New starting rules the focus as F1 reconvenes in Spa
The F1 circus reconvenes in Belgium this weekend after a three-weekend break since Sebastian Vettel's memorable win in a dramatic Hungarian GP. Budapest was an emotional rollercoaster for everyone in the sport, given that it followed so soon after the death of Jules Bianchi, who was remembered in a pre-race ceremony on the grid.
It was therefore appropriate that we were treated to such a superbly entertaining race, with a result that has added an extra dimension to the second half of the World Championship. They may be outsiders given the usual form of Mercedes, but Vettel and Ferrari are still in the game, and they are keeping Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg on their toes. The Mercedes drivers cannot afford to make any mistakes and lose priceless points. As Spa demonstrated last year, anything can happen in F1, even when you have the dominant package.
All the F1 teams undertook the mandatory 14-day factory shutdown after Hungary, a break that allows staff member to enjoy some valuable time off in the middle of a busy season. In theory therefore, we won't see too many new parts on the cars this weekend, because time for development has been limited, and Spa's high-speed nature means there's little point in bringing items that add downforce.
However, there is one key novelty to watch out for in Sunday's race. As part of the ongoing effort to improve the F1 show the sport's key players have decided to address starts, by putting more responsibility for the launch off the line into the hands of the drivers. A bigger step in that direction will be taken for 2016, but from this weekend we will see restrictions on pre-race radio conversations between the pit wall and the drivers.
The key to the start is the clutch bite point, which is related to the temperature of the clutch. Hitherto the engineers have monitored that temperature in the build-up to the race – through the reconnaissance laps, final warm-up lap, and 'burnouts' – and the driver has been told where to set the bite point in response to that changing temperature, along with other parameters. It's a fine art, and it can make a big difference to how well a driver gets off the line.
Now that bite point will be set before the car leaves the garage when the pit lane opens at 1:30 p.m. local time, and there will be no radio feedback from the team. Drivers will have to use what they have and deal with any consequences as they drive away from the grid.
Will it make a big difference? Opinions are divided. But by total coincidence under the old rules, both the British and Hungarian GPs gave us a picture of how exciting races can become if the grid does get a little mixed up off the start line.
Given that they are more than likely to be on the front row here – unless of course weather plays a role in tripping them up on Saturday afternoon – Hamilton and Rosberg will be hoping that the changes do not hamper their starts. As the last two races showed, Mercedes didn't always get it right under the old rules, so the pressure will be on come 2 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET) on Sunday.
This is Hamilton's sort of track, and yet his only Spa win came in 2010 - although he was also first across the line in 2008, prior to a penalty. Rosberg has not yet won there, and indeed the last Mercedes victory came when Juan Manuel Fangio triumphed with the original works outfit back in 1955. Will either Hamilton or Rosberg be able to mark the 60th anniversary of that success?
Meanwhile, Belgium has been a happy hunting ground for Scuderia Ferrari over the years, and thus far the team's tally stands at 16 victories. Both its current drivers can be regarded as Spa specialists. Sebastian Vettel won in 2011 and 2013, while Kimi Raikkonen has logged an impressive four wins there in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009.
As for the rest, Spa should play to the strengths of Williams, given that the cars thrive on high-speed circuits. Felipe Massa won this race in 2008 after Hamilton was penalized, while Valtteri Bottas was third last year. That event saw a remarkable victory for Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull, the Australian taking full advantage of the first lap collision between Hamilton and Rosberg to score his third opportunist win of 2014. Inevitably a lack of straight-line speed will be costly, however.
Perhaps more than any other team, McLaren will be hoping that rain livens things up this weekend, although the chances of either driver adding to the team's tally of 14 Belgian GP victories would appear to be slim at best, and there could be grid penalties to take as well. Remarkably Fernando Alonso has never won there, while teammate Jenson Button triumphed from pole in 2012.