Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Break’s Over & The Belgian Grand Prix

Three weeks have slipped past since Formula 1 last took to the track.  The summer break always seems to be an interesting thing as teams are forced to shut down for a few weeks and gain some valuable rest.  One question would be whether or not such a long break does anything to teams or drivers who have that elusive thing called momentum.  Lewis Hamilton was clearly on a tear before the break, having won six of the last seven races and taking the championship lead.

Though no one is directly matching the speed of Mercedes, Red Bull had begun to show itself as a major headache for the silver arrow, taking a position that was supposed to be held by Ferrari.  While Red Bull may have been making upgrades all along, it looks like bringing Max Verstappen onboard from their sister team Toro Rosso has enlivened the team given it more proverbial spark.

For Ferrari, the break may be what they’ve needed.  There is so much pressure for the prancing pony to win that it seems like that pressure is inhibiting their success.  With the turnover in personnel they’ve had regarding their car development, it looks like they are throwing pasta at the wall and seeing which one sticks to determine if they are on the right course.  The fact is that they should let this season go and set their sights on 2017 and the new regulations, but there is no way they would do that.  

So now that things are set to resume, let’s get back into the swing of things and hit upon some of the stories ahead of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Odds & Sods

– Lewis Hamilton faces a 30-spot grid penalty for the race at Spa.  That fact, which is ridiculous with just 22 cars in the field, is really just part of F1 and its rules.  What Mercedes did was exploit a challenge they faced in swapping out powerplant parts for Hamilton’s ride for the rest of the season.  With Hamilton already having used all his provisional engine swap markers, any changes made for the rest of the season were going to bring grid spot penalties.  Rather than take these sanctions on a race by race basis, Mercedes took the punishment in one lump sum.  

The move is a smart one as Hamilton should be in good shape after the Belgian Grand Prix.  The one issue that exists is that should Hamilton need further changes from here on out, he will again incur penalties. While the punishment may mean that Hamilton starts at the back of the grid, it would be difficult to believe that a podium finish is not out of reach.  Even if he is unable to finish in the top three, his 19-point lead over Rosberg still positions him to come away from this race in fine standing – if not still with the lead.

Nico Rosberg led free practice one with the Halo attached (credit: Getty Images)

– Hamilton is not the only driver incurring grid spot penalties ahead of the Grand Prix.  Fernando Alonso suffered a 35-spot penalty as his power unit sprang a water leak during free practice one and the team went to work replacing, basically, everything.  It’s a rough start as McLaren had already updated his power unit ahead of the weekend, changes that teammate Jenson Button had stated were “big progress.”  Joining Alonso is Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, who will be taking a 10-spot penalty as his team replaced its sixth turbocharger of the year.  

Nico Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz, and Nico Hulkenberg all tested the Halo cockpit protection device during free practice one at Spa.  The device failed to slow Rosberg as he posted the quickest time for the session.  It is worth mentioning that even though F1 will not be implementing use of the Halo for 2017, they are still doing their due diligence by giving the Halo a worthy test.  The drivers all stated that visibility, one of the previous concerns with the device, was not an issue.  While these initial reactions are all positive, it will be interesting to see how things progress and how F1 continues to test the Halo.

– Tyre management looks to be one of the big stories for the race.  With temperatures nearing 90 degrees for practices and qualifying, the teams are looking at the usefulness of the supersofts in comparison to the softs and mediums.  Pirelli has stated that they believe there to be a 1.2 second difference between the supersoft and softs, and a 1.5 difference between softs and mediums.  That means that the Spa track is really eating away at the tyres regardless of the compound.  The degradation has caused some teams to look at what tyres they’ll use for qualifying as it will dictate what they start on for the GP.  While tyre strategy adds a wonderful element to the event one thing that seems to have been left from the discussion is that it tends to rain at Spa.  In fact, at one point it rained 20 years straight for the race.  Whether teams are factoring in that aspect has not been mentioned but it adds another element to the strategy.   

Manor Racing announced during the break that Esteban Ocon will be taking over for Rio Haryanto for the remainder of the F1 season.  The main reason for the switch is that Haryanto ran out of funding to keep the seat.  The secondary reason is that Mercedes wanted to see what their protege, Ocon, could show by making the move.  As Manor is in partnership with Mercedes, the move is not a surprising one and should provide an interesting competition between Mercedes’ other hand-picked driver at Manor, Pascal Wehrlein.  

The Race

The track, known as Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, came into existence in 1921.  For its first few years the track held more motorcycle than car races, but that changed in 1925 when it held its first Grand Prix.  With the exception of the period between 1972 and 1984, Spa has been the grounds of either the Belgian or European Grand Prix, though there have been cancellations, even as late as 2006 when the promoter went bankrupt.  Over the years the tracks has undergone numerous alterations with its current circuit having taken form in 2007.  In this current iteration, the track is 4.3 miles long and features 20 turns.  Michael Schumacher leads all drivers with six wins at the track while Kimi Raikkonen is the most decorated active driver with four wins.  Lewis Hamilton took the victory in 2015.  

About the author

Ava Lader headshot photo

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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