Formula Spy's Thomas Maher on the Belgian Grand Prix
Formula 1 awakens from the annual summer slumber this weekend and its off to, arguably, the world's most exciting race track - the undulating Spa-Francorchamps circuit set in the heart of the Ardennes mountains in Belgium.
The circuit is a high speed circuit, but only has one notably long straight - the Kemmel straight - the scene of one of F1's most iconic overtakes back in 2000 when Mika Hakkinen dived past Michael Schumacher and backmarker Ricardo Zonta in one fell swoop. Corners like Eau Rouge, Radillion, Blanchimont and Pouhon are regularly included in all the driver's favourites, thanks to the levels of commitment and bravery they require. It's a track that even manages to excite the taciturn and unflappable Finn, Kimi Raikkonen.
He is the most successful of the current drivers at the Belgian track, having won the event in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009, and even he admits to feeling a thrill at getting to drive at such a venue, although doesn't get too caught up in his own enthusiasm while doing so: “It is in the middle of a forest and you get up and down hills which makes it more interesting than many other circuits. It is in the middle of nowhere and conditions can be tricky sometimes but it creates a good race - exciting racing that is nice for drivers and spectators. I enjoy it, it is quite nice."
Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen of Finland walks in the pits during the first practice session at the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix circuit in Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016. The Belgian Formula One Grand Prix will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
"Quite nice" is probably what Nico Rosberg is thinking about how this weekend is already panning out for him as he prepares to begin trying to close his 19 point deficit to championship leader and teammate Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg has lost momentum in recent rounds, and had to endure a fairly miserable home race last time out in Germany. Having started from pole position, he came home in P4 after a nondescript race, while Hamilton cantered home to an easy win after vaulting into the lead at the start.
However, Spa appears to be an open goal for Rosberg as the weekend begins. Having had some bad luck with engine components early in the season, Hamilton is facing grid penalties for requiring additional parts over the remainder of the year. While these penalties would come later in the season if left until absolutely required, Mercedes are opting to trigger the penalties earlier, starting at this race. Doing so at Spa means that, theoretically, less damage will be done than taking a penalty in, say, Singapore. They will run a 6th MGU-H and Turbocharger in Friday practice, which will mean a starting position, at best, of P16, for Hamilton on Sunday.
Should Merc opt to run a 7th set on Saturday, he will start from the very back, but will have taken a considerable amount of the pain facing him away. For the moment, Nico Rosberg doesn't have any serious concerns over power unit component usage or penalties.
What should concern Rosberg is how momentum seems to have slipped away from him in recent races. Hamilton has clearly had the upper hand since the pair came to blows on the final lap of the Austrian GP, and Spa-Francorchamps hasn't been a happy hunting ground for the German driver. As teammates, Hamilton has had the upper hand on him in their three races here together, and it was the scene where Rosberg's 2014 championship challenge seemed to end after he was blamed by Mercedes for colliding with Hamilton at the end of the Kemmel straight on Lap 2. He's been handed a golden opportunity to banish the Belgian blues this weekend, and a chance to start the second half of the season on a high.
Hamilton's chances of fighting back from a lowly grid slot are pretty decent here, however. Spa is renowned for changeable weather and unpredictable conditions. Unusual circumstances rear their head on a regular basis at Spa, most notably the chaotic 1998 race where Jordan scored their first win and 1-2 finish. Michael Schumacher, who made his debut 25 years ago for Jordan this weekend, won this race from P16 in 1995. Mercedes' 2014 collision wasn't the only intra-team fight here either, as McLaren's Hakkinen and David Coulthard also made contact at La Source on Lap 1 in 1999, although both finished that race. With Pirelli expecting a 2-3 stop race, coupled with all the odd circumstances that Spa usually provides, don't discount Hamilton out from taking a shock win, regardless of his starting position.
It's Ferrari and Red Bull leading the chase behind Merc, although it appears as though Red Bull may have the advantage here. While Ferrari may have more power pushing them down the straight bits, Adrian Newey's superb RB12 will handle the sweeps of Spa with ease, meaning a close battle between them and the Scuderia. According to Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari have figured out some of their car weaknesses over the summer break and still intend on chasing Merc for the title, but it's difficult to see how this is realistic. Unless Ferrari manage to beat Mercedes in a straight fight this weekend, which isn't likely, the second half of the season will pan out the same as the first - with Ferrari fighting to be second best.
It'll probably be Williams fighting Force India up next, with the two Mercedes customers teams fighting for pride to be best of the rest. Williams aren't as competitive this season as they were in 2014/2015, and will face a stern challenge from Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg in the VJM09s. McLaren may be able to join this fight too, despite their relative lack of optimism about their potential here. The MP4/31 and Honda are slowly edging forward on the grid, and are knocking on the door of being able to score regular, if minor, points finishes.
There's a few changes to look out for this weekend. Manor have sidelined Rio Haryanto after the Indonesian driver's backing dried up. He has been replaced by Mercedes and Renault development driver Esteban Ocon, the 2014 Formula 3 and 2015 GP3 Champion. Haryanto, thanks to his meritable performances alongside Pascal Wehrlein over the opening half of this season, has been kept on in a reserve driver role. Sauber have also started bringing along some changes to their car, having had their future secured after a buyout from Longbow Finance. Having been using the same car without any significant upgrades all season, they may yet start showing flashes of promise. Pirelli, too, will be trying out new tyre compounds in Friday practice, testing 2017-spec compounds ahead of dedicated track testing days later this year.
There's a lot to be decided yet in this season of racing and, while the battle of the front seems to be exclusively Mercedes vs. Mercedes for the Driver's Championship, there is no better venue than Spa-Francorchamps to watch the incredible technological masterpieces that are modern F1 cars being driven as hard as possible by the world's best single seater racers. My gut feeling for Sunday? A masterpiece of a drive from Lewis Hamilton. Don't bet against it.
Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula Spy.com.