The ING Renault F1 Team prepares for round thirteen of the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship: the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps.
Fernando Alonso: "Spa is one of those exceptional circuits on the Formula 1 calendar"
Fernando, you had to retire early from your second home Grand Prix in Valencia. You must have been extremely disappointed…I knew that my weekend would be difficult after qualifying - starting so far down the field on a street circuit is never where you want to be. I was hit on the first lap and lost my rear wing. My mechanics did everything to try and get me back out, but my race was already compromised. I'm disappointed not to have been able to drive in front of my supporters as I wanted to give them a special race, but that's in the past now and I am looking forward to the race in Belgium.
As you say, this weekend is the Belgian Grand Prix in Spa. Is it a circuit that you enjoy?Spa is one of those exceptional circuits on the Formula 1 calendar. Like all the older circuits, there is always a very special and warm atmosphere. For the drivers, Spa is an unbelievable challenge and is a very enjoyable place to drive a Formula 1 car. I have never won at Spa and hope that one day I can add a win here to my list of achievements.
What are the demands of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit? It's a very long circuit, which generally emphasises the gaps between the cars. It requires a very complete car and so we will have to work hard on the set-up to make sure we are competitive in the quick sections as well as in the slower corners. The compression in Eau Rouge is still an impressive part of the circuit.
Do you think you can have a strong race in Spa as the team chases fourth position in the constructors' championship?Even though the European Grand Prix turned out to be a race to forget, we should not lower our aims. I am sure that the team is giving 100% to achieve our objective and I will also give my maximum to try and get a strong result and score some points. At the beginning of the season things were not easy, but we have improved and we are determined to continue in this direction.
Nelson Piquet: "Scoring points must remain our objective"
Nelson, you didn't score any points in the European Grand Prix. What do you take from this first race in Valencia?The organisers did a great job of producing a really interesting circuit and I particularly enjoyed the final sector. There was also a really welcoming atmosphere for the whole weekend - it's just a shame to come away without any points. I knew after qualifying that scoring points would not be easy and that I would have to rely on incidents in the race to move up, but in the end it was quite a straightforward race. Plus, the fact that my front wing was broken didn't help. So it's a race to put behind us and I am now concentrating on the Belgian Grand Prix and the other races ahead of us.
The team is preparing for two legendary races: Spa-Francorchamps and Monza. Do you enjoy these races?Yes, along with Monaco, these two circuits are unique and have earned their place in the history of Formula 1. I'm looking forward to these races, especially as Spa is one of the circuits that I enjoy above all - it's probably my favourite of the championship, along with Silverstone. In terms of driving, it's a demanding place and I will have to do lots of work with my engineers so that we can adapt the car as much as possible to the requirements of the track.
Why is Spa so unusual? It's an undulating circuit and very long. There are lots of fast corners, as well as one of the slowest of the championship. In terms of the feeling from inside the cockpit, it feels amazing and there is nothing like it anywhere else. I think that's why most of the drivers really enjoy this circuit.
What are your ambitions for the Belgian Grand Prix? I think that Valencia did not reflect our true performance. As we have shown in the last few races, we are capable of scoring points and this is what we must keep in mind so that we can remain focussed as we approach this race. My objective will be to reach Q3 in qualifying and hope for a good start in the race to try and finish in the points. I have to admit that I would prefer a dry race, but in Belgium you never know!
Pat Symonds: "We desperately want that fourth place in the championship and we are going to fight hard to try and get it."
Pat, a tough weekend for the team in Valencia – how would you sum up the overall performance?We were certainly left disappointed and the source of our problems seemed to be qualifying, where we underperformed. If Fernando had managed a couple of clean laps in Q2, I think he would have been comfortably through to the final part of qualifying. As it was, the rest of the weekend was a direct result of our poor qualifying because starting in the midfield bunch always puts you at risk, just as Fernando found out. Nelson suffered similar trouble on the opening lap as he was held up with Fernando's accident and then tangled with Coulthard.
Fernando's race in Valencia was brief. Will he be able to bounce back in Spa?Yes, absolutely. But it's not really a question of bouncing back because we know that we have a very definite level of performance that is strong enough to allow us to run in the top ten. Spa is a circuit that both the drivers particularly like and where the car will be good so I'm sure we will be back in our usual position.
Spa is one of Nelson's favourite circuits and he was a GP2 victor there. Will that give him a boost?Although drivers can have favourite tracks, it shouldn't really affect their ability to perform and we've already seen that Nelson can be strong at any type of track. However, racing at a track you enjoy is the sort of thing that helps you raise your game a little bit. Nelson will be strong and he's looking forward to it.
