August is never a good time to be a Formula 1 fan, as the sport takes its annual summer break away from the limelight.
This means that nearly four weeks have passed since Lewis Hamilton’s thrilling and unlikely win at the Hungaroring on July 29th, with the teams and their drivers finally set to return to action at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium this weekend.
But who will kick off the second-half of this year’s F1 season in style, and who’ll be left wondering what might have been? Let’s take a look:
The drivers to watch
With his dramatic win in Hungary, Hamilton topped the podium for the fifth time this season and gained a 24-point lead on his rival Sebastian Vettel. This was also his second consecutive triumph following a narrow win at Hockenheim, and completing a hat-trick in Belgium would give him a potentially decisive championship lead.
However, the British driver is unlikely to start as favourite, after enduring mixed fortunes at the Spa-Francorchamps track during his career. Although he has taken four poles and won here on three occasions, he has also retired four times and struggled with the Spa’s propensity for producing surprising results.
The good news for Hamilton is that Vettel has also struggled in Belgium, while he has prevailed in just one of his last five races. Overall, he has only won twice in Belgium and taken a single pole during his career, while the figures suggest that he has led for just three laps here during the turbo hybrid era.
Red Bull drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen have fared marginally better in Belgium, with the latter also performing well in this year’s championship and basking in the glory of a recent win in Austria. Verstappen also broke the Spa-Francorchamps record for the youngest ever front-row starter back in 2016, and he may do well here if he delivers during qualifying.
The key statistics
If Hamilton was to win at the Spa, he would take the flag here for the fourth time and move level with Jim Clark and Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen. He would also celebrate his 111th appearance as a Mercedes driver, surpassing his career total at McLaren in the process.
While this may well provide some additional incentive for Hamilton, Vettel will also be looking to secure his own slice of history (while also recovering from his disappointing form prior to the summer break).
He is currently tied with the legendary Alain Prost in terms of wins (51) and podium finishes (106) so a top-eight finish would also seem him smash the 1,000 barrier for Ferrari.
With a number of long, quick straights, qualifying may well prove crucial in determining the eventual winner. In this respect, Ricciardo may need to step up his game in Belgium, as while he has recorded one win and two podium finishes here he has yet to start in the top four and has outqualified a teammate only once.
If he improves on that record this time around, he could be a key contender in a Grand Prix that rarely goes to plan.
What about the circuit and tyres?
It’s fair to say that the Spa is one of the most popular tracks on the F1 circuit, both among fans and drivers.
It’s set against the backdrop of the glorious Ardennes Forest, which adds immense value to the occasion and contributed to a bumper turnout of 265,000 fans in 2017.
The track’s long straights and fast corners are also tailored-made for modern drivers, as they get to challenge themselves and push their cars to the very limit in dry conditions.
The most recent forecasts suggest that it could rain on all three days at the Spa, and this could create considerable fluctuations in grip from one corner to another. The reason for this is that while some areas of the track may become sodden during rainfall others will remain dry. This creates a huge challenge for constructors in terms of determining their race strategy and tyre deployment.
This is reflected by the range of tyres selected for F1’s highly anticipated return, with the white-marked mediums, yellow-marked softs and red-marked supersofts all expected to be on show in Belgium.
Overall, most sides have gone for a diverse range of tyre choices, in the hope that this enables them to cope with the unpredictable and changeable nature of the circuit. Most importantly, constructors have strived to keep their options open at the Spa-Francorchamp, so that they can react to circumstances as they unfold and capitalise on the track’s innate capacity for overtaking.
There’s no doubt that this represents an aggressive tyre nomination, but it’s also one that suits the unique and volatile nature of the race.
Just as qualification will prove important, so too will tyre choice and the ability of teams to react to changeable weather. This may be a race where strategy supersedes individual talent, and this create a level playing field from which a number of drivers could prevail.