ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 34 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   The Belgian GP Preview

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium by Ewan Tytler, U.S.A.

Leaving the town of Mogyorod in Hungary, Formula One heads to the home of the Belgian Grand Prix: Le Circuit Nationale at Spa-Francorchamps. At 6.968 Km, Spa-Francorchamps is the longest active Grand Prix circuit and is the third fastest.

Spa-Francorchamps represents the ultimate test of driving ability and is considered the most prestigious Grand Prix to win. The list of drivers who have succeeded at the modern Spa-Francorchamps is a short one: Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and David Coulthard. Coulthard, the Young Pretender, is the reigning champion of this circuit, but Schumacher has returned to reclaim his crown as the King of Spa. And while Mika Hakkinen leads the Drivers' Championship, he has never won at Spa.

The original circuit at Spa was a 14.1 Km road course linking the villages of Malmedy, Masta, Stavelot and Francorchamps in the Ardennes Forest. It crossed two valleys and it was not unusual for half the circuit to be wet while the other half, in the neighbouring valley, to be dry. The original circuit was unbelievably dangerous for both drivers and spectators; barbed-wire fences lined part of the circuit, crowd control was non-existent, and medical facilities were inadequate. Drivers had to steer between the stone parapets of the bridge at Eau Rouge during the ascent to the Raidillon. Following a serious accident in 1966, Jackie Stewart led a crusade to improve circuit and car safety which led motor racing out of the insanity of the dead-or-glory era, and Formula One left Spa in 1970.

The modern Spa circuit was reopened in 1979 and, under the stewardship of then Clerk of the Course Roland Bruynseraede (now FIA Safety Delegate), Formula One returned to Spa in 1983. Fortunately, the best sector of the original circuit was retained, including Blanchimont, La Source, Eau Rouge and the Raidillon. A magnificent new section was added between Les Combes and Stavelot that by-passed the downhill Masta straight where Jackie Stewart was seriously injured in 1966 and Alan Stacey was killed in 1960, and the lethal Burnenville Corner, where Chris Bristow was killed and Stirling Moss was nearly killed in 1960.

Spa-Francorchamps is also synonymous with rain. The heavens can open with little warning and the track takes a long time to dry due to the shade provided by the trees of the Ardennes Forest.

Jordan's Chief Engineer, Tim Holloway, explains the technical challenges presented by Spa-Francorchamps: "From an engineering point of view, it is the most enjoyable weekend of the year because the track is so fantastic. We run medium to low downforce but the challenge is to find the right balance to cope with the quick corners."

Williams' Ralf Schumacher adds a driver's perspective: "Spa is not an easy track for the drivers or the teams. Downforce is medium to low, to enable a high top speed on the long straights, especially after Eau Rouge and Stavelot. Eau Rouge is one of the most amazing corners. It's taken in 6th gear and the car must be really well balanced to keep all the revs for the following long straight. From Les Combes to Stavelot most of the corners are medium-speed and especially in this section I expect a good performance from my Williams FW21. Apart from Eau Rouge you need a good aerodynamical package for Blanchimont, which is a very fast left hander."

Pitstops and tyres strategy

Attrition can be moderate to high at Spa-Francorchamps, so finishing is everything. Sixteen cars finished in 1999, fifteen cars were running at the end of the 1997 race, fourteen cars finished in 1995 and 1994 races, ten finished in 1996, and only eight cars finished in 1998.

Pitstops strategy depends critically on the weather conditions. Jaguar's Eddie Irvine pointed out, "Everything can be going perfectly and then the rain throws you a curved ball. Quick decisions over pitstops and tyre changes can easily win or lose you the race if there are changing conditions, which is often the case at Spa."

In last year's race, most finishers used a two-stop strategy, while the Benetton team, Williams's Ralf Schumacher and BAR's Jacques Villeneuve opted for a one-stop strategy. Those on a two-stop strategy pitted between laps 12-21 and 27-34, while those on a one-stop strategy pitted between laps 21-26.

On tyre choice, Bridgestone will again offer the teams a choice of Soft or Medium compound tyres, and most teams are expected to use the Soft compound tyre. Bridgestone will also provide Hard and Soft specification rain tyres if required. Early in the season, Bridgestone Motorsport's Technical Manager, Yoshihiko Ichikawa, stated, "In wet conditions the Soft specification rain tyre performed slightly better compared to the Hard wets." The Soft spec rain tyre was used at the Nurburgring. Ichikawa added, "Spa is also different from the more common artificial circuits. It is a complex track, with a long lap time, some highly technical corners and a surface with comparatively low grip characteristics."

