Questions for the Belgian GP
Is the Red Bull guessing game about to end? How will Alonso respond to his ticking off? Are Mercedes ready to launch an all-out assault?
By Pete Gill, James Galloway, William Esler and Sky Bet's Jamie Casey. Last Updated: 22/08/13 10:53pm
Will Daniel Ricciardo be confirmed at Red Bull?
From outsider to favourite, endorsement of Ricciardo's candidature to replace Mark Webber at Red Bull in 2014 has reached the level of expectation. It's going to happen; now it's just a matter of when Ricciardo's seat at F1's top table is officially confirmed by Red Bull.
Were the news to be made official at Spa then, as discussed elsewhere on the site, it would cause ripples of repercussions to break all over the grid like a tidal wave. What appears to be bad news for Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg may yet prove to be worse still for Felipe Massa, but a breakthrough opportunity for Antonio Felix da Costa. We shall see - and soon, for the one definitive consequence of Ricciardo's appointment is that the 2014 driver market, stuck in sticky stasis awaiting Red Bull's choice, will finally open up for business.
Once the first piece of the jigsaw - the largest in the box - is fastened into position then all the rest will begin to fall into place as well. First Red Bull. Then Lotus and Ferrari. Then Force India and Sauber. Just so long as Red Bull play ball at Spa, now's the time for F1's annual game of merry-go-round to begin in earnest.
How will Fernando Alonso respond to the Red Bull rumours?
As welcome as the summer break proved to be for the F1 fraternity, from a purely selfish media perspective it came at just the wrong time in wake of the unexpected post-Hungarian GP turn of events at Ferrari. Not only did we first have Fernando Alonso linked with a sensational, albeit somewhat fanciful, defection to Red Bull for 2014 but then the Scuderia themselves created their own surprising headlines by making public details of a rebuke delivered to the great Spaniard by team president Luca di Montezemolo.
Of course, the unprecedented nature of the public admonishment of Alonso for some critical comments - however gentle a "tweak of the ear" was supposed to sound - meant it was hard not to link the two events together and has certainly served to put the focus on the state of a driver/team relationship that had appeared one of the most rock-solid on the grid. The resultant four-week break has ensured that that same question has lingered on all the way to Belgium and Thursday will be the first time we hear from Alonso on both issues ahead of a race. Lest we forget that Ferrari must also deliver a big step forward at Spa to avoid the Spaniard being eclipsed by both Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen as Sebastian Vettel's main title rivals for the run-in.
What Alonso did say in the break on his often-intriguing Twitter account was little - posting pictures of 32nd birthday cake and details of his ever-intense training schedule aside - but what should be read into his Tweet from the start of this week in which he, not for the first time, returned to the old wisdom of the samurai swordsman? "The Warrior that uses the sword when [he] is insulted can not be considered brave, brave man does not flinch, because he has higher goals." Now, there's plenty you could read into that given Alonso, of all drivers, isn't a man for meaningless soundbites. Whether simply motivating himself, or privately reeling about Montezemolo's comments and Ferrari's recent slump, his performance on and off the track is going to make fascinating viewing at Spa.
Can Lewis Hamilton maintain his momentum?
Although victory at Budapest just before the summer break saw Hamilton propelled into the ranks of title contention, the statistical reality of his candidature is that it remains fickle and fragile. Put bluntly, were he to leave Spa without adding to his points tally, he would leave the title race just as quickly as he entered it in Hungary. Still 48 points behind Vettel, and with both Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso still standing between him and the World Champion, Hamilton can ill afford a bad weekend in the Ardennes.
And he probably can't afford anything other than a good weekend either. If Hamilton is to win the World Championship this season, victory this weekend is surely a prerequisite. Both Spa and Monza ought to favour the Mercedes W04 ahead of the Red Bull RB9, and with such a vast points deficiency to overcome, not to mention such a formidable set of opponents, Hamilton has to maximise every advantage that comes his way.
