F1 makes its anticipated return: Belgian Grand Prix Preview

After a summer break that always feels like a lifetime, Formula One is back, and the circus this time arrives at the 7 kilometre Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest.

The summer has seen a couple of changes. Pierre Gasly, who has endured a horrible season at Red Bull alongside the imperious Max Verstappen, has been dropped by Red Bull axe-man Helmut Marko and placed back at Toro Rosso. His replacement is Anglo-Thai driver Alexander Albon, who moves up from the junior team having impressed in his rookie season alongside Daniil Kvyat—although the Russian, having scored a podium in Germany and more points this season than his younger team-mate, will feel as though he should have been with the Austrian team heading into Belgium.

Albon joins the team for a race at which they are not expected to pull off the spectacular heroics that Max Verstappen has displayed in the first half of the season. Spa is very much a power track, but the tricky, twisty middle sector will provide somewhat of an opportunity for the Bulls to make up time on Mercedes and Ferrari.

Lars Baron, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Speaking of them, Ferrari need to establish some kind of foothold in this season’s championship, having failed to win a race in the first half of the season, with Charles Leclerc falling agonisingly short of victory in Bahrain and Austria, and Sebastian Vettel losing the win in Canada due to a penalty. The prancing horses, who have thus far been cantering ponies, are generally better in a straight line than Mercedes this year, and this weekend is a great chance to grab that first win.

As for Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton certainly cannot be counted out of a win, and it is not as if the Mercedes is tremendously slower than the Ferrari on the straights. However, Hamilton will surely have one eye on the title with a 62 point lead over team-mate Valtteri Bottas, and may opt to play the long game.

Bottas is in a different boat. Following a blistering start to the season, winning in Australia and Azerbaijan, the Finn has fallen back, and has since started to show the cracks that we have seen in the last two seasons partnered with Hamilton. No wins since race four, a crash in Germany and a clumsy incident with his team mate in Hungary has left his future in doubt, with Esteban Ocon among a couple of names potentially being lined up to replace him next year. Bottas is running out of time in the harsh climate of Formula One, and he needs a strong result at Spa to kick off the second part of the season and salvage his future at Mercedes.

LAT Images / Mercedes AMG

Further back, Haas drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen both need strong weekends themselves. Several incidents between the two drivers have frustrated their demanding team boss Guenther Steiner, and neither of them currently have a safe seat for next season.

It was at this race 12 months ago where Racing Point, undergoing their transformation as Racing Point Force India, came close to a podium with Sergio Perez. A podium will not be expected this time, but points will certainly be the objective. So too will be the case for Renault’s drivers, who both failed to score points here last year after Nico Hulkenberg catapulted Fernando Alonso, and Daniel Ricciardo was caught up in the ensuing melee.

George Russell was hopeful that Williams were taking steps in the right direction following the last race in Budapest, but we should not expect them to be able to lift themselves off the bottom of the time sheets this time around.

Hamilton is back to defend his championship lead, Bottas and Ferrari need to bounce back, and Formula One is back, as is Eau Rouge, I mean Raidillon, oh forget it…

Follow full live text commentary of free practice, qualifying and the race on our Twitter account, @PitCrew_Online.

Header image by Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes AMG

FIA F2: Belgium preview

The three week summer break is over, and this weekend FIA Formula 2 returns for round 9 at Belgium’s Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

At the last round in Hungary, Nicholas Latifi struck back at title rival Nyck de Vries with victory in the feature race—his first win since Spain in May. However, with 30 points still the difference between them in De Vries’ favour, Latifi will need another strong result here at Spa if he’s to swing the momentum back towards him for the final four rounds of the season.

Luca Ghiotto dropped back from the title contenders in Hungary, and now sits fourth in the standings behind DAMS’ Sergio Sette Camara. With Jack Aitken only one point behind him, Ghiotto will be looking for a strong return from the summer break to reassert himself at the top.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

There will also be plenty of drivers to watch outside of the main title contenders. Carlin’s Nobuharu Matsushita—who won the feature race in Austria and finished on the podium again in Hungary—has said he is still hoping to earn an F1 promotion via his Honda academy links, but he will need to put in the results to get there. The Japanese driver needs to be at least fourth in the standings to earn his superlicence, which means overcoming the 50-point gap to Ghiotto.