The Teams

McLaren now leads the constructors' championship by just one point after the Hungarian Grand Prix. Team Principal Ron Dennis stated, "Spa-Francorchamps is a real drivers' track, and with the possibility of variable weather conditions it's also a challenge for the team. As always we aim to leave Spa with maximum points and extend our lead in both Championships."

McLaren have won the Belgian Grand Prix six times at the modern Spa-Francorchamps and scored 62 points in Belgium in the nineties. Their horsepower and aerodynamic advantages are very important at this circuit. Once again their reliability may prove to be crucial in Sunday's race.

Mika Hakkinen is the new leader in the drivers' championship, after his convincing win at the Hungaroring,. Hakkinen commented, "There is no doubt that I'm looking forward to this race. It's nice to be leading the Championship but I'm focusing on this weekend's Grand Prix. I spent two days last week testing at Silverstone, where we had hoped it would rain, so we could get some wet weather running in before Spa. Unfortunately for once it stayed sunny! We are in good shape and the Belgian Grand Prix always provides value for money for the spectators as there are plenty of overtaking opportunities - hopefully I won't need them."

Hakkinen has had several podium finishes in Belgium: he was classified second in 1994 and finished third in 1996 after briefly leading, both for McLaren. He finished third in 1997 as well, but was disqualified for using illegal fuel during qualifying. Hakkinen also finished sixth in 1992 for Lotus. He set pole position in 1998 and 1999 and fastest lap in 1999. Hakkinen sulked into second place in last year's race and perhaps learned an important lesson: a Grand Prix victory at Spa is too prestigious to be handed over under team-orders.

David Coulthard has slipped to third in the drivers' championship after the Hungarian Grand Prix. Coulthard remarked, "I like this track - just like most other drivers. It's a challenge and you really have to work hard all the time. When you are comfortable with the car and manage to get a lap just right it's a fantastic feeling. Eau Rouge is a flat out corner because Les Combes, which is a medium-speed right/left corner, provides a good opportunity for overtaking if you have managed to get just a fraction more speed from the exit of Eau Rouge. I'm feeling confident and after my victory in last year's race I'm aiming to make it two in a row."

Coulthard is very experienced at Spa, having competed in six Grands Prix and two F3000 races. Coulthard has had his greatest highs and lows at Spa-Francorchamps: he won last year's race and was classified fourth for Williams in 1994 at his first Belgian Grand Prix; he set the fastest lap in 1995 and his highest grid positions were second in 1998 in 1999. The 1998 race, however, with his involvement in three accidents, was the worst day of his racing career.

Ferrari have slipped to second in the constructors' championship. Team Principal Jean Todt commented, "The World Championship is now wide open, having lost the leadership of the drivers and constructors fights for the first time this season. I am confident that we can take advantage of Belgium to reclaim our place at the top of both Championships. As we have seen, all it takes is one race to overturn the situation."

Ferrari were testing a new engine at Mugello this week, and the Italian team have won the Belgian Grand Prix in 1996 and 1997, scoring 29 points at Spa-Francorchamps in the 1990s. The last time a Ferrari was on the front row of the grid at the Belgian Grand Prix, however, was 1995.

Michael Schumacher has now slipped to second in the drivers' championship. Schumacher stated at Mugello, "Today we tried a new engine which has more power. We are working very hard in all areas: aerodynamics, engine and chassis. Obviously we cannot be happy at having lost a 24-point advantage, but we are only two points down and there is still every chance of winning the championship. We know how important that would be for Ferrari and all the fans, after a gap of twenty one years."

Schumacher also confessed, "I love racing at Spa for lots of reasons. It's a challenging and therefore very satisfying circuit to drive while it also demands a good job between the driver and engineer to get the car working well. It's also the closest circuit to where I grew up, so it's almost a home race for me. There are lots of German supporters in the crowd. Winning in Spa is as satisfying as winning in Hockenheim. The frequent rain showers in the area always add another unknown factor to this race. Making the right decision at the right time can win or lose the race in a couple of laps. The team at Ferrari have shown how good they are at these kind of decisions and I am looking forward to this race whatever happens."

