The summer break is almost at an end with F1 returning to action at Spa-Francorchamps - but what does it take to tame one of the sport's most legendary tracks and who can come out on top this weekend?
The circuit offers around 4.35 miles of winding public roads, laid out around the hills of the Ardennes forest, with unique technical, driving and strategic challenges including an abrasive track surface, very high cornering forces, lots of open throttle, heavy undulation and, of course, microclimatic weather.
The long high-speed straights mean a medium to low downforce set-up is optimal and that allows cars to reach up to just over 200mph with a fully deployed DRS.
With some 80 percent of the lap run at full throttle — including one section lasting up to 23 seconds flat-out - it's tough on engines and also tough on fuel consumption. Teams will look to plan their engine use to make sure they have a fresh or low mileage unit in for this weekend's event to avoid any troubles and anyone who can build a buffer in the race will benefit significantly.
The track is also hard on tyres as the high-speed corners coupled with the undulation regularly subject the sidewalls to tough multi-plane forces but at least the brakes get some rest as just 11 percent of the time is spent braking in eight stopping zones, so there is very little brake wear to be worried about.
In qualifying, one of the most unusual challenges is the length of the circuit (the longest on the calendar) as that restricts the strategic flexibility in qualifying for each session, particularly if something goes wrong on a flying lap. The drivers must quickly work out how to get the most out of their tyres over an entire lap, pushing to the limit without overheating and ruining grip for the final section.
The DRS - and more importantly double DRS - could come heavily into play here because as much as 60 percent of the lap is of feasible layout to maximise the unlimited use of DRS in qualifying. That will play a very important part in setting a top time and should give specific benefit to Mercedes and Lotus, the latter of which has confirmed plans to run their previously exploratory double DRS system for the whole weekend this time around.
Given the power of the Mercedes engine, it would be tempting to pick Michael Schumacher, at his favourite track and on his 300th Grand Prix, to take the pole — but their recent run of poor form suggests otherwise and if Lotus do get it together it could be them out in front for the start. They are certainly confident the track plays to their strengths.
Spa, however, is statistically one of the circuits where grid position counts for least as the pole-to-win conversion has only been achieved four times in the last 20 years.
Overtaking opportunities are high even though there is just one DRS zone, which will be activated before Eau Rouge and run the length of the following straight into Les Combes.
The circuit also puts a high pressure on tyre wear, with lots of high-G corners pushing the pressure on sidewalls and an abrasive surface making the compound work hard — but tyre wear may be less than normal as Pirelli are bringing the hard and medium compound, the first use of that combination since Singapore, in a bid to allow drivers to push for the entire race.
Any difference in performance between the two tyre types will, however, be accentuated over a longer lap and even with the harder compounds the ability to take care of the tyres will be a benefit, as those who can get closer performance between the two could have the chance to take a more flexible strategy. With high chances of rain and an 80 percent chance of a safety car at Spa, that could be crucial.
Despite the factory shutdown, most teams will have planned significant Spa upgrades for weeks and we are likely to see plenty of new parts appearing to help teams take the next step forward.
Ferrari have developed well so far and have admitted their first half of the year has benefitted from good performance in bad weather — which puts them as a strong contender for this weekend.
But in terms of consistency, Lotus has so far shown strong on many occasions and, on paper at least, once again the win could be theirs to lose.
Technical director James Allison admitted that if it's a dry then Spa "fits the category of circuit at which we are most confident" and even if it's wet then the high loading on the tyres should be ideal for them to get the wet tyre temperature into its operating window. And with Kimi Raikkonnen a four-time winner at Spa, he could be a man to watch.
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