It's been four long weeks but finally Formula One is back. And after that summer break what better place to return with a bang than Spa-Francorchamps? Undoubtedly one of the jewels in F1's crown, Spa seems to produce classic races like they are going out of fashion. With the weather looking as unpredictable as ever ahead of this weekend who are we to expect anything less again? This race was the start of Sebastian Vettel's phenomenal nine-race winning streak last year but there are no prizes for guessing who are the team to beat again this weekend. Eleven points separate title rivals and Mercedes team-mates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton and their gripping contest will continue in earnest this weekend, with the dust settled from the team orders furore in Hungary.
If you had told anyone at the start of the year Daniel Ricciardo would have had two victories by the summer break its unlikely they would have believed you. That's not to say people doubted his talent, but the task ahead of him at Red Bull seemed daunting and its one he has adapted to superbly. His drive in Hungary cemented his position in the sport's elite. Fernando Alonso also made it 11 races out of 11 he has beaten team-mate Kimi Raikkonen in Hungary and also managed to drag his Ferrari to second with a combination of a ballsy strategy and some heroic driving. Remarkably, Alonso has finished outside the top six just once this season, all the more staggering considering the uncompetitive Ferrari he is driving.
Lewis Hamilton has twice come back from Saturday car troubles in spectacular fashion on Sunday. He has demonstrated the resolve behind the wheel which has become his trademark but he now needs an error-free and gremlin-free weekend to take the title fight back to Nico Rosberg. Meanwhile Sauber has looked stronger in recent weeks and appears to be closing the gap to Lotus. Adrian Sutil finished 11th in Hungary and the team will de desperate to put their scoreless season to an end soon.
Out of form
Force India's run of points finishes came to an unceremonious end in Hungary, with Nico Hulkenberg colliding with Sergio Perez, who then went and had a rather hefty shunt of his own. After such a strong start to the season Force India has dropped to the bottom of the Mercedes-powered pecking order in recent rounds. Force India's lack of resources relative to its rivals is well-known but it is usually competitive in Belgium, where the team scored its first podium in 2009. At least in Hulkenberg and Perez the team has a driver line-up to maximise its result this weekend.
Lotus admitted during the summer it is "still hurting" from the loss of its Front and Rear Interconnected Suspension (FRIC) and it has shown in the last few races. Romain Grosjean and the still-scoreless Pastor Maldonado were fighting with the car in Germany and Hungary. Once again, Kimi Raikkonen comes into this race in desperate need of a strong result, especially after Alonso's superb podium in Hungary. With four wins to his name in Spa this should be the best place for that kind of revival.
Ones to watch
If there is any team which can challenge Mercedes this weekend, it is Williams. Spa, and indeed the following round in Monza, suits the powerful Mercedes engine and Williams' low-drag configuration. Even on tracks where Williams has not meant to be strong, such as in Hungary, it was just one tenth off the Red Bull in qualifying, so now it heads to a favourable circuit there must surely be optimism for a strong weekend. Valtteri Bottas has made the most of Williams' pace when it has been strong and he could fancy his chances of joining Daniel Ricciardo as a new race winner in 2014.
It's also worth keeping an eye on F1 debutant Andre Lotterer, promoted to a Caterham drive at the expense of Kamui Kobayashi. Whether the three-time Le Mans 24 Hours champion can get anything significant out of Caterham's car remains to be seen. Interestingly, for a sport often called cut-throat for new drivers, Lotterer is the first proper in-season driver change (when you exclude cover for suspensions and injuries) since 2011.
Smells like teen spirit
The surprise news of the week leading up to the grand prix was that Max Verstappen will replace Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso for 2015. Verstappen, who is 16 but will be 17 by the time he makes his debut, will become the youngest driver in F1 history at a team which could not make more of the talents of Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastian Buemi and now Vergne. Spare a thought for the Frenchman this weekend; his performances this year have hardly been worthy of getting binned, with team boss Franz Tost even admitting Vergne had been unlucky with retirements. Either way, Vergne now has eight races to prove to another team he has a future in F1. Questions will be asked about whether it is too early for the highly-rated Verstappen to enter F1 but we will not truly know the answer to that question until next year. In the meantime, the Dutchman has six rounds of European Formula 3 remaining that are likely to get a little bit more attention than usual.
