Issue 28: Belgian Grand Prix Preview

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21 August 2014

A crumbling masterpiece in the Ardennes

Like many F1 fans, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is one of my favourite tracks of the season. Spa is no longer the fearsome Grand Prix circuit of the 1950s and 1960s, but it still puts many sterile state-of-the-art F1 venues to shame. I attended the 2011 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. Sure, the infrastructure for spectators was crumbling, access to/from the circuit was poor and the weather soaked us every few hours or so, but what a track! What surprised me most was the scale of elevation change, not least on F1’s rollercoaster ride through Eau Rouge, but also after Rivage where the track drops away steeply towards the heart of Sector 2. Spa has everything you want from an F1 circuit: it’s high-speed, there’s one great corner after another as well as several overtaking zones in the course of a lap. Then there’s the weather. Rain is almost guaranteed at some point during the weekend (the current forecast is for a wet qualifying session). Spa is situated in a valley in the Ardennes Forest, so the rain clouds hang low in the trees. In short, the weather is a wildcard.

After the tight right-hand hairpin at La Source (Turn 1), the cars gather speed on the downhill run to the infamous 180mph Eau Rouge kink. The drivers attack Eau Rouge with little or no lifting off the throttle before racing up the hill. The very bold chance their luck and their car with an overtake through Eau Rouge if their prey is slow exiting La Source. If the move doesn’t come off through Eau Rouge, the chasing driver gets a second bite on the Kemmel Straight after Eau Rouge and before Les Combes. Anyone lacking in straight-line speed will be a sitting duck for faster cars with DRS available.

Power and bravery – through Eau Rouge with less downforce than in 2013 and on the brakes for La Source and Les Combes where it’s easy to overshoot – are what’s required for a fast time in Sector 1.

Sector 2 is dominated by a series of fast, sweeping corners one after the other: the double-left-hander at Pouhon (145mph and 180mph) followed by Fagnes (105mph), then Stavelot (155mph) and Curve Paul Frere (150mph). A car with high aerodynamic downforce and low drag will excel here.

Like Sector 1, the final sector of the lap requires top-line speed. A good exit from Stavelot and Curve Paul Frere is essential in order to set a quick time in Sector 3. A slow exit here and the driver will pay a time penalty all the way until the braking zone for the final tight chicane. A good exit onto the start/finish straight is also important in order to defend against potential overtaking moves into the hairpin at La Source.

Spa places an exceptional demand on powertrains, with around 70% of the lap spent on full throttle. As a result, this means one of the highest rates of fuel consumption at any track this season. The tyres also take a pounding as they are subjected to high energy loads due to high-speed turns, Spa’s abrasive surface and rapid elevation change at Eau Rouge, which, according to Pirelli, results in 1G of negative compression. Teams whose cars manage tyre degradation better, most notably Force India, will likely gain an advantage as a consequence.

A challenge to Mercedes?

The relative performance between Mercedes and Williams will probably be one of the most fascinating dynamics at Spa. I still expect Mercedes to retain an edge over the field, but there are several reasons to think that Williams will push the German marque hard, as they did in Austria. While both teams have the benchmark powertrain, the FW36 has usually had the best straight-line speed on the grid. This is in part because of its low drag setup, which is all the more significant round Spa because the circuit is very high on drag sensitivity. A low drag car confers another benefit: a lower rate of fuel consumption, which again is significant at Spa given that its tough on fuel consumption. And in 2014, Williams have usually had the lowest fuel consumption rate in the field. Finally, Spa has few low-speed corners but plenty of medium- and high-speed turns that require good aerodynamic grip and balance, exactly the traits of the FW36. Any slip-ups or entanglements on Mercedes’ part and Williams are likely to be well in range to punish them. Watch out for the Grove outfit!

Perhaps the only weakness for Williams at Spa is the weather; their car does not deliver its best in the wet. With the forecast for rain in qualifying, this might mean that Bottas and Massa do not gain the optimal grid positions.

Red Bull will surely own Sector 2 given the sector’s prevalence of higher speed corners and the RB10’s superior chassis. However, the Red Bull drivers will struggle to match Mercedes and Williams in Sectors 1 and 3 due to the Renault’s power deficit and higher rate of fuel consumption compared to the Mercedes. Red Bull may even be forced to remove downforce from the RB10 in order to achieve sufficient straight-line speed in Sectors 1 and 3. If they don’t, they will struggle to pass anyone and be vulnerable to being passed.

As for Ferrari and McLaren, I suspect that Spa’s high fuel consumption rate will expose the Scuderia’s F14-T, which has generally been a thirsty powertrain due to their less powerful Energy Recovery System. Alonso and Raikkonen are likely to be forced to carry more fuel than the Mercedes runners. The other alternative is to use less power, but that’s not really an option at Spa! Likewise, McLaren are likely to struggle to set up the MP4-29 for best performance in the wide range of track and weather conditions at Spa. The MP4-29’s narrow performance window will show them up.

The battle of the strategists

The strategists will earn their money this weekend. The plethora of variables at Spa is enough to keep any strategist awake at night: unpredictable weather and track conditions, a high chance of a safety car, high tyre degradation, the need to protect the powertrain but also extract maximum horsepower etc.

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