The fight for fourth continues with an in form Toyota. Do you still feel you can take the fight to them in the final six races?It's a tough battle and we know it's going to be hard work. With six races to go they've got ten points advantage on us, which is a reasonable lead, especially when you consider that we are fighting for the smaller points paying positions. We never underestimate anyone and we need to fight hard with them, but I do believe that we have what it takes, as a team, to beat them. We know there's a lot to do and, of course, a freak result can make a big difference, but if all things are equal and we battle until the end of the season, I think it's an achievable target.
The midfield is incredibly tight at the moment – can you remember a season as competitive as this? I think it has always been tight. The nature of Formula 1 and the scoring system means that the midfield teams are left to scrap over a small number of points, which generates a closely-fought championship. So it's not something new and with the three dominant teams establishing themselves early in the season, it means that the rest of the teams are left to fight for fourth position downwards.
Tell us about Spa from a technical standpoint…It's such a contrast with where we've just been. Valencia was a circuit where we were quite restricted with what we could do to gain performance and I don't think the drivers found it particularly challenging, except maybe the final sector. Spa is the complete opposite: it's very much a drivers' circuit and requires a car that has good stability through the quick corners. We'll be running with medium downforce, but overall you need good aerodynamic efficiency because you have to find the right trade off between straightline speed and downforce through the quick corners. So the more aerodynamically efficient your car is, the more it pays you back.
Six races to go, how is the mood in the team as we enter the final third of the season?The whole team is hungry for fourth place in the championship. We recognise that our start to the season had far too much hangover from last year, but I think we recovered well from that and have shown that we can out-develop most of our rivals. We desperately want that fourth place and we are going to be fighting hard to try and get it.
Spa-Francorchamps: Tech File
Spa-Francorchamps is the most complete test of a Formula 1 car on the current calendar with every aspect of the vehicle's handling tested to the limit. It combines 320 kph straights with 70 kph hairpins, with several sixth-gear sweepers thrown in for good measure – and, of course, the unique challenge of Eau Rouge. While this section of the circuit and the fast left-hander at Blanchimont may no longer be as testing as they once were, corners such as Pouhon, taken blind in sixth gear, still allow the drivers to make the difference. And all of that is before you factor in the notoriously unpredictable weather in the Ardennes, which can see the circuit soaked at one end and bone dry at the other.
ChassisThe circuit features a high number of "aero corners" (only 6 of the 19 turns are taken at less than 150 kph), and this would normally push the teams towards relatively high levels of downforce in order to maximise grip in the corners, as is the case at a circuit like Silverstone for example. However, Spa imposes a very different trade-off, because the two long flat-out "straights" on the circuit both provide genuine overtaking opportunities. This means that top-speed is a critical factor in order to protect position, and downforce levels must be determined accordingly. As a result, the teams run with a medium downforce set-up, aiming to achieve end of straight speeds of around 320 kph. Aerodynamic efficiency (generating maximum downforce for minimum drag) is the key to success at this circuit.
SuspensionIn terms of suspension settings, the overall compromise is relatively stiff in order to ensure good aerodynamic performance in the quicker corners, and a good change of direction in the quick chicanes. However, good traction is also critical on the exit of the final chicane and La Source hairpin, as poor performance in either part of the circuit can leave a driver vulnerable to overtaking under braking for the next corner.
TyresAlong with Barcelona, Spa is the most demanding circuit of the season for the tyres, and it is no surprise that Bridgestone will bring the two hardest compounds from its 2008 range for this race: the hard and medium compounds.
Ride heights Our ride heights are limited by the high forces encountered through the compression in Eau Rouge. From the bottom to the top of the hill, the car's ride height can vary by as much as 25 mm and if the car bottoms out too much, the drivers can lose control. With the V8 engines and the current aerodynamic regulations, Eau Rouge is now taken easily flat out at around 300 kph. The drivers will scrub off around 10 kph through the sequence, but it is important to conserve as much speed as possible in order to maintain position along the long straight before Les Combes.
BrakesAlmost the only part of the car which has a relatively easy time is the braking system. The circuit features just three very heavy braking events, before turns 1, 5 and 18. Overall, though, this is one of the easiest circuits for the brakes owing to the numerous high speed corners that require little braking effort.
EngineAlong with Monza, Spa is the most demanding circuit of the season for the V8 engines. The duty cycle is particularly severe, with 72% of the lap spent at full throttle (only Monza exceeds this figure, with 76% of the lap). Furthermore, this includes two prolonged full throttle periods of over 20 seconds. The most challenging of these is undoubtedly the run of approximately 23 seconds from La Source to Les Combes, which includes Eau Rouge. This sequence exposes the engine and its ancillaries to extreme positive and negative vertical ‘g' forces through the compression and over the crest that follows. This is a factor we take into account when designing our lubrication systems, in order to avoid problems with oil feed under the extreme loadings.
