Webber and Hamilton set for Spa showdown (Belgian GP pre-race analysis)

Posted on Author Keith Collantine

Rubens Barrichello, Williams, Spa-Francorchamps, 2010

The Belgian Grand Prix is looking very promising with an interesting grid, a chance of rain and, of course, the best circuit in Formula 1.

Both Red Bull drivers will be looking over their shoulder at the McLarens starting right behind them – and Robert Kubica is right in the mix in his upgraded Renault.

We also have the prospect of Fernando Alonso fighting his way up from tenth place. And F1’s most experienced driver has made an interesting call on tyre strategy.

The start

The first corner at Spa has already come under some scrutiny ahead of the race. Drivers have been warned not to try to use the outside of the corner to gain an advantage and the organisers have increased the amount of artificial grass at the corner to discourage drivers from purposefully running wide.

That could be crucial tomorrow as everyone tries to make the best of their advantage to gain places on the opening lap.

That’s especially true of the two championship leaders who share the front row of the grid. Lewis Hamilton knows his best chance to get past Mark Webber will come on the first lap.

Side-by-side passes into Eau Rouge are very hard to pull off – as Hamilton discovered with Fernando Alonso in 2007. His best chance might be to get in Webber’s slipstream on the way out of Eau Rouge and down the Kemmel straight, where he was 3kph faster than the Red Bull driver in practice this morning.

Here’s Webber’s thoughts from the press conference on the opening lap:

Let?s see how the start goes. We don?t know if it?s going to be consistent both sides in terms of grip level, in terms of we?ve seen the right side of the track drying a bit faster than the left side, so if it?s going to be like that then I should get away OK, but if it?s even across both sides in terms of wet or dry then I?m probably expecting Lewis to be pretty close but it?s nothing unusual.

We?ve been there before and we will try and do our best. I don?t think tomorrow?s grand prix will be won and lost on the first lap, to be honest.
Mark Webber

Likewise Jenson Button will be eyeing up an opportunity to demote Sebastian Vettel who starts one place in front of him.

And that’s not to overlook Robert Kubica, who is revelling in his R30 that is now equipped with an F-duct, and Felipe Massa, who has made several uncompromising moves on the first lap this year.

Recent races suggest that neither side of this grid offers a particular advantage. It probably helps that track is frequently washed clean by rain.

The atypical pole position slot is on the inside line for the first corner. In the three F1 races since this part of the track was re-configured the pole sitter has held his position every time.

Fighting from the back

Alonso is not exactly at the back but he is certainly out of position. From tenth on the grid he is in danger of falling prey to the kind of first-lap mayhem that ended Hamilton and Button’s races last year.

A key target for the Ferrari driver on the first lap is the Force India of Adrian Sutil starting directly in front of him. That car has proved difficult to pass even for the likes of McLaren and Red Bull in races this year.

There are several drivers at the back who should make progress forward – Kamui Kobayashi, Michael Schumacher, Pedro de la Rosa and Vitaly Petrov in 17th, 21st, 22nd and 24th respectively. This should make for an interesting comparison of their overtaking abilities.

Conversely, Heikki Kovalainen starts from Lotus’s best qualifying position this year, 13th. With a little bit of attrition this race could be their best chance of scoring points.

The weather

The skies of Spa have kept the teams guessing all weekend. Showers materialise quickly near the track and the lap is long, meaning a wrong decision on which tyres to use can be very costly.

Some teams may find themselves running short of intermediate tyres if the conditions are persistently damp. They are only allocated four sets at the start of the weekend (and three sets of full wets) and regular rainfall has kept the shallow-cut wet tyres in demand.

Since the beginning of the year teams have found Bridgestone’s new-specification intermediate tyre wears out very quickly. That was clearly illustrated in Shanghai when drivers had to make stops for fresh intermediate tyres.

Inevitably there are rumours that some drivers have set their cars up with wet weather conditions in mind. Nico Rosberg has said his team had “decided to go for more of a rain set-up” but his team mate is believed to have gone the other way.

Barrichello’s gamble

Assuming the race stays dry, we’ll see the top ten drivers start on soft tyres with one exception – Rubens Barrichello.

This is an interesting move and could be based on a gamble that rain will fall late in the race, allowing Barrichello to avoid having to make a pit stop to change slick tyres before then. In which case, drivers in front of Barrichello who start on soft tyres will not want to make their pit stop until they have enough of a gap to come out ahead of him – 18 seconds at the very least.

The Brazilian driver starts from seventh on the grid and those around him will be hoping he fluffs the start as he did here last year. If he doesn’t, he could be in for a very good result in his 300th Grand Prix.

What do you think will happen in the Belgian Grand Prix? Will Hamilton pass Webber at the start? Where will Alonso and Schumacher climb to? Have your say in the comments.

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Image (C) Williams/LAT