The 1991 Belgian Grand Prix was Schumacher's first ever Formula One race. Michael won his first Grand Prix at Belgium in 1992 and followed this by victories in 1995 for Benetton and in 1996 and 1997 for Ferrari. He finished first in 1994 but was disqualified due to an illegal skid-plate and he rear-ended David Coulthard's McLaren in the rain while leading in 1998. Schumacher also finished second in 1993. Schumacher set fastest lap in 1998 and 1992 but a pole position at Spa has eluded him. His highest grid position was second in 1994.

Rubens Barrichello is still fourth in the drivers' championship. Barrichello commented, "Like everybody I enjoy driving in Spa. It's a real racer's track, which can be fantastic if you have a good car and a nightmare if the car is not handling well. I am looking forward to Spa this year as we should be very competitive there and it's a track you can pass on." Barrichello set pole position in 1994 but his only finish in the points was a 6th in 1995 for Jordan.

Williams are still a distant third in the constructors' championship. BMW Motorsport Director Gerhard Berger stated, "For the BMW WilliamsF1 Team, Spa is going to be particularly interesting because we have had some trouble recently in showing our full potential on fast circuits. I think the team made good progress last week at Silverstone and we will endeavour to continue with our run of finishing in the points."

Williams have been a very successful team at Spa-Francorchamps, winning the Belgian Grand Prix three times - in 1986, 1993 and 1994 - and scoring a total of 64 points in the 1990s. Williams hold the qualifying (1:47.571) and race (1:51.095) lap records, which were both set in 1993 by Alain Prost.

Ralf Schumacher is still sixth in the drivers' championship. Ralf commented, "Contrary to our expectations, the FW22 was very competitive at the last race in Budapest and I succeeded in remaining amongst the top six from the beginning. During the Silverstone test last week, the BMW Williams F1 team focused on aerodynamic configuration for Spa, but we still have a fair deal of work ahead of us." Ralf finished second in 1998 and fifth in 1999 at Spa-Francorchamps for Jordan. Ralf's highest grid position was fifth in 1999.

Jenson Button has climbed to eighth in the drivers' championship and will be driving for Benetton in 2001. Button stated: "Unlike most of the circuits so far this year, Spa is one of the few that I have raced on. My last outing at Spa was in F3 last year and like all racing drivers, I have very fond memories of Eau Rouge. It's obviously going to be a completely different sensation in an F1 car, but it's an opportunity that I am relishing. The BMW WilliamsF1 Team did a very good job in Budapest on aerodynamic set-up and after our three-day Silverstone test last week, I am hoping that we can carry that momentum onto Spa."

Benetton are still 4th in the constructors' championship and have completed a 5-day test at Danielson in France. Benetton have been quite consistent and successful at Spa-Francorchamps, winning the Belgian Grand Prix in 1995 and have scored 51 points at Spa in the 1990s.

Giancarlo Fisichella is still seventh in the drivers' championship. Fisichella finished second in 1997 but narrowly escaped serious injury in 1998, when he rear-ended Shinji Nakano's Minardi at the Bus-Stop chicane. Fisichella's highest grid position was fourth in 1997.

Alexander Wurz is looking for a new team for the 2001 season. Wurtz finished 14th in last year's race and his highest grid position was 11th in 1998.

BAR are now 5th equal in the constructors' championship and have signed Oliver Panis for the 2001 season. Technical director Malcolm Oastler stated, "Spa is one of our favourite circuits because it calls for the maximum from every area of the car, aerodynamics, engine, chassis and driver. Basically, if you run well at Spa, you've done a good job. Following the disappointing results of the last two races, I think we now have a better handle on extracting the best from our car and are looking forward to the challenge of Spa."

During qualifying for last year's race, both BAR drivers destroyed their cars in spectacular accidents at Eau Rouge and both miraculously walked away unharmed. Jacques Villeneuve is seventh in the drivers' championship. Villeneuve finished second in 1996 and fifth in 1997 for Williams. Villeneuve also set pole position in 1996 and 1997 and set fastest lap in 1997. Villeneuve also escaped injury following a high-speed accident at the Raidillon in 1998.

