several important changes of altitude. Any one of these factors would be taxing for the new units, but the combination over one awesome 7km lap is enough to make even the hardiest engineer nervous.″ All of which means that Spa and Monza may be too much for the #3 car – but look out Singapore!

Secondly, tyres: as Pirelli’s Paul Hembery says, “There is more time to be won and lost by being on the right tyre at the right time than at many other venues. It’s the sort of race where, under the right circumstances, it’s absolutely possible to go from last to first – and that always makes for a very exciting grand prix.” To underline what Hembery says, take the world-famous corner called Eau Rouge, where the cars plummet downhill, bottom out, turn and climb all in the space of a few moments. “The key to Spa is managing the colossal amount of energy going through the tyres, from every direction,” the Pirelli man adds. “At Eau Rouge, for example, the engines are at maximum power, the cars are travelling at 300kph, and there is a negative compression in the region of 1g, as well as about 5g of lateral force. This adds up to an unparalleled demand on the tyre structure and shoulder, not seen anywhere else during the year.”

Thirdly… the small matter of the World Championship! Mercedes are almost home and hosed in the Constructors’ stakes, but which of their two men will take the Drivers’ crown? Nico Rosberg, to remind you, leads Lewis Hamilton by 11 points as they resume hostilities – which are only likely to grow more hostile as the fight continues. Rosberg has yet to win in Belgium; Hamilton did the job for McLaren there in 2010. “The circuit is just unreal,” says Nico, “and it’s one I think every driver looks forward to. My record there hasn’t been as good as at some other circuits in the past, but I’m determined to change that and get the season kicked off again in style!”

Quote of the week

“There’s no better place to resume the season than at Spa-Francorchamps. It’s one of the best circuits in the world, and it’s a place where driving a Formula 1 car always feels incredible. As ever, I’m really looking forward to driving out of the pits for the first time on Friday morning, and just throwing the car into some of the greatest corners in motorsport.”

Jenson Button (McLaren Mercedes), Spa victor in 2012

Off the record

It’s hard – and probably foolhardy – to look beyond Mercedes, but let’s remember Alonso’s sheer fighting spirit and his love of Spa and choose Fernando to get up there alongside the two Silver Arrows men. And don’t discount the possibility of a surprise Williams win…

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