The factories are open. Summer has been and gone, and now we enter the final straight of the season.
Formula One comes back from the summer break with a vengeance at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit, with the 7.004 km track set to entertain a titanic race.
Set deep in the Ardennes forest near the German border, the circuit first hosted racing in 1922 on the frightening 14.9 km "triangle" track. Although the track has undergone a number of layout changes, the modern layout still embodies the spirit of the track which blitzed through small Belgian villages.
The Title Protagonists
The 2010 running of the Belgian Grand Prix looks set to go down to the wire. The track plays both to the strengths and weaknesses of the three leading cars—Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren.
The long blast from La Source to Les Combes, via the spectacular Eau Rouge (pictured), will suit the McLarens most. With their "F-Duct" and powerful engine, they should be strong in this section, and they should also be strong through Blanchimont into the Bus Stop chicane.
Ferrari also have a strong record on this track, having won for the past three years (although critics will always maintain Lewis Hamilton should not have had his 2008 taken away from him in the stewards room). Fernando Alonso may not have won here in the past, but he will be fired up in the push to get amongst the title contenders.
Spa has been earmarked as one of Red Bull's weakest tracks. The Renault power-plant in the back of the RB6 is one of the weakest engines on the Formula One grid, although it does possess good traction, which will surely aid Red Bull coming out of the first-gear La Source hairpin. Their biggest gains are to be found in the twisty second sector of the track, with many excited by the thought of an RB6 plunging down Pouhon.
All three teams have their problems though. McLaren have been searching for pace all season, and argue that the summer break came at the wrong time for them. They haven't won since Canada four races ago, and whether they have made significant improvements since Hungary remains to be seen.
Ferrari and Red Bull are both suffering from in-fighting at the wrong time. With Ferrari engaging in a war of words with former driver Niki Lauda over the summer, they will have to ensure that it has been put to the back of their mind.
Red Bull meanwhile are still embroiled in a favouritism row over who gets preference in the title race. At a track like Spa, any shenanigans could prove spectacular, costly and indeed terrifying, with not much run-off compared to other tracks.
The Midfield Battle
With so many teams beginning to hit form in the past couple of races, the battle for the lower points places looks set to be as titanic as the battle for the win.
The ones to look out for are Renault, Sauber, and Williams. For Renault, it is Vitaly Petrov in particular. Since being told to kick up a gear by Renault, he has went from strength to strength. His Hungaroring weekend was the perfect example of a man racing for his Grand Prix future. Renault will be looking for more of the same this time round.
Sauber have found a lot of pace since James Key took over the technical department. Kamui Kobayashi has been finding his feet in the C29 and seems to have returned to the same form which impressed so many towards the end of 2009, with his drive from 23rd to ninth last time out in Hungary being his most impressive of the season. Pedro de la Rosa also earned some points in Hungary for the Hinwil outfit with his most impressive weekend of the season.
Williams have also been finding their feet again after a tricky mid-season. Nico Hulkenberg took his best finish of the season in Hungary, while Rubens Barrichello found himself in the wars with Michael Schumacher on the way to 10th, and they're confident they can keep it up for the rest of the season.
This leaves the likes of Mercedes and Force India with the prospect of not taking much if anything from Belgium. Michael Schumacher has a grid penalty for his over-enthusiastic defending in Hungary, and will do well to get anything out of his Belgian weekend. Force India return to the site of 2009's biggest shock, when Giancarlo Fisichella took a shock pole for the outfit based at Silverstone. They'll do well to repeat that form again, and with Vitantonio Liuzzi looking uneasy with his VJM03, he's another driver racing for his future.
Potential For a Shock?
As mentioned before, Force India shone here last year due to their impressive pace with low downforce.
This year, that mantle could fall to one of the new teams. Lotus could be this year's Force India, if they're able to extract good speed out of their Cosworth engine. Virgin have been making noise about their new updates, and it remains to be seen whether they will work on the track.
HRT meanwhile are confident they have good race in store for Belgium, although they still have not released a large updates for the F110 chassis. And as they have stuck with Sakon Yamamoto ahead of Karun Chandhok, who won a GP2 race at Spa in 2007, I don't see hem anywhere other than at the back.
With the track being surrounded by forest, Spa is often described as having its own micro-climate, with every race shrouded in the possibility of rain. This year is no exception, with early predictions saying rain is possible towards the end of qualifying, and also during the race.
This year's Belgian Grand Prix looks set to be as spectacular as ever, and with so much unpredictability surrounding the weather, it may even be the best for years.
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