Guanyu Zhou comes to Spa as the season’s best rookie in P6 with 107 points. But although he’s enjoyed a successful F2 debut with three podiums and pole position at Silverstone, the UNI-Virtuosi driver still has yet to claim his first win in the series.

Zhou’s closest competition for “best rookie” is fellow Renault academy driver Anthoine Hubert. Although Hubert is 30 points adrift of Zhou, he has picked up two sprint race victories for BWT Arden this season and will be hungry for more in the final rounds as he chases a drive with DAMS or ART for next year.

And finally, Mick Schumacher won’t be able to avoid the spotlight this weekend following his first F2 victory in the Hungary sprint race. His fans will be hoping that win proves a breakthrough result after a sobering start to his F2 debut, especially with Spa and Monza being tracks Schumacher knows from his European F3 days.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

Belgian Grand Prix: Hamilton Claims Pole as Force India Impress in Rain-Affected Qualifying

Lewis Hamilton has claimed his 78th pole position in Formula One, setting a time seven tenths quicker than title rival Sebastian Vettel as rain showers shook things up in Q3 at Spa-Francorchamps.

The Brit now holds the record for the most pole positions claimed at the circuit, beating the previous record of four poles held by Juan Manuel Fangio and Ayrton Senna.

Ferrari had looked as if they had the edge coming into qualifying, with the Scuderia setting the fastest times in every practice session as well as in Q1 and Q2. However, when the rain started to fall in Q3, the pendulum swung in Mercedes’ favour. Sebastian Vettel managed to significantly improve his lap time in the final runs of Q3 as the track began to dry but it wasn’t enough to overthrow Lewis Hamilton at the top of the timing screens. He will start the race tomorrow in P2.

2018 Großer Preis von Belgien, Samstag – Steve Etherington

Force India, or Racing Point Force India if you want to be pedantic, saw both of their drivers put in superb performances. Esteban Ocon – whose future is uncertain amid rumours of Lance Stroll being drafted into the team as soon as Monza or Singapore – qualified an amazing P3. Team-mate Sergio Perez recovered from a huge moment coming out of Eau Rouge and going into Raidillon to post the fourth quickest time. There must be something in the Force India water at Spa, for this is the circuit where Giancarlo Fisichella claimed pole for them in 2009 and where previous incarnations of the team, notably Jordan Grand Prix, have always run well.

Also putting in a great performance was the Haas of Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman had been surprisingly off the pace all weekend, but he managed to get it together when it mattered and qualified P5.

Kimi Raikkonen had been looking particularly strong all weekend, but Ferrari made the strategic error of only giving him enough fuel for one lap in Q3. This meant the Finn was confined to the garage towards the end of Q3 at precisely the moment when the fastest laps were being set on track. He ended up P6.

The Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will, like Raikkonen, definitely not be satisfied. Thanks to a mix of strategic error and the low-drag trim they had been running, they ended up P7 and P8 respectively and over four seconds away from Hamilton’s pole time.

2018 Großer Preis von Belgien, Samstag – Wolfgang Wilhelm

The other Haas of Kevin Magnussen qualified P9, nearly three seconds behind his team-mate, and Valtteri Bottas rounded out the top ten having failed to set a time in Q3. The Finn came into qualifying carrying engine penalties and knowing that, whatever happened, he would be starting the Grand Prix from the back of the grid.

Outside the top ten, the main surprise came in the form of Renault’s Carlos Sainz being knocked out of Q1 by the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson.

Not so surprising, however, was the pace of the two McLaren cars. It is turning into a home race to forget for Stoffel Vandoorne – the Belgian had been slowest in FP1, FP2, and FP3, and that trend, unfortunately, continued into Q1. This was McLaren’s worst qualifying of the year so far, with Vandoorne’s team-mate Fernando Alonso also failing to make it out of Q1 and qualifying P17. They will, however, get bumped up a couple of places thanks to the engine penalties given to Valtteri Bottas and also to Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.

