Belgium shares with the Grands Prix held in Britain, Monaco and Italy the distinction of having been on the original World Championship calendar in 1950 and is heralded as one of the classic tracks owing to its heritage.
Rightly regarded as many drivers’ favourite track, it is a thrilling high-speed blast with one of the great corners on the current calendar.
Although Eau Rouge’s reputation is somewhat blunted thanks to modern aerodynamics, it still retains a mystique and produces some of the best images of the season as cars go blasting through it at 180mph.
The Belgian Grand Prix is known for being held in unpredictable weather, and in one 20-year spell it rained at some stage of the weekend for every race. It is not uncommon for drivers to find that one part of the circuit is dry while rain falls on the other side, owing to the 7km lap length.
Spa has produced some of the great moments in recent history, including Mika Hakkinen’s unforgettable pass on Michael Schumacher when both passed BAR’s Ricardo Zonta on either side, the Brazilian unwittingly part of a great F1 moment.
It was also the scene of arguably F1’s biggest single crash, when 14 cars were totalled at the start of the 1998 race, held in torrential conditions and a pile-up was triggered by David Coulthard as the McLaren driver spun on the run down to Eau Rouge.
Damon Hill emerged through the rain that day to score the first win for the Jordan team, made even sweeter by his teammate Ralf Schumacher finishing second, though only after being ordered to hold station by team boss Eddie Jordan.
Tyre wear: 7/10
The tyres will be punished through the series of fast corners on the Spa circuit, leading many to stop three times last year. The medium and hard compound tyres return here, the first time that combination has been seen since Malaysia and only the third time there has been a clear step between the two available types of rubber.
With long straights, fast corners and only two sub-100km/h corners on the track, Spa is a track where you need as little drag as possible in order to fly.
Average speed: 9/10
Spa has one of the longest on-throttle sections on the calendar, with drivers planting their right foot on the exit of La Source and not lifting until Les Combes, which arrives 25 seconds later. The cars nudge 200mph twice, on the Kemmel Straight to Les Combes and through Blanchimont towards the Bus Stop Chicane at the end of the lap.
Track difficulty: 7/10
Eau Rouge still threatens to bite back even though it can be taken flat by most cars on the grid, while the sixth-gear left-hander at Pouhon is now regarded as the measure of a good car – go flat through here and you’ll be posting a good time at the end of the 7km track.
Although today’s cars generate plenty of downforce even when wings are pared back, the challenge at Spa is to nail every entry and exit – losing even 5km/h can give an opponent a sniff of an overtake, and there are plenty of opportunities to get alongside the car in front.
Belgium rarely fails to provide a spectacular race, and its presence on the calendar until at least 2015 ensures that race fans will continue to have the opportunity to experience this brilliant track. Popular with the Brits owing to the proximity to the UK, expect to see plenty of Union Jacks in the 70,000-strong race day crowd.
With low downforce, Spa is a fast circuit which is surprisingly easy on brakes and cooling owing to the few instances of heavy braking throughout the lap. Top speed is important for a good laptime especially in sectors 1 and 3, while sector 2 is where a car with plenty of downforce will really shine. Gear ratio choice is also important, particularly at the top end with DRS available on the run into Turn 5 at Les Combes. Wind direction can influence how long seventh gear is, although some teams opt to run on the limiter in seventh as it allows for higher revs to be achieved through Eau Rouge. The famous corner also influences the car’s setup, as engineers will base ride height settings on its position under compression at the bottom of Eau Rouge before climbing the hill, as even a slight scrape of the ground will unsettle a car travelling in excess of 190mph. Spa-Francorchamps is the longest lap on the calendar at 7.004km and consequently has the fewest racing laps at 44. Because of the long lap length the drivers do not complete a lap of honour after the chequered flag, instead peeling off and driving up the pitlane in the opposite direction to parc ferme.
Sebastian Vettel took his seventh win from 12 races, but not before making the team sweat after tyre blistering problems were encountered when Red Bull set up both cars with an excessive amount of camber. Vettel started well but dropped behind Nico Rosberg on the opening lap, before using DRS to pass the Mercedes driver on lap three before pitting two laps later to take on new tyres, as did teammate Mark Webber. Six laps passed and the German made his way back up through the pack with other drivers stopping, then took advantage of a safety car triggered by a collision between Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren and the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi to pit again, losing the lead to Fernando Alonso but regaining it when the race resumed on lap 17. It was at this point that Jenson Button came into the picture – the McLaren driver had suffered a broken front wing early in the race but made his way through the midfield runners and capitalised on the safety car to move up to eighth place and then picked off Michael Schumacher, Adrian Sutil, Felipe Massa, and Rosberg to lie fourth, then he briefly led when Alonso, Webber and Vettel all stopped between laps 29-31. Button’s stop on lap 32 dropped him back to fourth but Alonso came into view with a few laps remaining, the McLaren driver taking third behind the two Red Bull cars.
Venue: Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium
Lap record: 1m 47.263s – Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull (2009)
2011 Winner: Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull
Spa-Francorchamps 1950-1956, 1958, 1960-1968, 1970, 1983, 1985-2002, 2004-2005, 2007-present
Nivelles 1972, 1974
Zolder 1973, 1975-1982, 1984
* only races held as part of the Formula One World Championship are included
In-depth stats (courtesy of Mercedes)