Winning the Lotter-y
While 16-year-old Verstappen has just been signed for next year, a man twice his age will make his debut this weekend: Andre Lotterer. It is unclear whether Lotterer will stay beyond Spa at the moment but one thing is certain - the 32-year-old is no "pay driver" like his new team-mate Marcus Ericsson. A man with a stellar record in both sports cars and single-seaters, Lotterer missed out on a full-time race seat for Jaguar in the early 2000s.
Lotterer now has the daunting task of learning F1 and also helping Caterham's new owners work towards their goal of earning 10th in the constructors' championship, which at the moment looks like a rather big ask. But he arrives with confidence in his ability from this season in Japanese Super Formula and with race fitness to boot, with plenty of motor sport fans excited to see what he does with a debut many have dreamed of for years. It is hard not to feel sorry for Kamui Kobayashi, who really didn't do a lot wrong this year except from not having enough funding - sadly an accurate reflection of modern F1. Whether we see him in the car again this year, or indeed in F1 at all in future given his sponsorship issues, remains to be seen.
The big news going into the summer break was the fallout from Mercedes asking Lewis Hamilton to move over for team-mate and title rival Nico Rosberg in Hungary. It was an error of judgement from the Mercedes pit wall which gave the post-race a fascinating angle, with Hamilton and Rosberg both visibly annoyed at what had unfolded during the race; albeit for completely contrasting reasons. As it turned out Hamilton was sensible to hold station in the context of the title race, but now the question will be how Mercedes has moved on from the incident. The friendship between Hamilton and Rosberg appears to be frosty at best at the moment and there can be no doubts the events of Hungary will have put a further strain on things.
The summer break could not have been more perfectly timed for Mercedes; it allowed the story to die a quiet death in the long weeks of August and the team will no doubt have used the opportunity to re-asses its tactics going forward and talk to both drivers. Rosberg may well still feel aggrieved this weekend as a win appeared to be there for the taking had Hamilton moved aside. Meanwhile Hamilton's mental strength has been called into question this season - sometimes unfairly - but he now needs to show a maturity which was lacking in the aftermath of qualifying in Monaco. How both men move on from this latest incident will play a crucial part in how the rest of the title battle unfolds.
Lewis Hamilton is the favourite this weekend with odds of 8/11, with Nico Rosberg unsurprisingly his nearest rival on 13/8. Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo are the drivers being tipped to topple Mercedes, with odds for both of 18/1. Debutant Andre Lotterer is favourite to be the first retirement at 8/1 , while you can get 6/4 if you think Sebastian Vettel will lead the race for at least one lap.
Facts and stats
- This will be the 47th time the Belgian Grand Prix has been held at Spa-Francorchamps.
- Michael Schumacher holds the most Belgian Grand Prix victories with six to his name, including his maiden win in 1992. He added to that in 1995, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2002.
- Of the current grid, Kimi Raikkonen leads the way with four wins (2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009). Sebastian Vettel has two to his name, while Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa have one each.
- The section of the lap from the climb at La Source to Les Combes, which includes the iconic Eau Rouge, is the longest period of wide open throttle on the calendar at 25 seconds long - a part of track over 20 times the length of a soccer pitch.
- Pirelli will bring medium (prime) and soft (option) tyres to Spa.
Predicting the weather at Spa is no easy task but it's is a fair assumption the wet tyres will be required at some stage this weekend. Showers on Saturday could perfectly spice things up for qualifying, while a chance of remains for Sunday's race. The weather is one of the elements which makes Belgium such a great race every year and it could well add a new complexion to this weekend's action.
Though Mercedes will undoubtedly be strong this weekend, we at ESPNF1 are going to stick our necks on the line and predict Valtteri Bottas will claim victory - building on his impressive season and Williams' strengths at Spa to beat both Mercedes drivers on track.