The 2013 Formula 1 season kicks back into life at the iconic circuit of Spa-Francorchamps.
Triple world champion Sebastian Vettel leads the pack going into the weekend, but with a changeable forecast and plenty of questions over tyres and personnel, there is plenty to play for at the Belgian Grand Prix.
Practice sessions for the race take place on Friday and Saturday ahead of qualifying, with the race set for Sunday.
Your B/R race weekend essentials
Neil James provides the complete preview: Track details, weather, tyres, session schedule and more
Fraser Masefield ranks the performances of every driver in the first half of 2013: Grid order
Fraser Masefield takes a look at the top five drives ever seen at Spa-Francorchamps
Scott Mitchell asks how Spa compares to the greatest European F1 tracks
A quite brilliant lap from from Lewis Hamilton gave Mercedes pole position, and spoiled a possible fairytale for Paul di Resta.
A great tactical decision from the Scot and the Force India team looked to have sewn up a maiden pole, but after another shower the track dried once more and once again the drivers swept out late and clawed top spot back.
Di Resta's decision was against the logic of the rest of the grid, who rushed out early to try and get a lap in on slick tyres before the rain fell.
Di Resta was conspicuous by his absence, calculating that the rain would fall too soon for a lap in the dry—and so it proved as he set off on intermediates a couple of minutes later.
The rest of the field had to abort their laps as their tyres struggled to cope in the falling rain, while Di Resta had the best conditions to himself on intermediates.
Looks like Force India and di Resta have pulled a masterstroke as the rain comes down hard and Massa completes a lap 1.7s off #F1— ESPN F1 (@ESPNF1) August 24, 2013
It looked good enough for pole—indeed, di Resta parked up and watched the rest of the field fail to come close—but the rain eased and suddenly the race was on again.
Nico Rosberg jumped ahead first, before both Red Bull drivers did the same as the chequered flag came down.
But Hamilton was the last man on track, and had the last laugh.
Here are the official times as they appeared in the pit garage (You can see them in full on Eurosport):
Kimi Raikkonen laid down a marker for Q3 by qualifying top for it with a fine late run.
The track once again improved as the session wore on, with the rain holding off and the drivers operating on slicks.
Halfway through the session it was the Lotus duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean in a one-two at the top of the timesheets, while Sebastian Vettel and the two Mercedes drivers declined to set lap times.
Hamilton slotted into P2 before Vettel jumped to the head of the standings with three minutes to go.
Rosberg, meanwhile, aborted a seemingly sharp lap to change tyres, leaving him precious little time to complete a timed lap.
The three surprise packages from Q1 were eliminated effortlessly, leaving a scrap between 13 drivers for the top 10.
Raikkonen slotted into top spot, while Rosberg finally got a lap down right at the death, pushing Nico Hulkenberg out of the shoot-out at the last moment.
Eliminated from Q2
11: Hulkenberg (Sauber)
12: Sutil (Force India)
13: Perez (McLaren)
14: Van der Garde (Caterham)
15: Bianchi (Marussia)
16: Chilton (Marussia)
Q1 has traditionally seen the Marussia and Caterham drivers before the serious qualifying begins, but the rain in Belgium levelled the playing field and saw three of the four backmarkers make it through.
Giedo van der Garde braved slick tyres on a drying track and sliced through the field to reach Q2 in third place, while both Marussia drivers also reached the next round, the first time they had been there in three years.
The rain forecast for Belgium arrived 15 minutes before qualifying was due to start, and eased throughout Q1.
It made for a late dash for the line, and it was the Toro Rossos and Williams who were stung hardest, with both their drivers missing out.
Eliminated from Q1:
17: Maldonado (Williams)
18: Vergne (Toro Rosso)
19: Ricciardo (Toro Rosso)
20: Bottas (Williams)
21: Gutierrez (Sauber)
22: Pic (Caterham)
The weather stayed dry for free practice 3 and Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets as drivers and teams made their final tune-ups for the Belgian Grand Prix.
But whether the session will greatly assist the racers or even shed any light on the front-runners ahead of the afternoon qualifying session, when rain is forecast, remains to be seen.
Here's the forecast for the afternoon as given by the BBC:
Rain for later? The Spa forecast is not promising for qualifying (unless you like your racing wet) pic.twitter.com/aGwLnBT4qb— Bleacher Report F1 (@br_f1) August 24, 2013
There was precious little to separate the drivers, and with 11 minutes of the session remaining the 17th-placed driver, Paul di Resta, was within a second of the leading time.
At that point, however, there was then a late flurry of activity on the medium tyres, the softer compound for the weekend. Fernando Alonso raised the bar with a 1:48.432, and one-by-one drivers fell short of the mark.
The Mercedes duo, who have not been at the top of the timesheets all week, were both half a second down, while the Red Bull of Mark Webber could only grab second.
But Vettel, however, was not to be denied, and his 1:48.327, set with three minutes to go, was not to be beaten.
Full timings can be found on the Eurosport website.
The sun came out in Belgium, and Sebastian Vettel surged up to the top of the timesheets in a Red Bull 1-2 in second free practice.
But it was not all great news for the championship leader in the Ardennes—a right rear tyre failure saw the German limp home to the pits later in the session, and end his afternoon.
Interesting looking right rear tyre 'puncture' for Vettel. That'll raise alarms and close inspection.— Martin Brundle (@MBrundleF1) August 23, 2013
@steveslaterF1 Horner confirmed sudden delamination— Jason Swales (@Jason_A_Swales) August 23, 2013
Romain Grosjean was third on the timesheets, with Felipe Massa, Jean-Eric Vergne, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso behind.
But the delamination on Vettel's tyres will be the talking point from the session, the first time a tyre has failed quite so spectacularly since the British Grand Prix, where there were multiple incidents. Replays also seemed to suggest that the incident happened after a trip over the kerb.
UPDATE: Saturday, August 24, at 10:30 a.m. BST by Mark Patterson
Reuters reports that Pirelli have played down any fears over tyres and Paul Hembury has suggested that there was no structural issue:
There is clearly something but I cannot tell you what it is. It is from external sources.
It is a worry for the sport because we have to go out and find what it is. We will try our very best to identify it and give us an indication of what is causing it.
---End of update---
Fortunately Vettel was able to nurse the car back to the garage, and it should not take away from the signs that Red Bull are in top shape going into the weekend.
With both drivers three-quarters of a second clear of their nearest rivals, they have laid down a marker ahead of Saturday qualifying.
You can see the full times from FP2 on the Eurosport website.
Fernando Alonso hit the top of the standings as the cars returned to the track after a four-week hiatus.
Alonso's time of 1:55.198 reflected less than favourable conditions—there had been rain before the session, and whenever the track threatened to dry, the showers returned to make parts of the circuits treacherous.
Despite the wet track we're still using the time to log a couple of cruise control runs, giving us very useful data— Caterham F1 Team (@MyCaterhamF1) August 23, 2013
Paul Di Resta, who has struggled in qualifying in recent weeks, put his Force India second, with teammate Adrian Sutil third in a topsy-turvy lineup.
The order reflected the limited running and changeable track conditions for most teams—although, despite the difficulties, Lotus will probably be less than happy to see drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean occupy the bottom two places in the standings.
The full session times can be found here on Eurosport—and here's how they appeared to the drivers in the pit lane.