 

Featured image: 2018 Großer Preis von Belgien, Samstag – Steve Etherington

F2 Spa: Double disqualification and a debut win in Belgium

In true Spa-Francorchamps fashion, Friday’s qualifying for this round of the FIA Formula 2 championship was a washout. But that didn’t stop Charles Leclerc from collecting his seventh pole position of the season, proving that Prema have magnificent one lap pace no matter what the conditions are. It was a top ten starting position for all three championship contenders, ensuring that they would all be up there on Saturday. After adding Nyck de Vries to their line-up, Racing Engineering had one of their best qualifying performances all season, with both of their drivers making it into top ten as well.

Before the race even started it was disappointment for DAMS’ Nicholas Latifi, who, after securing his first front row start in Formula 2 and out qualifying his teammate, was forced to the pit lane, and ultimately failed to get his car going at all. DAMS team boss Francois Sicard would later cite a broken valve as the cause of his woes. It was bitterly frustrating for the Canadian who has been having an outstanding season so far.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2.

With the DAMS driver missing, it was a frenetic opening lap in Saturday’s feature race. Leclerc only just managed to fend off his main championship rival, Oliver Rowland, after a poor start, and their fellow championship contender Artem Markelov made up four places almost immediately to begin lap 2 in fifth place. There were cars making contact up and down the field, most notably between the brand new Racing Engineering teammates, with debris littering the track, and damage for many of the drivers. It was ART’s Nobuharu Matsushita that brought out the Virtual Safety Car after he stalled on the grid.

After racing resumed on lap 2, Leclerc got to work with putting distance between himself and the second placed Rowland, his Prema machinery running almost a second a lap faster than the DAMS. Russian Time’s Luca Ghiotto was proving that he could be just as aggressive a driver as his teammate as he took third place from Antonio Fuoco, and it was the Russian team’s cars who were making up the most ground, steadily cutting through the field.

Rowland and DAMS attempted the undercut on lap 7, but few of the other front runners followed suit, and when Leclerc made his stop on lap 11 and came out ahead, it was clear that the French team had lost the strategy game.

But the British driver did not give up his chase easily. He put on a real display of attacking driving, particularly his fantastic overtake on Norman Nato. However, his pace was simply no match for Leclerc’s, who was speeding away in a league of his own. It was Russian Time who called their strategy perfectly, aided by Markelov’s uncanny ability to manage his tyres. When he pitted on lap 16 of the twenty-five lap race and came out in fifth place, his penchant for aggressive driving and fresher tyres made for a killer combination as he tore through the competition.

It was déjà vu when the Russian came up against Rowland in his pursuit of second place. In a move reminiscent of their clash in Hungary, Markelov had more success this time when he overtook Rowland around the outside at the Bus Stop, in one of the most thrilling moments of the race which saw him take second place by less than a tenth of a second. The second and third placed drivers in the championship had to be content with letting the dominant Leclerc stand upon the top step of the podium as he finished an eye watering twenty-six seconds ahead of the field.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2.

But the drama didn’t stop at the chequered flag. Late on Saturday night, news came that both Leclerc and Rowland had been disqualified from the feature race for the same technical infringement – excessive wear to the underfloor plank of their cars.

The title rivals were therefore sent to the back of the grid for the sprint race on Sunday while Markelov inherited the race win and his teammate Ghiotto found himself in second. It also meant a second podium of the season for Prema’s Antonio Fuoco, and an even better result for new Racing Engineering teammates Gustav Malja and Nyck de Vries who took fourth and fifth place. Reverse grid pole was given to Norman Nato, just behind Robert Merhi and Sergio Sette Camara, a welcome promotion for two drivers who scored their first points of the season. Trident’s Santino Ferrucci and Campos Racing’s Robert Visoiu were promoted to the final points paying positions as well.

There was much anticipation surrounding Sunday’s sprint race with the grid shaken up and several of the frontrunners starting from the grid, and as ever, Formula 2 did not disappoint.

