F1 Preview: 2016 Belgian Grand Prix

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After a much-needed summer break, Formula 1 returns this weekend with the Belgian Grand Prix at the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

From Eau Rouge and Radillon to Pouhons and Blanchimont, Spa features many of motorsport’s most fearsome and favored corners, loved by drivers and fans alike.

The F1 paddock returns from its break refreshed and recharged after a relentless run of four races in July that saw the balance of power change dramatically in the title race.

Lewis Hamilton entered July still trailing Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship, but arrives in Spa with a 19-point lead and on a four-race win streak. Can he keep up his good form at Spa?

Here’s what to watch for this weekend in Belgium.

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Lewis braced for grid penalty

If you following Lewis Hamilton on Snapchat, you’ll know that he’s had quite the summer break, jetting all over the world with his friends and having lots of fun in the process.

But don’t think for a second that Hamilton is distracted. He’s proved time and time again that he can live the high-life off-track and still excel on it. After shutting off from racing for a month, the Briton will be raring to go this weekend at Spa.

Hamilton is expected to take a grid penalty this weekend after taking a sixth component for his power unit, giving Rosberg the chance to cut the gap. However, as we’ve seen before, Lewis is more than capable of scything through the field – let’s see what he can do from the back.

Rosberg’s Spa hoodoo to continue?

Of all the tracks where Nico Rosberg could do with winning at, Spa is perhaps not the best choice. It was arguably where his title run in 2014 was dealt a killer-blow, and is a track where he is yet to win. Hamilton has always enjoyed an edge in Belgium.

The tide turned dramatically in July, leaving Rosberg with a summer break to consider how he can pick himself back up. For all of the claims in interviews that “it is what it is” and that Hamilton’s lead means little, Rosberg must do his talking on-track.

Another defeat to Hamilton – particularly embarrassing if the Briton does start last – could see him slip to more than one race win behind in the standings. If he is to emulate his father and become world champion, a win at Spa this weekend when the cards are stacked in his favor is needed.

A home-from-home race for Verstappen

Max Verstappen’s astonishing rise over the past couple of years is set to reach another high-point this weekend at Spa when an army of Dutch fans make the trip over the border to see their favorite son in action.

In the absence of a Dutch Grand Prix, Belgium offers the next-best-thing for those in the Netherlands. Officials at Spa said earlier this week that they are expecting their best-attended race in years thanks to Verstappen’s success during his relatively short time in F1.

Verstappen has scored three podium finishes in the last four races, and is well in the race for P3 in the drivers’ championship along with Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo and the Ferrari pair. Red Bull was on the ascendance before the summer break – don’t expect some time off to have stunted that.

Ocon ready for F1 debut

Much as Stoffel Vandoorne’s F1 debut in Bahrain will probably be a memorable race in years to come when reflecting on when we first saw one of the sport’s top talents in action, this weekend will see Esteban Ocon enjoy his maiden start with Manor.

Ocon has been given the Manor seat after Rio Haryanto’s management failed to secure enough financial backing for him to see out the season, having spent the first half of 2016 in DTM with Mercedes.

The Frenchman is highly-rated after winning the FIA European F3 and GP3 titles in the past two years, and is being courted by Renault for an F1 seat in 2016. Keep an eye on him at Spa this weekend.

Is Spa really Spa without rain?

This was a question posed over the FIA World Endurance Championship round at Spa earlier this year when the circuit bathed in bright, warm sunshine all weekend long.

Spa is renowned for its unpredictable and dreary weather – yet this weekend, we look set for nothing but sun if the weather forecasts are to be believed.

It should make things easier for the teams when it comes to strategy and gathering data. That said, this is Spa: things could change very, very quickly.

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
Corners: 19
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:47.263 (2009)
Tire Compounds: Medium/Soft/Super-Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:47.197
2015 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:52.416
DRS Zones: T19 to T1, T4 to T5

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 4am ET 8/26
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 8/26
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 5am ET 8/27
Qualifying: NBC Sports App 8am ET 8/27 (re-air 1pm ET, NBCSN)
Race: NBCSN 7am ET 8/28