Formula One 2018: Tyre choices to weather conditions, here are factors that may decide Belgian Grand Prix

The Circuit de Spa Francorchamps is based in the Ardennes, a location that has often resulted in unpredictable weather — as we saw in Saturday’s mixed weather qualifying session; the sun was out minutes after rain impacted the qualifying order in Q3. In a two-hour race, this can happen several times over. The picturesque and breathtaking circuit is also the coolest track surface on the calendar, another aspect that will impact racing and tyre strategy.

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton celebrates qualifying in pole position with Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in second position and Force India's Esteban Ocon in third position on Saturday. Reuters

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton celebrates qualifying in pole position with Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in second position and Force India's Esteban Ocon in third position on Saturday. Reuters

Spa marks the return of Formula 1 after the summer break and the official start of the second half of the season. Given how close and competitive the season has been this year at the top, both Ferrari and Mercedes will be eager to win here. A win at Spa will help build momentum for the races ahead, including next weekend at Monza (Ferrari’s home race). Firstpost is reporting live from the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, and basis our conversations in the paddock with drivers and teams, we have the following insights about race strategy.

What is the fastest race strategy option?

For Sunday’s race, Pirelli have indicated that a one-stopper would be the fastest race strategy option. This would mean a super soft-soft or a soft-super soft run for drivers choosing to run the recommended strategy. For those starting on the super-soft tyre, the first pit-stop would be expected around Lap 16, whereas the ones starting on the softs would require to pit around Lap 28. But expect the drivers to stretch their first stint as long as possible and be prepared for mid-race eventualities and opportunities.

However, since the medium compound tyre is available this weekend, one could expect drivers such as Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg to use this tyre to pit at times different to their nearest competitors in their bid to make ground. However, this is Spa and seldom has race strategy been so straightforward.

The super-soft is expected to be the fastest tyre, followed by the soft and the mediums. The pace differential between the super-soft and soft being a tenth per lap, a gap that goes up to seven tenths when comparing the super-soft and mediums.

Role of weather

Apart from unpredictable weather and given Spa’s location, there is chance that certain parts of the circuit will be wet while others might be dry - leaving judgment of being on the right tyre to the drivers. We saw Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez attempt their first qualifying runs in Q3 using dry tyres on a wet track!

Also, if the sun comes out stronger than expected or if the super-soft tyre suffers from blistering, a two-stopper strategy might be necessary — also opening up the option to use the mediums. However, Pirelli has recommended against a super soft-super soft-soft strategy as their simulations show for it to be nearly 15 seconds slower.

Overtaking is certainly possible

At most circuits and given the difficulty in overtaking, track position plays a crucial part in strategy. However, overtaking is possible at multiple places on the track and this should make for a fun race. The slipstream will be used to good effect and we will see drivers forego position at one corner only to have the advantage while entering the next.

The mixed up qualifying order should make for entertaining racing as Kimi Raikkonen and both the Red Bull drivers will be eager to overtake the Force India cars early in the race and set-off for the leaders. Force India’s Sergio Perez is confident that he has a fast car that his rivals will find difficult to overtake. In Red Bull’s case, the team has chosen to run a lower downforce setup to aid straight-line speed and offer a boost to overtake in the race. Haas’ Romain Grosjean starts 5th and his upgraded Ferrari engine should help him offer resistance when the faster cars come attacking.

Over the last 11 races contested at Spa, only 45% of them were won from pole. The number went up to 73% when considering both drivers on the front row front row. Unless something dramatic happens, a Hamilton or Vettel victory should be certain.

A Safety Car or a Virtual Safety Car period too will be a factor for the teams while deciding the optimum strategy. The circuit is expansive with fast, sweeping corners and the chances of a SC or VSC period are higher in Spa. Let’s hope that Mercedes and Ferrari have sharpened their strategic skills under these periods; a missing chunk in their armoury this season - although more for Mercedes than Ferrari.

Long-run pace

In Friday’s Free Practice, there was almost nothing to choose between Mercedes and Ferrari’s long-run pace; an indication that the race will be closely contested. The Red Bull were losing about two tenths per lap to Ferrari and Mercedes, with Renault further behind followed by Force India. But of course, these were tracked in dry conditions and fuel loads were unknown.

Also, the observed degradation per lap for the super-soft tyres was 0.07 second per lap, followed by 0.04 second for the softs and 0.03 second for the medium tyre.

Wingman For Hamilton

Bottas and Hulkenberg’s charge through the field will be interesting to follow. Spa is a power circuit and the pace and degree of comeback will offer us a loose comparison between the Renault and Mercedes works team package. The Finn has opted to start on the soft tyre with the aim to run a long first stint and make up time while the others ahead of him on super-softs pit. A longer first stint might actually play to Bottas’ advantage in case mid-race chaos ensues or if it begins to rain.

Either way, Mercedes will miss Bottas’ presence at the front if Raikkonen is able to find himself in a position to impact Hamilton’s race strategy. Ferrari could use the Finnish driver to undercut and attempt to overtake Hamilton’s Mercedes. Theoretically, Mercedes and Hamilton’s race would have been more secure with a ‘wingman’ in place.

The coolest track on the calendar

Spa is the coolest race track on the calendar — which will surely have an impact on the tyre and race strategy. Explained Lewis Hamilton, "I think the cooler track temperatures might be better for blistering so it might be better for all of us. The hotter it gets, the more likely these tyres blister." Esteban Ocon added, "It’s the same for everyone so we have to deal with the cold conditions. Last time we had conditions that cold was winter test and it was not easy, so we will see. It’s never an easy race anyway."

There are at least five cars out of position for Sunday’s race — both the Force India’s, Grosjean’s Haas, Bottas’ Mercedes and Hulkenberg’s Renault. Such a setting has resulted in exciting races in the past and let’s hope that the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix is no different.

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Updated Date: Aug 26, 2018 15:22:28 IST

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