It was a blistering start from MP Motorsport’s Sergio Sette Camara, who immediately improved from third to first, putting the more experienced Merhi and Nato behind him. The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps was proving to be something of a dream track for the young Brazilian who had not scored points prior to this weekend.

As expected, both Leclerc and Rowland were quickly making up ground, with the Yorkshireman gaining a one place advantage over his rival after Leclerc ran off the road early on lap 1. The DAMS driver was up to twelfth place by the end of the first lap, with Leclerc powering past Matsushita on the inside up Eau Rouge to take thirteenth place.

Photo: Alastair Staley/FIA Formula 2.

Despite fierce battling between Rowland and Leclerc, the Brit couldn’t keep him behind for long, and pretty soon the Ferrari junior driver was putting cars between his nearest title rival. In just a handful of laps he was back into the points, a brilliant recovery for the back row of the grid. But he wasn’t quite finished yet.

Leclerc ran into some trouble when trying to pass his teammate Fuoco and the promoted race winner from the previous day, Markelov. Ultimately, he found a way past both of them as Markelov began to fade, dropping back, and eventually retiring with a suspected engine issue on lap 13.

It was Matsushita’s nasty crash at Raidillon on lap 15 that sealed the result of the race. The Japanese driver thankfully walked away unharmed, but the damage from his crash meant that the race finished under safety car conditions and Sergio Sette Camara held on to score his first win in single seater racing. And it was a well deserved victory too after such an impressive start and withstanding pressure from de Vries for the duration of the eighteen lap race.

An improvement of fourteen places was the best Leclerc could do, though it easily could have been more had the safety car not been deployed. DAMS teammates Rowland and Latifi also recovered from their poor starting positions, coming home in eighth and ninth, the Canadian unlucky to finish just outside of the points. It could have been a very different weekend for all three drivers had they not found themselves on the wrong side of misfortune. The trio’s nearest competitors, teammates Ghiotto and Markelov tried their hardest to capitalise on their hard luck, and the former’s double podium promoting him to fourth in the drivers’ standings ahead of Latifi.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2.

After such a disappointing season before the break, Racing Engineering seem to be recovering some of the form we expected from them at the start of the season, with solid points finishes from both their drivers. Whilst his teammate was grabbing the headlines once again – though not for all of the right reasons – Antonio Fuoco had his second best weekend of the season with a decent qualifying performance and two points finishes. It still isn’t quite the superhuman feats of Leclerc, but it does prove that his early season struggles may have been something of an adjustment period. And the Italian is beginning to look more like the title challenger we saw in GP3 last year.

Thanks in part to the double disqualification from the feature race, the points situation as we head to Monza in a week’s time is much the same as it was coming to Spa, with Leclerc leading by fifty-nine points. Though now Rowland is just nine points ahead of Markelov after the Russian’s stunning drive on Saturday.

Prema and Leclerc’s pace still reigns supreme, and around the team’s home track, the Autodromo Nazionale Monza is the last place anyone should underestimate them.

Steiner: Haas hopeful for “new opportunity” at high-speed Spa

Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has said his American team is looking forward to this weekend’s power-dependant Belgian Grand Prix, having struggled in the low-speed races prior to the summer break.

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Haas began July with its best result of the season so far, when Romain Grosjean finished sixth in Austria. But since then the team’s form has hit a considerable slump: at Silverstone, Grosjean dropped back from a top ten start to squabble with Saubers and McLarens outside the points, whilst in Hungary Kevin Magnussen was the sole Haas finisher in thirteenth, only three places higher than his disappointing qualifying position.

But Steiner believes that the engine-favouring characteristics of the upcoming races at Spa and Monza ought to bring about a return to form for the American team.

“We struggled a little bit in Hungary with it being a low-speed track,” Steiner said. “We are bringing some items for low downforce or low drag for Spa and Monza, and we are as confident as we can be that it works.

“If you’re good in Spa, you normally should be good in Monza too…so, let’s hope we are good in Spa.”

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Steiner added that Haas has “tried to hit the reset button” in its preparation for the second half of the season:

“Hungary certainly tested the team, but it showed how hard we work to overcome adversity while remaining positive. Belgium is a new race and a new opportunity. Everything is possible here. We will try hard and we will come back again.”