Can he do it? With Mercedes claiming three wins and four pole positions in the last five races, he certainly has the equipment to do it. Will he do it? That's a different question altogether - but one that Spa, and perhaps then Monza, will go a long way to answering over the coming days and weeks.
Is Spa the place for Force India to get back on track?
Having failed to score in Germany and Hungary with either car, Force India's 22-point advantage over McLaren in the Constructors' Championship has been eroded to just two. With McLaren gradually making progress with the MP4-28, the Silverstone-based squad are in desperate need of a return to form if they are to record their best-ever season finish.
Based on recent history, if the team could pick one circuit to turn things around at it would be Spa-Francorchamps. Since securing Mercedes power in 2009, the team have scored points every time F1 has visited Belgium, including the team's sole podium finish to date in the first year of the partnership. It would be easy to blame track layout for the Force India's recent downturn in form, but earlier in the season, the car performed just as well on the twists of Monaco as it did on the high-speed turns of Silverstone and Barcelona. Thus, perhaps the finger of blame should be pointed at the introduction of the new Pirelli tyres, which has coincided with the team's slump.
Force India were regarded as being one of the easiest on their tyres, enabling them to push harder for longer than rival teams and perhaps that is an advantage they have lost with the more durable compound and we are now seeing the true pace of the VJM06. With the grunt of the Mercedes engine, Force India should have an advantage over some of the midfield teams on the long flat-out bursts in the first and second sectors - but crucially not on McLaren, who have the same powerplant. Unless the team can make a major step forward in understanding the tyres, it could be a long and arduous end to the season for Force India fans.
Can Mercedes catch Red Bull in the Constructors' Championship?
Despite Lewis Hamilton's win in Hungary and the improvement of the Pirelli tyres, Mercedes' odds to win the Constructors' Championship are the longest they've been since June, with Sky Bet going 8/1 on the Brackley-based team.
As celebrated as Hamilton's 25 points in Budapest were, Red Bull still collected two more with 27 from the third and fourth place finishes of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber respectively, with Mercedes' Nico Rosberg retiring late on in Hungary. The result saw Mercedes drift from 7/1 out to 8/1 with just nine races remaining and, with a healthy lead of 69 points to protect, Red Bull are heavy favourites (1/12) to earn a fourth consecutive constructors' title.
With Mark Webber's form picking up mid-way through the season, the bookmakers can't see past the Austrian team, particularly as Vettel is 1/4 to complete the set by also earning a fourth consecutive title. The punters are keen on the 8/1 though, with many taking up the offer in the wake of Hamilton's first win for his new team, and they'll be hoping Red Bull plunge in Spa with Mercedes taking full advantage, a scenario which would force Sky Bet into a re-think.
Will a classic track produce a classic race?
If you've been watching the latest round of Classic Races on Sky Sports F1 this week, then you've already been treated to some of the finest showcases of what makes F1 and Spa-Francorchamps such a timeless - and thrilling - combination. Unpredictable weather, challenging corners, massive undulation changes and, it must be said, the potential for drivers to slip up and get things wrong means there's always an acute level of anticipation ahead of the sport's annual pilgrimage to the Ardennes.
But while the last two seasons have seen fine wins from Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel respectively, you really have to go back to Lewis Hamilton's maiden Spa win in 2010 for the last time the great circuit really served up one of its edge-of-your-seat afternoons in infamously changeable conditions. As far as the 2013 campaign itself goes, it would be inaccurate to say that the first half of the year didn't have its fair share of exciting Sundays, but races where the battles for victory have been gripping dices between two - or more - drivers over the whole course of the grand prix have certainly been fewer and farther between: Germany? Malaysia?
Spa 2013, however, appears to have the ingredients to provide us with a weekend to remember. With Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus all looking likely to be strong again, what better time for the defining second half of the season to get underway than with another all-time Spa classic?