After a long summer break, the Formula 1 action resumes this weekend at one of the sport’s most charismatic venues, the 7.004 kilometres of Spa-Francorchamps, the Belgian circuit that has hosted 43 of the 55 Belgian Grands Prix held to date. A Scuderia Ferrari driver has stood on the top step of the Belgian podium fifteen times, the first dating back to Alberto Ascari’s win in 1952, the last coming courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen in 2009. Of the current Prancing Horse pairing, Felipe Massa was victorious in 2008, while Fernando Alonso’s best results in the Ardennes have been a second place in 2005 and a third in 2007.
After a family holiday in Italy’s Dolomite mountains, Team Principal Stefano Domenicali has been back at his desk since the start of the week. “Everyone seems to be like me, very motivated with batteries fully charged for the rest of the season,” he said. “We share the same state of mind, ready to return to the race tracks. Our realistic goal for the remaining eight Grands Prix is to win races, to score as many points as possible. I am sure we can achieve good results, but we should avoid looking at the classification, because we know the championship will be very difficult given the current gap, but let’s see where it is in a few races. We have the potential to do well and we have to believe in ourselves. In terms of the development of the 150º Italia, we are almost at the end of the road but this does not mean that work on this year’s car has come to a complete halt, but as of now, we are working full throttle on the 2012 car. As far as next year’s regulations are concerned, apart from rules regarding the exhaust system, there are not many changes, therefore the new cars can be described as a development of the 2011 car. However, what I can say, having seen the model in the wind tunnel and the work going on in the drawing office, is that it will be a very innovative machine. In fact, this is to be expected, this is necessary given that our first goal is that, in 2012, we must be competitive right from the very start of the season.”
One driver holds the record for the most wins at Spa-Francorchamps and he features prominently in Domenicali’s recollections of this fascinating Grand Prix. “Spa is a unique circuit, in terms of its length and also because the weather tends to play a significant role delivering exciting races,” he said. “As for specific memories, I would single out 2004 when Michael’s (Schumacher) second place delivered that year’s title. Then there was Kimi’s (Raikkonen) win in 2009 during what was for us a difficult season and from a personal point of view, I also remember 1998: Michael had returned to the garage after a collision with Coulthard and I had to go with him, as he tried to have a “friendly” word with David in the pit lane! On the subject of Schumacher, this will be a special weekend for him as he celebrates 20 years in Formula 1, which means he is part of the history of the sport and also part of its present. As his seven world titles prove, he is the best driver the sport has seen and is very much in the hearts of everyone at Ferrari and all of us wish him well on this special occasion.”
While the Spa circuit owes much of its appeal to its weather, to the way the track carves its way through the climbs and drops of the Ardennes forest and to its history, it is in fact this “old fashioned” nature of the venue that tests the very modern F1 car to the limit. “The Spa track is very interesting and challenging from a technical point of view,” agrees Luca Marmorini, the Scuderia’s Head of Engine and Electronics Department. “The effect of the engine at this circuit and also at Monza, is higher than anywhere else on the calendar. By that I mean that every ten horsepower can be worth around three tenths of a second in lap time. More significantly, these are circuits where the engine is under full load for long periods, so reliability is very important. At Spa, aerodynamic efficiency also plays a big part and although you need a powerful engine, on its own it is not enough.”
After being absent in 2010, KERS is back on the cars this year and Marmorini recalled how useful it had been the last time it was deployed in Belgium. “2009 saw Kimi Raikkonen take a win that was significant for Scuderia Ferrari, as it was the first time a Prancing Horse car was victorious using a hybrid power source – in other words, an engine fitted with the Kinetic Energy Recovery System,” explained the engine specialist. “At a track where power is a key factor the role of KERS is more significant. When Kimi won in Belgium two years ago, it was clear to see that the use of KERS was a key factor in preventing Fisichella in the Force India from overtaking, which is proof that this system can be very useful not just for overtaking another car, but also to defend your own position on track and I believe that, again this year, KERS will provide an important contribution to our performance. The development of KERS is ongoing, because while the rules prevent us from increasing the maximum power and energy it delivers, we can improve the efficiency of the system and also reduce its weight.”
Along with KERS, another driver aid introduced this year has been the DRS (Drag Reduction System) whereby a driver can “switch off” the rear wing in order to reduce drag and gain more speed for overtaking. Its use is permitted throughout the entire weekend, up until the race itself when it can only be operated in an approved overtaking situation. However, the rule has been modified this weekend as its use is permanently banned through the famous Eau Rouge corner. The fearsome left-right flick at the bottom of the hill following the first corner sees a car’s suspension being compressed by the G-forces and even if it has been made safer over the years, it is still a 300 km/h turn and therefore needs to be treated with respect: allowing drivers to reduce downforce at this point has rightly been deemed too dangerous. Also linked into generating downforce this year has been the gas blown by the exhaust system. “It has become a very important factor in terms of its influence on the aerodynamics of the car, and by altering this element of the engine package, we can help our colleagues on the aerodynamics side to improve its aero efficiency,” said Marmorini. “This is an area we continue to work on, although we have to ensure our efforts do not have a negative impact on the reliability of the engine. Using the exhausts in this way means you pay a price in terms of outright engine power, but one must remember the engine is a component of the whole package: if, by having less power through using the engine in this way, we can increase the overall performance level of the car, then we can only be happy with that. A track that makes the engines work hard also has an effect on fuel efficiency and in this respect, our cooperation with Shell is one of the most important areas as lubricants and fuels is one of the few elements connected to the engine where development is permitted. We have more steps planned for the rest of the year, aimed at improving reliability and efficiency in terms of fuel consumption and this long partnership we enjoy with Shell gives us an important advantage compared to our competitors.”