Ricardo Zonta is still 15th in the drivers' championship and is looking for a new team for the 2001 season. Zonta's thoughts on Spa-Francorchamps: "I'm sure the memory many people will have of BAR and the Belgium Grand Prix concerns the big crashes Jacques and I had last year in qualifying, which is maybe not the thing you want to be remembered for! Since last year, however, there has been a big improvement in the car on fast tracks and in fast corners. We have also had a good test at Mugello this week. It is a circuit with some corners that are similar to corners at Spa, and we arrived at a good chassis balance for these. Spa is a long circuit, nearly 7 km, and an improvement in high-speed handling can make a considerable difference to the lap times. Despite the crash last year, I like the circuit and don't have any problems there. I am looking forward to the race."

In last year's race, Zonta did not finish, after qualifying 14th. Zonta has also completed two F3000 races at Spa-Francorchamps, his best finish was fifth in 1997.

Jordan are now 5th equal in the constructors' championship. Team Principal Eddie Jordan stated, "Spa always seems to bring out the best in us and I hope that we will be able to look back at this forthcoming race with fond recollections."

Chief Engineer, Tim Holloway added, "Last year we performed well in both the wet and dry in Spa. We are hopeful for a strong performance from both drivers. In testing at Silverstone this week we focused on Bridgestone tyre developments as well as looking into aerodynamic set ups for Spa. We had a successful week and I feel we should be up at the top end of the grid. We seem to have made good progress and we have had good luck in Belgium thus far and I hope we can see Heinz and Jarno competing at the top end of the field." Jordan have scored 28 points at the Spa-Francorchamps, finishing first and second in 1998, second in 1997 and sixth in 1995.

Both Jordan drivers are nineth equal in the drivers' championship after the Hungarian Grand Prix. Heinz-Harald Frentzen revealed, "This circuit is in fact the closest circuit to my home town of Mönchengladbach many of my fans visit the circuit so you could say this is my home Grand Prix."

Frentzen has been a consistent points-scorer at Spa, finishing third in 1999 for Jordan, third in 1997 and fourth in 1998 for Williams and fourth in 1995 for Sauber. Frentzen's highest grid position was third in 1999.

Jarno Trulli commented, "In '98, I had a good race managing to work my way up the field and finish in a points scoring position, it was a great moment for me. Spa is very long and very difficult technically so you need a good car. I have that this year, so I hope I can get the result we are all looking for." Trulli finished sixth in 1998 for Prost and his highest grid position was 12th in 1999.

Sauber are seventh in the constructors' championship and were testing aerodynamic and suspension settings last week at Mugello. Sauber have scored ten points at Spa-Francorchamps, finishing third in 1998, fourth in 1997 and in 1995.

Mika Salo is nineth equal in the drivers' Championship. Salo has been a consistent finisher but has yet to score a point at Spa-Francorchamps. Salo's best finishes in Belgium were seventh in 1999 for Ferrari and in 1997 for Tyrrell. Salo's highest grid position was nineth in 1999 for Ferrari. Pedro Diniz finished fifth in 1998 for Arrows. Diniz's highest grid position was 8th in 1997.

Arrows are still eighth in the constructors' championship. Significantly, every single point that Arrows have scored this season has been in wet races. Arrows have scored three points at Spa in the 1990s, but neither Arrows finished last year's race.

Both Arrows drivers are 13th equal in the drivers' championship after the Hungarian Grand Prix. Pedro de la Rosa stated, "Spa is a good circuit for us and I hope for a better result than in Hungary. The car has been running very well and I think we have a good chance in Belgium." In last year's race, de la Rosa did not finish after qualifying last.

Jos Verstappen commented, "Things look good for Spa and I'm looking forward to that race. The circuit is good for us with some fast speed corners and fast straights, but also it's the closest race to Holland so there will be a lot of Dutch fans there which is nice." Verstappen was classified third in 1994 for Benetton and his highest grid position was sixth, also in 1994.

Jaguar are still nineth in the constructors' championship. Technical director Gary Anderson stated, "We went to Silverstone to try out some new aero modifications for the race at Spa. We did make progress but we'll have to wait until the weekend to see the outcome. I can't make any predictions for this race but will say that we have to keep our minds focused on the battle for points."

Team founder Jackie Stewart holds the qualifying record for the 14.1 Km Spa circuit. The Stewart team never scored a point at Spa-Francorchamps, their best result was Barrichello's 10th position in the 1999 Belgian Grand Prix.