However, the Austrian did also confirm that Haas will revert back to using Brembo brakes this weekend, despite successful running of Carbon Industrie alternatives in Britain and Hungary, as they continue hunting for a solution to their recurrent braking issues: “At Spa we will be running Brembos to start off with and then we will see, but at the moment the plan is to run Brembos.”

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

In addition to that, Steiner said that there will be no major performances updates fitted to the VF-17 this weekend (besides the usual adaptations for Spa’s low-downforce demands), though the team is “working through the data we gained from our last wind tunnel test” ahead of a possible upgrade package for Japan or the United States.

Whether or not Haas opts to bring a last raft of updates in October will likely depend on the progress of its 2018 car development, which Steiner says has been complicated by the late mandating of the Halo system:

“We’ll [have to] work on how we get the weight down on other parts of the car because we are at the minimum weight, otherwise our car just gets too heavy [with the Halo]. We also need to find the best solution aerodynamically to integrate the Halo into the overall body.

“It’s head scratching. For sure, there is work to be done.”

Sauber bringing key aero update to Spa

Sauber will be completing its second major upgrades package of the season this weekend in Belgium, in a bid to offset its year-old Ferrari engine deficit.

Sauber F1 Team

The update—a new floor—will form the second part of a significant aerodynamic upgrade that began at the last round in Hungary, where new bodywork and an improved cooling system were fitted to the C36.

The is the first major update to the car since Sauber revised its floor, sidepods, brake ducts and bodywork during the race weekends in Spain—where Pascal Wehrlein scored the team’s first points of the season—and Monaco.

It is hoped that the completed second package will help Sauber to counteract the shortfall in power of their 2016 Ferrari power units, particularly with the Belgian Grand Prix and the following race at Monza providing some of the most engine-dependant racing on the F1 calendar.

Sauber F1 Team

Speaking about the upgrade to Autosport at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Marcus Ericsson said, “Hopefully this next update will work a bit better than the upgrade we got [in May] as it didn’t really give us the jump we had hoped.

“When we got the car working, like in Silverstone in the race, we could keep similar pace to the Haas cars, and Vandoorne wasn’t much faster. We are not too bad, when we get our car together.”

Nevertheless, the team will be wary of expecting too much from the new parts this weekend—especially as at the chassis-specialist Hungaroring, the first instalment of Sauber’s new aero package saw Wehrlein and Ericsson qualify on the final two rows of the grid, and finish the race two laps down and last of those still running at the flag.

It is likely this will be Sauber’s final big push to improve the competitiveness of the C36, before it turns its attentions fully to constructing next year’s challenger.

F2 Spa Preview: is time running out for Leclerc’s challengers?

When Formula 2 returns after the summer break, it enters its final quarter, where the 2017 title will be decided once and for all. It will take a comeback of epic proportions from Oliver Rowland or Artem Markelov to catch Charles Leclerc, but it is far from impossible. The break presents a perfect opportunity to reinvigorate their championship campaigns, and neither is the kind of driver to go down without a fight.

The eighth round of the FIA Formula 2 Championship takes place at the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, a favourite of many of the drivers thanks to its incredibly fast, twisting layout. It also marks the first weekend of the second double header of races in F2 this season, with the ninth round at Monza coming just a week later. The pressure is on to deliver, with time fast running out.

The Formula 2 grid lining up in Belgium will look a little different to the one viewers have grown accustomed to. Rookies Louis Deletraz and Nyck de Vries are swapping seats from round eight onwards, with the Swiss driver making the switch to Rapax and the Dutchman joining Racing Enigeering. Though the mechanics behind such a move are unknown to us, it is surprising, considering Racing Engineering’s poor form this year, and de Vries’ relative success with Rapax. Deletraz will not partner Rapax regular, Sergio Canamasas in Spa, but rather ex-Formula 1 driver Roberto Merhi, who will be filling in for his fellow Spainaird, who is missing the round due to personal issues.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

As ever, all eyes will be on Charles Leclerc, who will hope to do a repeat of his result at the track in GP3 last year, when he successfully converted pole position into a feature race win. And with rumours growing that he is poised to take one of the Sauber seats in Formula 1 next year, the expectations will be higher than ever that he continues the dominant form that he has been showing all year. After the stripping of his pole in Budapest, he will be looking to get his record back on track, and his team, Prema, will be looking for him to do so as well to help them close the gap to DAMS in the team standings.

