The classic corners of Spa Francorchamps in Belgium
After a five-week layoff, Formula 1 returns this weekend with a race at the historic Spa Francorchamps circuit. As the favourite track of many current F1 drivers, Spa Francorchamps promises to provide an intriguing Belgian Grand Prix.
When the 2012 F1 season started with seven different winners from seven different races, the season was rightly heralded as an historic one—never before in the sport's history had this happened. That the first six races also saw a different constructor take the chequered flag in each, only added to the perception that 2012 would rank alongside the greatest seasons in terms of close competition.
But with this variance came an element of unpredictability, and amongst the adulation there were some dissenting voices. Was it all a bit too random?
Foremost among the causes for concern were the tyres. Brought in by Pirelli for 2011 to liven up the sometimes processional races, the feeling among some in the F1 paddock was that this time they had gone too far, the rubber too unpredictable.
Fast-forward to the present moment, and whilst caution is still being expressed by the teams in trying to avoid a completely random sport, a general pecking order seems to have been established in the field.
Which is the overall fastest car is still partly dependant on the conditions and the nature of the
track in question, but the Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus cars appear to have established themselves as a clear top four. Despite a win apiece during that unprecedented seven-race run, neither Mercedes nor Williams have been able to keep up with the development of the top four, and will be keen to try and bridge the gap with their off-season updates. As ever, the competition in F1 is a moving target, so they will both have to make significant gains in order to catch up.
For Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher, the race will have added significance. The German already holds most of F1’s records, but this weekend he will become only the second driver to take part in 300 grand prix. The recent pace of his Mercedes might make extending two of his outright records—most Belgian grand prix wins (6) and overall grand prix wins (91)—a tough task, but with the “Double DRS” Mercedes pioneered at the start of the season, the high speed nature of Spa might well suit his car. Schumacher produced one of his finest drives since his 2010 comeback last year—coming from the back of the field to an eventual fifth place. So if the conditions suit Mercedes, or Spa’s typically unpredictable weather plays its part, the old master could still spring a surprise.
But it is another “DDRS” which has been causing more headlines of late, with Lotus set to introduce their version for the first time in race conditions. The Lotus system appears to function somewhat differently to the Mercedes’ (analysis here), but it still looks likely to provide some kind of top speed benefit, particularly useful both in Spa and the next race in Monza, Italy. When combined with the fact that Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen is another Spa expert with four race wins—the Finn has never actually completed an F1 race in Belgium that he didn’t win—the Lotus is looking like a very strong contender to win its first race this year.
And yet it is still the tyres that may end up being the biggest talking point of the weekend. Together with the idea that they introduced a certain random element to proceedings, the other major criticism levelled at this year’s rubber is that it require drivers to “nurse” the tyres through the race, rather than going flat-out for the full race distance. But with Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery this week claiming that "the nomination of the hard and the medium tyres will allow drivers to push hard from start to finish” (via AUTOSPORT), it may be that cars which have previously been known for wearing out their tyres—the Mercedes and to some extent McLaren, and Ferrari—suddenly have an advantage in getting the more durable tyres up to their optimum operating window.
However the race does pan out, one thing is still clear about F1 2012: predicting a winner with any certainty is almost impossible to do.