With its summer break over, Formula 1 bursts back into life this weekend as the Belgian Grand Prix kicks off a run of nine races in the next 14 weeks to take us to the season finale in Abu Dhabi at the end of November.
Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari went into the holiday season on a high after a dominant victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix, taking a one-two finish as the rival Mercedes team was left firmly second best.
Lewis Hamilton sits 14 points back from Vettel in the drivers’ championship after only finishing fourth in Hungary, giving up third place to Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas on the final lap to honor an in-race deal.
With the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps awaiting the drivers upon their return and the new-style 2017 cars to play with, one of the most spectacular challenges on the calendar should do much to snap them out of their summer slumber.
Here are the main storylines to keep track of in Belgium this weekend.
2017 Belgian Grand Prix – Talking Points
Vettel, Ferrari out to build on Hungary momentum
A four-week gap between races is hardly the ideal way to get momentum going, but after such a convincing win in Hungary, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari will be eager to build quickly and push back Mercedes once again at Spa this weekend.
The Ferrari SF70H car has worked pretty well everywhere, but looks particularly strong on the slower-speed tracks – so, the exact opposite of Spa.
That said, the ebb and flow of this title fight heading into the closing stages of the season will mean the title could be settled by opportunistic smash-and-grab wins. Throw in a smattering of rain, and Ferrari may well be able to push Mercedes all the way at Spa, even if the track should suit the German marque’s W08 runner better.
200 up for Lewis Hamilton at Spa
It may not seem all that long ago that a fresh-faced British kid was getting into his McLaren for the very first time as a rookie, but this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix will, in fact, be Lewis Hamilton’s 200th grand prix start.
Hamilton has fitted an enormous amount into his double-century of races, including three world titles, 57 wins, 110 total podiums and 67 pole positions – the last stat being an important one for this weekend.
Hamilton has the opportunity to draw level with Michael Schumacher for the overall record of 68 F1 poles in Saturday’s qualifying, and given the strengths of the Mercedes W08 around Spa’s high-speed layout, he has a good chance of doing so.
Records aside, the bigger focus for Hamilton will be on beating Vettel and reeling the Ferrari driver back in at the top of the drivers’ championship, having lost ground in Hungary and slipped to 14 points behind in the standings.
“How do you eat your frites?”
This was a question put to Max Verstappen not long into his F1 career by a journalist quizzing him on whether he was Dutch or Belgian. While he races under the Dutch flag, Verstappen was born in Belgium to a Belgian mother, growing up on the border between the two countries.
National questions aside, this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix will feel very much like a home race to Verstappen, whose loyal Dutch fans will make the short trip to turn the grandstands orange. The atmosphere was electric last year, so don’t expect 2017 to be any different.
But also remember there is an actual Belgian driver in the race: Stoffel Vandoorne (the first Belgian in his home race since Jerome d’Ambrosio in 2011 with Virgin). The McLaren youngster was formally confirmed by the team for 2018 yesterday, and will enter his home grand prix for the very first time this weekend – although he is due a hefty grid penalty due to Honda power units changes…
2017 cars come out to play at Spa
The revamped F1 cars for 2017 have received widespread acclaim from drivers and fans alike, thrilled by the added downforce and speed they have boasted so far this season.
But Spa will see the cars take on arguably the most exciting challenge yet, the circuit offering some of F1’s most iconic corners that should only become more spectacular this year.
As has been the case at a number of races this season, the lap record should easily be beaten this weekend – and while Eau Rouge may have been easy flat for a while, it’ll be all the more special with these new cars.
Driver market begins to shape up
The summer break is the perfect time for drivers and teams to begin to try and pin down their 2018 plans, as the market for next year begins to fall into place.
The confirmations of Kimi Raikkonen and Stoffel Vandoorne, while unsurprising, have tipped the dominoes that should help the remainder of the market to firm up.
Sebastian Vettel will likely be the next driver to move, with an extension at Ferrari for at least one more year expected, while Fernando Alonso’s plans remain a hot topic as McLaren considers its engine options.
After three weeks to think about things, will the drivers have any additional news for us this weekend?
2017 Belgian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:47.263 (2009)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:46.744
2016 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:51.583
DRS Zone: T19 to T1, T4 to T5
2017 Belgian Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times