x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

F1 drivers' love for Spa-Francorchamps proves it's not all just a blur

No matter their record here, F1 drivers tell Matt Majendie they enjoy the track, and the atmosphere, at Belgium's historic Spa-Francorchamps track.

Michael Schumacher, seen at the Raidillon corner in 2005, has won more races at Spa than any other F1 driver, with six wins to his name.
Michael Schumacher, seen at the Raidillon corner in 2005, has won more races at Spa than any other F1 driver, with six wins to his name.

Take a straw poll of the Formula One paddock and the chances are that, regardless of their nationality, most of the 24 drivers on the grid will rank Spa-Francorchamps among their favourite race circuits on the calendar.

The drivers wax lyrical about the track's nuances, much like an art critic would a priceless Picasso or Monet, and it's telling that its corners and straights are as famous as some of the drivers to have won there.

La Source, Les Combes, Pauhon and Blanchimont roll off the tongue but it is the Eau Rouge combination that is reserved for special praise by most; a part of the circuit that drivers tackle at 300kph, essentially at full tilt - as they'll do tomorrow for the Belgian Grand Prix.

The 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, once said the trick to mastering the uphill section was to do so flat out, as the greater the speed, the greater the downforce created by the downhill-uphill compression.

It was Villeneuve's father, Gilles, who was arguably responsible for Spa returning to modern-day F1. In 1972, the circuit was considered too perilous for drivers but that changed following the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, where Villeneuve Sr crashed in qualifying and lost his life. Since then, the race moved back to Spa (except for 1984) and has been virtually ever-present on the calendar.

While neither Villeneuve won there, F1 at Spa summons up a variety of notable past winners ranging from Juan Manuel Fangio, the victor of the first of 43 Belgian Grands Prix held there, in 1950, to last year's winner, Lewis Hamilton.

In the intervening years, Ayrton Senna stood on the top step of the podium five times, Kimi Raikkonen four and Damon Hill three, but all are comfortably trumped by Michael Schumacher, who boasts six victories at the circuit.

If there is one track on the 2011 calendar synonymous with Schumacher's past domination of F1 it is Spa and, regardless of how he fares this weekend, it will always be his favourite circuit.

"Spa has always been my number one racetrack since my debut," says the seven-time world champion. It was here that he made his F1 debut at race 11 of the 1991 season driving for Jordan.

In a stunning first track outing, he qualified seventh, sandwiched between the Benettons of Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno. The dream debut, though, failed to materialise when he suffered clutch failure on the start-finish line and he was forced to retire.

The reality is that, two decades since his F1 debut, Schumacher is not likely to add a seventh Spa win driving for the mid-pack Mercedes GP outfit; not that he is concerned.

"It's a race I always look forward to on the calendar, even more so having had a few weeks off for the summer break," he says. "It's a track where it always feels like you learn something more, learn to tackle it better, to improve almost. But whatever happens this weekend, it won't affect my memories of the place."

Understandable, looking at his record. His first grand prix win came at Spa a year after his debut there. In 2001, he broke Alain Prost's record of 51 grands prix wins when he triumphed around the course and clinched a seventh drivers' crown there three years later, after finishing second behind race winner Kimi Raikkonen.

As for his favourite Spa outing, he is not clear. "They are all special, even when I don't win," he says. "But maybe the first win here as it was the first of my career, which any driver will tell you is particularly special."

At the peak of his powers, there was a predictability to Schumacher's result at Spa. Not so the most recent victor there, Hamilton, whose surprising procession-like victory there 12 months ago was a far cry from a few of his previous Spa outings.

In his championship-winning year in 2008, he celebrated victory on the winner's podium only to be later docked 25 seconds for cutting a chicane to pass Raikkonen, which denied him the win and dropped him to third overall.

A year later, he fared little better as he was among the victims, including his successor as world champion and now McLaren team-mate Jenson Button, who were caught up in a first-lap melee with Renault driver Romain Grosjean.

Throughout his varying race results, one constant has remained: Hamilton's high opinion of the track, which has never wavered despite the various obstacles encountered. His attacking perseverance finally paid off there last year with a confident victory.

"It's one of my favourite races and, at the time of winning, it almost felt like my first win," he says. "It was just phenomenal and it put us right back into the championship fight. Of course, you dream about repeating weekends like that - Spa last year was essentially a perfect weekend. Can I do it? Of course, I'll try."

Spa plays right to Hamilton's strengths. For one, it is a high-speed circuit and Hamilton is at the wheel of one of the quickest cars on the grid in a straight line (McLaren's MP4-26) and it is also a circuit that rewards the aggressors on the tarmac.

"It's a place where you really feel on the limit and that's pretty awesome in an F1 car," he says. "I always look forward to coming back here.

"Corners like Eau Rouge, Pouhon and Blanchimont are fantastic, just because they're so fast. Pouhon, in particular, is incredible because you're really at the limit of the grip level and you're gently playing with the throttle and trying not to scrub off too much speed with the steering. Getting it right is always an amazing feeling."

Hamilton would prefer the weather forecast to be favourable for tomorrow's race but that is far from predictable at Spa and even the meteorologists admit their best forecasts often prove way off the mark.

One man keeping his fingers crossed for rain at Spa is Button, who has proved a master in the wet, particularly during this season.

Button has only once finished on the podium in Spa - back in 2005 - and has only finished once in his last four outings there.

The Briton, who retired from last year's race after being driven off the track by Sebastian Vettel, says: "Contrary to what some people might think by looking at my results, I absolutely love Spa. It's not just the race but the whole weekend.

"There's always a great, knowledgeable crowd with all different nationalities and quite a few Brits dotted about the place. I've not always put on the perfect show for them though."

Another surprising name yet to celebrate victory here is Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso who, like the rest of his peers, talks favourably of the track's various nuances, most notably Eau Rouge.

Closing his eyes, he says: "It doesn't matter whether it's practice, qualifying or the race, every time you enter the Eau Rouge complex it is very special as a driver. I don't think there's a corner that compares to it in Formula One.

"It's a strange feeling as you get a heavy compression on your body before being unleashed up the steep hill and out again. Much of it has to be done on instinct almost as you cannot see the exit when you come over the hill. You just have to hope no one has moved it.

"But seriously, it's the one part of the racetrack you have to get right every time, as you can gain and lose a lot of time. I'm sure it will be vital again this weekend for me; for all the drivers."