Eddie Irvine is still 12th in the drivers' Championship. Irvine's thoughts on Sunday's race: "After Hungary it will make a nice change to be on a track with more than one overtaking opportunity; however, making up places at the start is always a risky business as the first corner is very tight." Irvine added that, "While I appreciate the great setting and its place in the history books, I am not a big fan of Spa." Irvine had a frightening moment in 1995 when his Jordan caught fire in the pitlane. Irvine finished fourth in last year's race and his highest grid position was fourth in 1994 for Jordan.

Johnny Herbert will compete in his 11th and final Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday. Herbert confessed, "I always enjoy racing at Spa. It is the best and most demanding circuit on the calendar and Eau Rouge has to he the best corner in F1. It's a real test of a driver's expertise. I'm looking forward to going back and hope that a little bit of luck will go my way." Herbert finished fourth for Sauber in 1997 and fifth for Lotus in 1993. Herbert's highest grid position was fourth in 1995 for Benetton.

Prost - No news is good news? Team Principal Alain Prost won twice at Spa-Francorchamp as well as holding the qualifying and race lap records. The Prost team has scored one point at Spa-Francorchamps. Jean Alesi has had some success in ten starts at Spa-Francorchamps, finishing third in 1998 for Sauber and fourth in 1996 for Benetton. Alesi has twice qualified in second position in 1995 and 1997. Nick Heidfeld has completed two F3000 races at Spa-Francorchamps, and he finished fourth in both the 1998 and 1999 races. Heidfeld was not as successful at Spa as he was at other circuits.

Minardi revealed that Frederic Dhainaut will replace Cesare Fioro as Sporting Director. Minardi tested new transmission components at Mugello to solve the gearbox problems they encountered at the Hungaroring where the team made no friends. Minardi have a reasonable record of finishing, but have yet to score a point at Spa-Francorchamps. Shinji Nakano's eighth place finish in 1998 was their best result. In last year's race, Marc Gene finished 16th after qualifying 21st. Gaston Mazzacane has also completed two F3000 races at Spa-Francorchamps, his best finish was 11th in the 1997 but he did not qualify for the 1998 F3000 race.

My Predictions

If it is dry, I'm going to pick McLaren, Ferrari, and Jordan as the top three teams for qualifying with Williams and Benetton making up the top five.

Starting grid:

  1. Mika Hakkinen
  2. David Coulthard
  3. Michael Schumacher
  4. Rubens Barrichello
  5. Heinz-Harald Frentzen
  6. Ralf Schumacher
  7. Jarno Trulli
  8. Giancarlo Fisichella
  9. Eddie Irvine
  10. Jacques Villeneuve
  11. Alexander Wurz
  12. Jenson Button
What if it rains on Sunday? Ferrari have won all three of the wet (European, German and Canadian) Grand Prix in the 2000 season. It is clear that the Ferrari F1-2000 was much more forgiving in the wet than the McLaren MP4/15. The Benetton B200, Jordan EJ10 and the Arrows A21 were also competitive. Although Spa-Francorchamps is quite different from the Nurburgring, Hockenheim and Montreal, it would not be surprising to see these same teams performing well again in the rain.

The Belgian Grand Prix Preview in a Nutshell:

  • Spa-Francorchamps is the ultimate test of driving ability. A Grand Prix victory at Spa is the most prestigious achievement in Formula One.

  • The Drivers' Championship is still very close. If David Coulthard, Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen finish in that order, there will be a 3-way tie for the championship with each driver having 68 points.

  • With 80 points left in the Constructor's Championship, only McLaren or Ferrari can win the Constructor's Cup.

  • Can McLaren-Mercedes continue their mid-season run of success? Can Hakkinen score his first victory at Spa or will Coulthard make it two-in-a-row?

  • Ferrari will want to bounce back from the disappointments of Hungary. Can Schumacher match Ayrton Senna's record 5 wins at Spa and total of 41 Grand Prix victories? Can Barrichello take points away from McLaren?

  • Williams are the Best of the Rest and have an outstanding record at Spa-Francorchamps: Can Benetton, Jordan or Arrows mount a challenge if the weather conditions turn bad?

  • Qualifying is not terribly important at Spa. The last time the pole sitter won at Spa-Francorchamps was in1991. In the 2000 season, the pole sitter has only won once.

  • Always in the points at Spa-Francorchamps since 1991: Williams.

  •       Related Articles:

    A Lap of Spa

    The Atlas F1 1999 Bel GP Preview Issue
    (Aug-25, 1999)

    The Atlas F1 1999 Bel GP Review Issue
    (Sep-1, 1999)

    Ewan Tytler© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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