After a European summer break--a full month of sun, sea and speculation (anyone betting on Kimi to Ferrari?)--Formula 1 turns up at Spa-Francorchamps with recharged batteries and new parts. And we're not just talking about KERS and aero bits. Fernando Alonso has been tweeting his impressive training stats over the past weeks; Sebastian Vettel debuts his platinum-blond streaks; and Romain Grosjean is all smiles about being a new daddy.
Some things, however, are still the same. Kimi Raikkonen is as grumpy as ever (leave him alone; he doesn't know where he's driving in 2014), while second free practice on Friday marked the return of Pirelli blowouts in the right-rear corners of Alonso's Ferrari and Vettel's Red Bull. Now, as much as we want to see those big gaps in the championship standings neutralized, it's just wrong to wish blowouts upon any of the drivers. Belgium's magnificent circuit may have gotten more barriers, run-off areas and safety tweaks over time, but considering its fast-flowing, 7km ribbon of tarmac and the region's very fickle weather, we won't take safety for granted.
1. There will be a safety-car period, but it won't be caused by Romain Grosjean. Is it even wise to put that much faith on the Frenchman when he had a number of scares in the last race? If we were in his position, we'd be inclined to be a bit more careful around Spa this year--after all, this was when he picked up a one-race ban in 2012 for nearly beheading Alonso. Besides, Grosjean did say fatherhood is opening his eyes to new perspectives. Maybe he better understands the importance of caution and patience while driving these days. Or maybe he has simply gleaned insights on the quickest way to change a diaper.
2. Fernando Alonso will split the Lotuses in qualifying and finish on the podium at the end of the 44-lap race. Our bushy-browed Spaniard said on Friday that his team is closer to the forerunners than it had been before the break, and Fernando can always be trusted to squeeze out the last bit of horsepower and grip from any vehicle. Last year, he nearly won the title with a donkey. Driving a car that's more in the spirit of the Prancing Horse this season, he's not ready to surrender to Seblondie just yet.
3. Potential stars in this installment of "Fightback of the Trailing Teammate": Nico Rosberg and Jean-Eric Vergne. The Red Bull management says the contract for Mark Webber's replacement bears no final signatures at the moment, so the fight for one of the sport's most coveted vacancies is still on. It won't hurt Vergne to dig a bit deeper on a track where he's previously excelled in lower formulae, in case the higher-ups are still looking at their driver options.
Rosberg, meanwhile, must be raring to get some good results given his teammate's resurgence especially in the pole-position shootouts. We're raring to find out what will happen if he qualifies ahead of Lewis Hamilton and has a fragile lead over him in the closing stages of Sunday's race. From a strategic standpoint, Lewis is Merc's best shot at the drivers' championship, so an order to swap positions can't be ruled out. The question is if Rosberg will yield without complaints, or if he'll go full-diva Britney on the team.
4. McLaren and Force India will bag some points. Force India has always had a good run at Spa--aside from the Mercedes engines, there has to be something else in the cars that makes them so hooked up around these parts. Now's a good time for the team to start scoring top-10 finishes again after the slump brought about by the Pirelli revisions. We swear we can't watch another moody interview with Paul di Resta--he's giving Kimi a run for his money.
Meanwhile, from last year's victory, McLaren looks like it will have to be content with leftover scraps in 2013. Surely, the combination of Mercedes propulsion and the long straights in Sectors 1 and 3 will help the Woking squad run with the big guns. Perhaps Jenson Button could hold up Seb again--although that would be difficult should Red Bull decide to go with the skinny-wing, low-downforce setup it tested on the German's car on Friday. Mark Webber ran a high-downforce configuration and blitzed the competition in twisty Sector 2; in the end, the straight-line special beat the canyon carver, but only by 0.059sec. Wiser money in our opinion is on more downforce: It will pay dividends when the rain falls, as it always does in Spa.
5. Mercedes on pole, the King of Spa for the win. For all of the Silver Arrows' Friday foibles and Sunday slips, the stats still underline its Saturday supremacy. Here's wishing for a half-point to improve our halftime average (2.6 out of 5) in this predictions game.
