F1: Spa falters as crowds fail to flock to rural Belgium

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarThursday, August 27th, 2009

 
 

Are we seeing yet another threat to one of F1’s iconic racing circuits because of money troubles?

Following absences from the calendar in 2003 and 2006, the Spa-Francorchamps circuit’s place on the calendar now looks uncertain for the third time in a decade after organisers were reportedly left some 24,000 ticket sales short of break-even point with just a few days to go before the race.

Theories as to why include the lack of facilities and infrastructure, the absence of any large nearby towns and the difficulty in putting over one coherent narrative from this season in the face of a confused title battle and a half-hearted challenge from big names like Ferrari and McLaren.

But Spa remains a firm favourite with drivers and television audiences. And it’s not like the season’s short of drama with the two men who were initially the most obvious title contenders now both struggling to maintain their momentum.

Jenson Button suffered from problems with his Brawn GP 001 – but team-mate Rubens Barrichello transcended those self-same problems to take a decisive win in Valencia, his first for five years. If Button wants to maintain his title challenge he must do the same – and very quickly.

Meanwhile the challenge of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel has faded in the face of a sustained push from his more experienced team-mate Mark Webber. And, to compromise his hopes perhaps beyond salvation, a double engine failure at Valencia means he now doesn’t have sufficient resources to complete the season.

He will be reduced to running limited laps in practice and perhaps taking a 10-place engine penalty before the season ends in Abu Dhabi. An outcome which has possibly ended Renault’s chances of continuing to supply Red Bull with engines next year.

Elsewhere in the paddock, Kimi Raikkonen is known as ‘The King of Spa’ and could be extremely dangerous there. Even in his present incarnation, and on the back of KERS plus a motivation-boosting podium at Valencia. Not that he will be getting much help from stand-in driver Luca Badoer, plainly not race-fit at present, but given a second race by Ferrari.

McLaren are talking down their chances of doing much on this high-speed circuit, as is Renault’s Fernando Alonso, who has said he is not sure his team can challenge for race wins.

However Lewis Hamilton will certainly be wanting to banish the memories of last year’s stewarding, after he crossed the finish line first but was then demoted to fourth for cutting a chicane during a late rain shower and then not surrendering the place.

On a weekend when cool and cloudy weather is expected, it’s sobering to remember how at Valencia Button benefited chiefly from others’ misfortune to extend his championship lead.

In F1 anything can happen, but you wouldn’t necessarily bet on that happening twice. He needs to seize the initiative but, as a driver who is particularly sensitive to an out-of-balance car, it remains to be seen if he can.

Brawn GP: back to winning ways?

The challenge for Brawn GP this weekend will be to see whether the race performance that propelled Rubens Barrichello to the Valencia podium was a genuine advance – or a fluke caused by the extremely hot weather.

Ross Brawn, team principal, said: “Our return to form in Valencia and the very well-deserved win for Rubens has given everyone at the team a timely boost as we head into the final part of the season.

“Looking ahead to the race in Spa, this will be another challenge with a very different type of circuit and ambient weather conditions. Although we believe that we now have a better understanding of our recent tyre issues, the lower track temperatures at Spa will be the proving ground for this.

“We will have another busy testing programme on Friday to validate the conclusions reached in Valencia and then build our weekend from there. Spa ranks as one of the great classic racing circuits, loved by drivers, engineers and fans, so we hope to put on a good show.”

Jenson Button added: “Spa is one of my favourite circuits and has a layout which gives everything you could want as a driver. It’s one of the fastest and most challenging circuits in the world with hills, fast corners and long straights which combine to give you a real buzz to drive, just like Suzuka and Silverstone.

“It’s also a very beautiful circuit with the forest setting although the weather can be unpredictable! It can play a big part in the race weekend, even in the summer, so you have to be ready to react but that unpredictability is part of the thrill of racing at Spa.

“Eau Rouge is still a legendary corner, although it is usually easy flat for us in the dry, but the feeling when you hit the bottom of the hill, touch the ground and shoot straight back up again is amazing.

“It’s been a tough few races for me recently but the car felt very good in Valencia and the pace was right up there when I was able to run in clear air during the race. So we’re feeling positive and very much looking forward to the weekend.”

McLaren: don’t expect miracles

McLaren is downplaying expectations for Belgium, despite the fact that its drivers Coulthard and Hakkinen took a decisive one-two in the race a decade earlier. It is not thought that the high-speed circuit will favour the MP4-24, despite its renaissance at Valencia.

Team principal Martin Whitmarsh said: “Despite making some major improvements to the MP4-24, we go to Spa knowing that the circuit’s high-speed configuration is unlikely to play to our strengths of our car.

“Having said that, our new technical package makes us confident that we’ll be a strong contender for points as we look to improve on our fourth position in the constructors’ championship.

“We’ve enjoyed a tremendous record here, winning 10 times, and both Lewis and Heikki love this place so I’m looking forward to another exciting race.”

Lewis Hamilton added: “Like Monaco, Silverstone and Monza, it’s one of the historic circuits that I grew up watching on television when I was younger, which makes it just that bit more special for me, because it’s so easy to imagine the heroes of the past racing here.

“It’s also a magnificent circuit, a place where you can really push the limits of a Formula 1 car: driving through Eau Rouge, Pouhon or Blanchimont is an incredible sensation. Your whole body is on the limit and you are still pushing to go faster still. I love Spa, I don’t think it should ever leave the Formula 1 calendar.”

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