His teammate, Antonio Fuoco will also be hoping to draw on his experience from GP3 to help him improve upon his, at best, shaky form of 2017. He, like  Nyck de Vries, qualified well in 2016, and scored one podium over the weekend, picking up a strong haul of points. But for their fellow GP3 graduate, ART’s Alexander Albon, a repeat of last year is far from what he needs, after a poor qualifying saw him pick up only two points over the whole weekend. The Thai driver has looked reliable throughout his rookie season, but has thus far fallen just short of doing something remarkable to turn heads in his direction, Spa represents the latest in a dwindling number of opportunities for him to pull that off.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

Albon’s teammate, Honda junior Nobuharu Matsushita had an ultimately forgettable outing in Belgium last year. However, Matsushita is having one of his better seasons, taking the most recent race win in the sprint race in Hungary. He is a driver, while too far down the standings to actually feature in the title battle, could prove to play a part in the championship outcome if it all comes together for him.

Pertamina Arden’s Norman Nato is another example of a driver who could spoil the fun for the championship leaders. While Arden have struggled at times this year, Nato undoubtedly possesses the ability to win races and score podiums, it is just a matter of have a consistent weekend. That is also the problem for his teammate Sean Gelael, who sits in seventeenth in the driver standings, compared to Nato’s seventh. His season has been plagued with bad luck, but he has also failed to take advantage of fortune when it has come his way. In Spa he will most likely be a driver who occupies the lower points paying positions, rather than a contender for pole or a win.

Racing Engineering’s Gustav Malja was one of six drivers who occupied the GP2 podium in Belgium last year, taking second in the sprint race. But, the Spanish team is not at the level they were last year, and while the Swedish driver has scored a podium already this season, Racing Engineering need to conquer their set up demons if Malja, or newcomer Nyck de Vries are to deliver this weekend. It is a similar story for teams such as Campos Racing and MP Motorsport. All three teams tend to run at the back of the field, and though some of their drivers, such as Malja, but also Jordan King (MP Motorsport), have the ability to score points, they are not going to be running with the likes of DAMS, Prema or Russian Time.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

Trident, who currently take the record for fielding the most drivers this season, seem to have finalised their line-up for the remainder of 2017, with Santino Ferucci graduating from GP3. The Haas development driver scored points in his debut in Hungary, but in Spa he has a chance to prove whether or not this was simply a case of beginner’s luck, or proving that he has what it takes to step up. Consistency in their line-up will likely help the entire team, and maybe help lift them from last in the team standings.

As they are most weekends, DAMS and Russian Time will be the teams looking to cause trouble for Leclerc. But for Russian Time to get back on terms with their nearest rivals, they need Artem Markelov to recover well from his poor weekend in Hungary – marred by his crash in the feature race. His teammate Luca Ghiotto, meanwhile, needs an upturn in his qualifying performance to deliver the results his race pace warrants. He remains the only driver in the top five not to score a race win in 2017.

Neither team seem quite able to match his and Prema’s one lap pace in qualifying, though DAMS has been steadily improving in this aspect all season, so it would be unfair to count them out just yet. While it is Latifi who is hitting his best form this season, it is his teammate Rowland who needs to deliver in Spa if he wants to stay in the hunt. The Brit cannot afford to let Leclerc extend his lead much further, or he will quickly become impossible to catch and the championship will be over before Formula 2 ever reaches Abu Dhabi.

Sainz hoping for “third time lucky” at favourite circuit Spa

Carlos Sainz has said he is hoping for some good fortune at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, having retired from the event in both his previous entries.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

In his maiden season in 2015, Sainz’ race was cut short by a power unit failure on lap 32. Last year was even more frustrating: having climbed from fifteenth to seventh off the line, the Toro Rosso driver ran over debris on the Kemmel Straight and was forced to retire by the resulting puncture damage.

