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Preview: Ferrari/ Mercedes battle hits the reset button at Spa

Written by  Aug 23, 2017

After a summer break that has seemingly swept by in a flash, the Formula 1 season jumps back into life this weekend with one of the most highly anticipated races of the year, the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps.

There really is no better place for the teams and drivers to get back at work than at the iconic seven-kilometre (4.3-mile) stretch of tarmac that is one of the holy grails in all Motorsport and features some of the greatest corners anywhere in the world.

This year there is an even greater buzz as F1 makes the pilgrimage to the Ardennes with a championship battle between two goliaths entering the crucial stage of the year where every twist and turn could prove vital. 

Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel go to Spa with the lead and the momentum following a commanding victory in Hungary last month which gave the German a 14-point lead to take into the final nine races. 

Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton are far from out of it, however, with the general consensus heading to Belgium and for the rest of the year that the development race and the car's main strengths could be too much for the Scuderia to keep up with both this weekend and as the season draws to a close. 

One big factor against the Briton is his teammate Valtteri Bottas who's consistency has kept him hanging on to the two men with a combined seven world titles. For as long as he does remain in touch, that puts pressure on Toto Wolff and Mercedes to keep a fair fight and potentially cost Hamilton critical points, as we saw in Budapest.

As for Vettel, he doesn't have that problem with Kimi Raikkonen signed up for another year at Maranello and surely ready to support his teammate against the Silver Arrows.

With its long straights and fast sweeping corners, Spa is expected to suit Mercedes and if their form is anything like it was in Silverstone, Ferrari will have to hope the famously unpredictable weather or the tyres to help them stay in touch.

That could well be the case too, as Pirelli bring the Ultrasoft compound to this race for the first time. The lateral degradation through corners like Eau Rouge and Pouhon plus the thermal deg on the long straights will make tyre wear a crucial factor and it's in this area that the Italian team could just upset the form book.

The unknown quantity this weekend is Red Bull who, despite their Renault engine deficit, have had success before at Spa previously by invoking the same tactic they used in Baku which was to run less downforce than their rivals to optimise top speed down the Kemmel Straight.

With more drag on this year's cars, the effect of a slipperier car could be even greater and if the Milton Keynes outfit can balance top speed with grip in the middle sector, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, who enjoys his de facto home race at Spa, could very well spoil the party.

Also looking to pounce is Force India who had a quieter period of races before the summer break but still maintained their remarkable points scoring run. Known as Spa specialists, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon will look to finish as the top midfield team for the first time since Canada and could set their target even higher if another crazy race ensues.

Williams too need a big weekend after scoring just four points in the last three races. That has seen them drop 60 points behind Force India in the battle for fourth in the Constructors' Championship and with a best result of ninth since Lance Stroll's podium in Baku, the Grove team are desperate for momentum at the next two races which should suit the FW40.

Haas can expect a better weekend too in the midfield as a good all-round car means they could well fight with Force India and Williams for the final top 10 places. Like Williams, the American team has struggled having not scored since Kevin Magnussen's sixth place in Austria and will want to improve on seventh in the current teams' standings. 

Renault, Toro Rosso and McLaren all face the same dilemma, how to make up for a power deficit. The Red Bull trick of less downforce will probably be their route but with tyres set to be a key part this weekend, a good strategy will be key, as could the weather.

Finally, Sauber will round out the grid as the lack of development on their year-old Ferrari engine really starts to hurt. More car upgrades will help but they are relying on a Baku-style race for points between now and the end of the season.

 

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