Belgian F1 Grand Prix 2013: 5 Key Storylines to Watch at Spa-Francorchamps
The Formula 1 season did not roar back into life on Friday morning exactly, as the expected damp start to the weekend in the Ardennes muted the action.
However, back the F1 season is, and there's plenty to chew over before the weekend's serious running begins.
Lewis Hamilton's victory in Hungary, not to mention the competitiveness of the Lotus, has reignited the title fight after so many were too quick to write it off following Sebastian Vettel's victory in Germany.
The grid is full of little battles behind the Red Bull/Mercedes/Lotus/Ferrari scrap at the front.
McLaren and Force India are locked in a fierce battle for fifth place in the Constructors' standings, while Sauber and Toro Rosso will look to be sniffing around the tail-end of the points.
Williams got its first point of the season at Budapest thanks to Pastor Maldonado, so arrived in Spa invigorated—though it's unlikely Marussia or Caterham will experience similar ebullience come Sunday evening.
5: Belgian Weather
As people are so quick to point out, anything can happen in motorsport.
Is there such thing as a certainty in Formula One? Yes. The Belgian weather.
There's no point saying it will rain this weekend. It already has. Not enough to render an entire practice session useless for dry running, but already enough to disrupt the weekend.
There are a few reasons why the weather will, as ever, play a big part in the Grand Prix.
First, the obvious. The not-so-unpredictable rain brings with it unpredictability. So while the form book doesn't get torn up, it can get turned on its head. Different drivers and cars suit the wet, and there's always the chance of a surprise or two if it does indeed rain on race day.
Second, we could have a jumbled grid if the weather disguises the true pecking order. A wet qualifying session does not necessarily determine the hierarchy in a dry race, and vice versa.
This leads us to the third point: Dry running is crucial on Friday and Saturday morning.
If it were to rain all day Saturday after a damp-dry FP1 and then be dry on Sunday, then Friday afternoon's dry second session (hypothetically speaking) would be absolutely paramount.
Especially, for example, if you are Lotus and plan to use your passive DRS system. And there's another thing the weather could affect—will they be confident/allowed to use that system if it's teaming down with rain?
4: Summer Well Spent
Most F1 teams faced a pivotal crossroads at the start of the summer break—stop development of this year's car, with the 2014 regulations posing a huge challenge to even the biggest outfits, or keep pushing and maximise this year's result.
Strictly speaking, this development would not have occurred during the mutually agreed summer recess.
But that doesn't mean teams wouldn't attempt to boost their understand of the current challengers, especially after the introduction of the new Pirellis and the big change in climate from Hungary to Belgium.
Of course, some teams stood to lose or gain more than others.
For the likes of Ferrari, it's been quite simple. The car's fallen off the pace in recent weeks, they need to get back on track. Luca di Montezemolo ordered a large-scale investigation into where the team's race-day performance went in Hungary, leaving no stone unturned in the fight to get the Scuderia back on top.
Force India will also have been doing serious head-scratching over the break. Its performance wilted in Hungary, easily its worst weekend of the season. Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil went from comfortable top-10 contenders to back-to-mid-pack stragglers.
Lotus, Red Bull and Mercedes were all in the same bracket at the front. They are fighting for race wins and the world title. Switching attention was always an option, but one none could afford to take up.
Lotus' priority would have been ensuring that the cooler Belgian climate would not restrict them from accessing the car's best operating window. Higher temperatures have often been the Enstone squad's friend, but they will need to get the best out of the car in all seasons to mount a second-half title bid.
This is about who did the best job given the factory shutdown and the confines of the summer working agreement and whether this transfers from paper to track.
3: All in It Together?
Silly season began in earnest over the summer break, though it was not at all aided by Fernando Alonso's apparent dig at Ferrari post-Hungary, nor the public rebuke he was handed by the team and Luca di Montezemolo.
Alonso now insists any factions within the Ferrari camp were fabricated, and that it was all a misunderstanding. But will that show this weekend?
The Spaniard is F1's coolest customer. However, even he is growing frustrated by Ferrari's underdog status, a consequence of the Scuederia's lean run for several years now.
It's unlikely to blow up this weekend, even if the Maranello squad fails to trouble the winner's spot on the podium. But it definitely will not help.
Driver-team relationships could pose an interesting storyline this weekend, though not for negative reasons like the Alonso-Ferrari one.
All eyes have, so far, been on Daniel Ricciardo, Toro Rosso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus and of course, Red Bull. That group has a serious monopoly over the 2014 driver market, and it will be fascinating to see how it plays out this weekend if any information emerges.
2: Spa's Unique Challenge
Such is the schizophrenic nature of Spa, teams have an incredibly tough decision to make on setup.
If they opt for a higher downforce setting, they will be a sitting duck on the Kemmel Straight and will be slow in general in the first and last sectors. However, they will have a serious advantage in the longer, middle part of the lap.
However, a lower downforce setting will offer more speed, arguably, in qualifying, as the advantage in a straight line can be aided by a balls-out, on-the-limit effort in the middle sector.
Such an approach, though, would not be feasible over the course of a 20-lap stint in the race. The tyres would need to be worked too hard and, as a result, strategy would be compromised.
This is a classic Spa dilemma and, given the leading teams, will almost certainly be split—the aerodynamically brilliant Red Bull versus the powerful Mercedes—the race promises to be a fantastic game of cat and mouse at various stages.
Don't underestimate, however, the potential advantage of Lotus' passive DRS system. If dry running in practice permits a proper evaluation, and the race remains dry, this could be a huge advantage on Spa's long run down to Les Combes as well as the sprint to the Bus Stop chicane.
1: Ferocious Victory Fight
Is it beyond the realm of possibility to consider Sunday's race could be won by one of seven men?
Both Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus drivers must head in to the race confident. The cars are clearly capable, four of the drivers have won already this year, another has won several Grands Prix across his career, while Romain Grosjean is knocking on the door of a maiden triumph.
And you'd be foolish to count out Fernando Alonso, even if the Ferrari has been struggling for outright pace.
In Hungary, Vettel—the favourite after Saturday qualifying—was beaten by two rivals in two different cars. It's likely Grosjean would have been in the mix too if not for his own dramas.
Throw Webber and Alonso in to the mix and there is little reason to suggest we will not have an exciting battle for pole and the win this weekend.
Then factor in unpredictable weather, 2014 seats up for grabs and the speed-versus-downforce gamble, and you have a tantalising Grand Prix in prospect—and then some.