But the Spaniard has said that despite his disappointing F1 record there, Spa remains one of his favourite circuits:

“I really like racing in Spa because it’s a track that has a bit of everything. It has very long straights where good overtaking can take place, but also very nice corners—Sector 2 in particular is very nice and flowing.

“It’s tough to find a compromise regarding the balance of the car and the set-up for the long straights and Sector 2, but I enjoy the challenge.

“Spa is one of my favourite tracks but, strangely enough, I’ve never finished an F1 race there. Third time lucky, they say…”

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Sainz’ teammate Daniil Kvyat has also said he is looking forward to the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, describing Spa as a “legendary track” that’s “impossible not to [love]”.

The Russian has gone well at Spa in the past. He finished in the points in his first Belgian Grand Prix in 2014, and during his troubled stint at Red Bull in 2015 he finished fourth from twelfth on the grid; prior to that, Kvyat also won the feature race at Spa during his title-winning 2013 GP3 campaign.

Returning then to a circuit he enjoys and at which he has run well in the past, Kvyat will surely be hoping that Belgium provides a much-needed turning point for his 2017 season. So far this year, Kvyat has not only finished behind Sainz in every race the two of them have completed, he has also finished in the points a mere twice—a pair of ninth places in Australia and Spain—and sits clear of only Stoffel Vandoorne, Jolyon Palmer and Marcus Ericsson in the full-time standings.

Add to that the Russian’s continued attraction to controversial collisions (in particular, his clash with Sainz at Silverstone) and his equally punchy comments off track, and it’s clear that finding some solid form this weekend is an absolute must for Kvyat.

“Encouraging” first half of the season sets up Renault push in Spa

The Renault Sport F1 team has been buoyed by the progress made so far this season and is aiming to make further gains this weekend in Spa, according to lead driver Nico Hülkenberg.

Renault Sport F1 Team

“[2017 has] been very encouraging, especially in the last few races,” the German driver said ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix. “We’ve found a good balance with qualifying performance and race pace—Silverstone highlighted that—it’s at a better level now.

“We are heading in the right direction and are looking competitive, but we want to keep pushing ourselves.”

Hülkenberg also said that Renault’s momentum this season has mirrored his own: “I’m pleased with how the car is feeling and the progress we are making. This year’s cars and fun and faster, allowing me to push harder which suits my driving style a lot more than in recent years.

“It was a shame to finish how we did in Hungary (retiring on lap 67 with a brake issue), but in general there are positive feelings.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Part of Renault’s push this weekend will come in the form of software and hardware power unit upgrades scheduled for Belgium and the following race at Monza.

Although the updates are not part of a major development package, Renault engine chief Remi Taffin said the team is focusing on improving its reliability issues at two of the most power-hungry tracks on the calendar:

“Qualifying pace has looked good with Great Britain and Hungary exemplifying our ability to be the fourth-best team. It’s just a case of building on that and bettering the race pace.

“That comes from levelling up everything, we need to show off reliability and mileage and that is something we are giving close attention.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Any improvements to Renault’s engine reliability will come as a sure boost to Jolyon Palmer, who has so far taken the brunt of the French marque’s misfortune this season.

However, Palmer has conceded that reliability issues have not been his only obstacle in the first eleven races of 2017, with the Briton struggling to get to grips with the RS17 in the same way as his teammate.

“It’s been challenging,” he said, referring to the first half of his season. “The 2017 regulations mean a car that’s very different from before, so you have to relearn how to extract the maximum performance from it. Getting the right set-up is difficult and this is only compounded when you miss out on track time.”

But Palmer has also said that a refreshing summer break—in which he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro—and the prospect of returning to the “awesome” Spa circuit has given him fresh inspiration for the first of the remaining nine races:

“To drive it is simply immense. Nothing prepares you for heading flat out down the hill and then coming up the other side and down that straight. Pouhon will be an exciting corner this year, it brings a real challenge as it’s a very quick double apex left.

“I’ve had some good memories [at Spa] but I’m driven to make some more.”