Mercedes locked out the front row for the Belgian Grand Prix, but the form guide for the super-fast Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is precariously set.
The Iconic Spa-Francorchamps presents teams with a compromise quandary. The first and last sectors are all about straight-line speed, comprising only three genuine corners, but the middle sector is slower and twisty, putting a premium on downforce.
More downforce can yield decent gains and better tyre life through that middle sector alone, but the sheer length of the straights here — particularly Kemmel, which in effect runs from La Source, through Eau Rouge and all the way to the braking zone at Les Combes — risks leaving you a sitting duck to the powerful slipstream even to an overall slower car.
Striking the right balance is what makes the battle between Mercedes and Red Bull Racing so interesting.
The two leading teams have taken divergent approaches, with Mercedes leaning on its powerful engine to heap downforce onto the car to protect its tyres. Red Bull Racing, inversely, has taken downforce off the car to account for its horsepower deficit.
But while poleman Hamilton’s half-second advantage over Verstappen in P3 suggests Mercedes got the balance right, with his engine tuned down for the race he could find itself vulnerable to attack from the slipperier RB16 down the long straights.
Or, in what would be a real twist, he could be vulnerable even to a fast-starting Daniel Ricciardo. Renault as typically been competitive with less downforce, and Ricciardo found great speed running his car with very little wing. While he fundamentally won’t have the pace to keep up in the race, any cars he jumps off the line might find it difficult to repass him on track.
Add in the persistent threat of rain and there’s plenty to hold attention at the Belgian Grand Prix.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 7.004 kilometres
Lap record: 1:46.286 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2018)
Track record: 1:41.252 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: very high
Tyre stress: very high
Asphalt grip: high
Asphalt abrasion: high
Safety car probability: 80 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 386.3 metres
Pit lane time loss: 17.4 seconds
Fuel consumption: 2.5 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.3 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.9 seconds
Key to this race will be controlling the slipstream, which is inextricably tied to downforce settings adjusted during practice — for this reason Valtteri Bottas wasn’t too unhappy about starting second.
One of the so-far unspoken factors at play is the tyres, which are a step softer this year owing to the fact the C1 last season was widely eschewed as being too slow.
It means the same tyres that Mercedes struggled with at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix are again at play at a circuit that can punish tyres if calibrated incorrectly.
It goes some way to explaining the thinking behind Mercedes’s high-downforce package, but anyway the substantially cooler weather should help prevent the dramatic blistering suffered by the W11 earlier in the year.