Scene is set for great racing at Spa-Francorchamps
GOOD things are worth waiting for and they don’t come any better than the mythical Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the foothills of Belgium’s Ardennes.
Formula 1 will return this weekend after its nearly month-long “shutdown” but while the racing on track may have ceased for a few weeks, the sport that never sleeps has continued to churn at quite a dramatic rate.
For years, if not decades, the driver market has been one of the most intriguing aspects of the sport.
Who would race where and when has relentlessly dominated paddock discussions, arguably, since the sport’s inception.
So much speculation has surrounded driver moves that it even coined its own phrase to become known as the silly season. It’s been no less dramatic in 2018 and the last month either.
First, Daniel Ricciardo astonishingly announced his departure from Red Bull to join Renault for the 2019 season. It’s a bold move from a confident driver and only time will tell if it was the right move for Ricciardo.
It was not the least of the driver announcement over the break as Fernando Alonso too announced that he would be stepping away from the sport at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
It appears that he may run a dual programme that features racing in the World Endurance Championship and the IndyCar season as he tries to obtain the much-vaunted Triple Crown.
His 17-year career in F1 has simultaneously been highlighted by brilliance and underscored by controversy but the fact remains that, for Formula 1, Fernando Alonso is undoubtedly a loss.
It’s been well known for a few months that Carlos Sainz will take over Alonso’s seat at McLaren where he is likely to be partnered by F2 driver Lando Norris for 2019.
Elsewhere the most high profile seat that remains officially open is at Ferrari and is currently occupied by Kimi Raikkonen. While rumours swirled early in the season that Charles Leclerc would be drafted into the team for 2019 it is looking fairly certain that Raikkonen will remain at Ferrari for 2019.
In fact, rumours suggest that a 1+1 deal has been agreed to between the two parties. This means an assured seat for Raikkonen in 2019 and a team option to extend his contract for 2020.
It’s no great surprise that Raikkonen would be kept on given the way he has driven in 2018. Third in the championship standings despite two DNF’s and bulletproof consistency is likely what sealed the deal.
It seems all the more fitting that F1 returns to action at a circuit where Raikkonen has won on four occasions.
The famed Spa circuit is an old-school masterpiece infused with the memories of a bygone era that tested man and machine to the absolute limit. While fabled corners such as Eau Rouge and Blanchimont may be easier to navigate in the 2018 era of F1 car it’s no less spectacular when it all comes together.
Its 7km long lap is characterised by long straights and challenging fast corners against one of the most picturesque backdrops on the calendar.
Another unique and notorious characteristic of the Belgian Grand Prix is its changeable weather conditions. Such is the vastness of the circuit that it often simultaneously rains on one part of the track while it remains dry on another.
The list of names who have won more than twice on the demanding Spa circuit is a short one that includes only the likes of Fangio, Hill, Raikkonen, Clark, Senna, and the great Michael Schumacher, who won a staggering six times.
The undulating circuit and its distinctive power dominant demands bring Mercedes and Ferrari to the fore this weekend.
Red Bull will have to work much harder to make an impact in the middle sector where its aero efficiency will be its biggest strength.
For Sebastian Vettel it will be imperative to stop Hamilton’s momentum and stem the loss of points to the reigning champion.
But there is every opportunity that neither Vettel nor Hamilton will be on the top step of the podium this weekend. After all it is a circuit where Raikkonen has always shone.