Seb's Belgian battle
Tony Jardine says Sebastian Vettel will find it tough to fend off McLaren at Spa-Francorchamps.
Last Updated: 26/08/11 10:51am
After just one win in the last five races Sebastian Vettel needs to win the Belgian Grand Prix to ward off the threat of McLaren who have won three of the last five races, two of them on the bounce.
There can't be a more difficult battleground than the 4.3 mile daunting Spa-Francorchamps track as its course plunges and winds through the Ardenne forest. The weather can be so fickle it can change quicker than a pit stop to wet weather tyres - sometimes it can be raining at the top of the race track and dry below on the pit straight.
As well as the weather, Vettel must battle both McLaren drivers, Lewis Hamilton who won the Belgian Grand Prix last year on this high speed 'see saw' course that suits his fast aggressive style, and Jenson Button who is the strategic master of control in changing track conditions from wet to dry and vice versa.
F1's enforced summer break has meant an entire shut down of all F1 facilities but now after three weeks there has been a flurry of activity as teams start to arrive at Spa.
The top teams will have prepared high-speed updates for their cars prior to shut down but a question mark still hangs over the development of the Red Bull. Yes, Ferrari and McLaren have caught up but has the RB7 peaked in terms of its own development?
In Hungary the car had to be hurriedly changed back to an older spec as new modifications were rumoured not to be working suggesting advances had stopped, for now. Spa could prove the sceptics wrong and with their 100 per cent reliability record and all the pole positions to date, the team are in a good position to protect and enhance Vettel's 58 point lead in the World Championship.
Sebastian, though, will well remember last year at Spa when his team mate Mark Webber took pole position and finished second in the race. The 24-year-old German lost control in the Grand Prix and took both himself and Button out. Accidents aside, Vettel is a strong bet for the podium but I would back Hamilton for the win.
This circuit rewards the brave and skilful. Hamilton is both. Neither is he intimidated by its ability to bite. "It's easily one of the greatest circuits in the world" said Lewis. "It's always been one of my favourites - you really feel on the limit, that's awesome in an F1 car. We go into this weekend in a good place, we have won the last two Grand Prix and the car feels strong, it is really inspiring confidence at the moment."
Whilst Ferrari have made great strides in development with four podiums including a British Grand Prix win in the last four events, Fernando Alonso was ragged in Hungary and untidy last year in Spa when he spun to retirement in a race he has never won.
Alonso is also in awe of arguably the world's most challenging race track: "You have fantastic corners and fantastic speeds, Radaillon, Pouhon, Stavelot, then there's Eau Rouge. As you plunge down the hill from La Source you feel amazing compression in your body at the bottom of Eau Rouge as the track climbs up the other side, you cannot see the exit as you come over the crest, you simply don't know where you are going to land."
Alonso could make it to the podium again as the Ferrari will be good on this power track with high speed corners to suit but I don't think his Italian steed will have the edge on the McLarens. He doesn't even make my trio for the first three at season's end due to Ferrari's recent fade, I now favour Button to take third in the title race in his place.
Like Alonso all drivers enjoy the thrill and challenge of Eau Rouge with its flat out drop into the abyss followed by the catapult up the other side of the huge wall of tarmac, but for this very reason the sport's governing body, the FIA has not decided whether drivers will be able to have free use of their DRS open wing devices in practice and qualifying yet because of the danger of carrying too much speed here.
For the race the F1 cars will only be able to activate the aerodynamic overtaking device 270 metres after Eau Rouge.
Outside bets are worth considering for this race as the hazardous nature of the track can alter results very quickly.
At the start of the race in 1998 David Coulthard was punted into the wall barrelling down towards Eau Rouge at 160 mph in blinding spray and poor visibility as the mist hung in the trees. Thirteen cars crashed into one another stopping the race. Many restarted in spare cars including Coulthard but leader Michael Schumacher smashed into the back of the Scot trying to lap his McLaren in a blinding wall of water. Both retired but Schuey scooting round to the pits on the three wheels left on his wagon jumped out and ran to the McLaren pit grabbing Coulthard and accusing him of trying to kill him!
It is hard to believe that it will be the veteran German's twentieth anniversary of his Grand Prix debut made at Spa in a Jordan in 1991. Now driving for Mercedes he hopes this weekend may bring a special result and I wouldn't bet against a top six as the Mercedes is a good high speed track car. Schuey won his first Grand Prix here in 1992 and clinched his seventh world title at Spa in 2004. He used to live just across the border in Kerpen, Germany and rightly says of this place "this is my living room". He is the most successful driver in Spa history with six victories to five by Senna and four by Jim Clark. It is a champions track, of that there can be no doubt.
Pirelli will be bringing soft and medium compound tyres but say there could be quite a difference in lap time. This will give teams something to think about for their tactics at this most challenging of tracks.
Renault need to turn their form around. Heidfeld's burnt out car from the Hungarian Grand Prix has been written off along with his contract, as test driver Bruno Senna is set to replace him.
My outsider tip for a possible top six surprise is Force India. They claimed pole here with Giancarlo Fisichella in 2009 and went on to finish second. Team owner Vijay Mallya reminded everyone, "The team has reached the top ten qualifying shoot out in the last four races and we now have a car that is strong in all areas not just high speed as in 2009."
Watch out for Brit Paul Di Resta at the wheel whilst team mate Adrian Sutil contemplates whether the team will re-sign him for the future.