Spa is also the longest lap of the season, and the circuit has a very high fuel mass penalty. Under the current qualifying regulations, this means that an engine with good fuel consumption can be a particular advantage.
Renault at the Belgian Grand Prix
Renault power has participated in 23 Belgian Grands Prix, beginning with the 1978 race held at Zolder (the June date of the 1977 event preceded the competition debut of the RS01, one month later). In that time, it has taken 7 pole positions and 16 podium finishes, of which 5 were race wins (for Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill twice and Michael Schumacher). In the modern era of the Renault F1 Team, the team has scored one pole position (2004) and one podium finish (second place in 2005 for Fernando Alonso).
Although Renault first took part in the Belgian Grand Prix in 1978, the team's first finish did not come until 1980, when René Arnoux claimed P4 in the race at Zolder. The Régie's cars locked out the front row in 1982, but retired from a race that was overshadowed by the death of Gilles Villeneuve in qualifying. For 1983, Formula 1 returned to Spa-Francorchamps for the first time since 1970, racing on the remodelled Ardennes circuit for the first time. Prost followed up his Zolder pole the previous year by claiming top spot in qualifying once again, and this time followed it up with the race win, Renault's first at this event. He was joined on the podium by third-place team-mate Eddie Cheever, scoring the second of his four podiums for the French team.
The event returned to Zolder in 1984, where Derek Warwick finished in second position (thereby scoring the second of the team's five podium finishes during that season) before returning definitively to Francorchamps in 1985. This saw Ayrton Senna's first visit to the circuit, and the Brazilian took his Lotus-Renault to the first of his five wins at Spa, after starting from second position. He followed this up a year later with a second place finish behind Nigel Mansell's Williams.
The V10 era did not bring any success until 1992, when Williams team-mates Mansell and Patrese finished behind Schumacher's Benetton. This performance was followed by a double podium for Hill (P1) and Prost (P3) in 1993, a win for Hill the following year (following Schumacher's disqualification), and then a dramatic victory for Michael Schumacher from P16 on the grid in 1995, with Damon Hill following him home in second place. That was to be the last win for Renault power in the Ardennes: while Jacques Villeneuve's Williams-Renault took pole in both 1996 and 1997, he could manage no better than P2 in 1996 behind Schumacher's Ferrari.
When Renault returned to the sport in 2001, Spa marked its first success of note, when Giancarlo Fisichella took the wide-angle V10 engine's first podium finish after a resilient drive from eighth on the grid. Renault then participated in the Belgian Grand Prix in 2002, 2004 and 2005. In 2006 there was no Belgian Grand Prix as the circuit was updated with a new pit structure and modifications to the circuit completed in time for the 2007 race. For this race, the ING Renault F1 Team scored a point with Heikki Kovalainen in his R27, while Giancarlo Fisichella went out of the race at the first corner. This year, the team hopes for a strong race at one of the few tracks that Fernando has yet to win on.
Spa-Francorchamps: Over at Red Bull Racing
Fabrice Lom, the man responsible for Renault's V8s at Red Bull Racing, looks back on a difficult weekend in Valencia and looks ahead to the Belgian Grand Prix.
Fabrice, how was the European Grand Prix for Red Bull Racing?It was difficult and disappointing. The cars did not have the necessary performance to run at the front and we realised that as soon as we took to the track on Friday. Of course we improved and found speed over the weekend, but not enough. So we finished without any points for the fourth consecutive race, which is hard to take.
At the start of the season, the RB4 seemed strong on all types of circuits, but there have been problems since Hockenheim. How do you view this situation?Initially you would think that our competitors have improved faster than us. However, I think that the explanation is elsewhere for one simple reason: the Toro Rossos were in front of us in Valencia. Their cars are similar to the Red Bull Racing cars, but they are a development step behind us, and we were in front of them during the start of the season. Our poor performances recently are difficult to explain.
You are now preparing for the Belgian Grand Prix in Spa. How will you approach this race?Our preparation for Spa will involve trying to understand what did not work in Valencia. We feel there is certainly some more performance in the car and we need to develop that as much as possible. In theory, our cars should be more competitive on this more flowing type of circuit. We will use two new V8s, which is not ideal for such demanding back-to-back races as Spa and Monza. It will be tough.
Will you be taking any particular precautions in terms of reliability?What is certain is that this combination of circuits will be a difficult challenge for the drivers who will be using new engines this weekend. In comparison with the last races at Budapest and Valencia, the two tracks to come are much more demanding. We must try and look after the engine whenever possible, without compromising performance in Belgium. I wouldn't be surprised if we see some retirements towards the end of the race, especially if some of our competitors, who are unlikely to score points in Spa, prefer to race in Monza with a fresh V8.