That said, we're going with a fifth Belgian GP win for Kimi. Some things you just don't bet against. We'll report back after the race--it starts at 8pm, Philippine time, on Sunday. But before that, make sure to catch qualifying tonight, also at 8pm, Philippine time.
Photos from Mercedes AMG Petronas
|BEL||Free Practice One||Free Practice Two|
|Pos||Driver (Team)||Time, +Gap (Tire)||Driver (Team)||Time, +Gap (Tire)|
|1||F. Alonso (Ferrari)||1:55.198 (H)||S. Vettel (Red Bull)||1:49.331 (M)|
|2||P. di Resta (Force India)||1:55.224, +0.026 (H)||M. Webber (Red Bull)||1:49.390, +0.059 (M)|
|3||A. Sutil (Force India)||1:55.373, +0.175 (H)||R. Grosjean (Lotus)||1:50.149, +0.818 (M)|
|4||S. Perez (McLaren)||1:55.518, +0.320 (H)||F. Massa (Ferrari)||1:50.164, +0.833 (M)|
|5||N. Rosberg (Mercedes)||1:55.614, +0.416 (H)||J. Vergne (Toro Rosso)||1:50.253, +0.922 (M)|
|6||S. Vettel (Red Bull)||1:55.636, +0.438 (H)||K. Raikkonen (Lotus)||1:50.318, +0.987 (M)|
|7||E. Gutierrez (Sauber)||1:55.954, +0.756 (H)||F. Alonso (Ferrari)||1:50.510, +1.179 (M)|
|8||N. Hulkenberg (Sauber)||1:56.110, +0.912 (H)||S. Perez (McLaren)||1:50.536, +1.205 (M)|
|9||D. Ricciardo (Toro Rosso)||1:56.770, +1.572 (H)||N. Rosberg (Mercedes)||1:50.601, +1.270 (M)|
|10||V. Bottas (Williams)||1:56.858, +1.660 (H)||P. di Resta (Force India)||1:50.611, +1.280 (M)|
|11||F. Massa (Ferrari)||1:56.863, +1.665 (H)||A. Sutil (Force India)||1:50.629, +1.298 (M)|
|12||P. Maldonado (Williams)||1:57.081, +1.883 (H)||L. Hamilton (Mercedes)||1:50.751, +1.420 (M)|
|13||J. Vergne (Toro Rosso)||1:57.084, +1.886 (H)||N. Hulkenberg (Sauber)||1:50.972, +1.641 (M)|
|14||J. Button (McLaren)||1:57.281, +2.083 (H)||P. Maldonado (Williams)||1:50.991, +1.660 (M)|
|15||L. Hamilton (Mercedes)||1:57.358, +2.160 (I)||J. Button (McLaren)||1:51.195, +1.864 (M)|
|16||H. Kovalainen (Caterham)||1:57.821, +2.623 (H)||D. Ricciardo (Toro Rosso)||1:51.447, +2.116 (M)|
|17||G. van der Garde (Caterham)||1:57.887, +2.689 (H)||V. Bottas (Williams)||1:51.568, +2.237 (M)|
|18||M. Chilton (Marussia)||1:58.600, +3.402 (H)||E. Gutierrez (Sauber)||1:51.644, +2.313 (M)|
|19||M. Webber (Red Bull)||1:58.929, +3.731 (H)||G. van der Garde (Caterham)||1:53.157, +3.826 (M)|
|20||J. Bianchi (Marussia)||1:59.209, +4.011 (H)||C. Pic (Caterham)||1:53.251, +3.920 (M)|
|21||K. Raikkonen (Lotus)||1:59.441, +4.243 (H)||J. Bianchi (Marussia)||1:53.482, +4.151 (M)|
|22||R. Grosjean (Lotus)||2:03.176, +7.978 (I)||M. Chilton (Marussia)||1:54.418, +5.087 (M)|