The 2012 Formula 1 World Championship resumes after its midseason break, with drivers and teams heading to the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the picturesque Ardennes countryside. The 7.004km track includes one of the most fearsome corners in modern Formula 1 - Eau Rouge - an uphill and deceptively quick left-right combination that leads on the Kemmel straight... and is an all-time favourite for almost every driver on the grid. However, before we get into the heart of the 2012 Formula 1 Shell Belgian Grand Prix, a quick re-cap of the season to date might be worthwhile.
The 2012 calendar features 20 races and started on 16 March, with the Australian Grand Prix. The season started well enough for the McLarens, with no sign of the troubles to come. The world championship-winning duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button were strong all through pre-season testing and that translated into a qualifying one-two for Melbourne, with Hamilton on pole. Button, however, beat his team mate to the chequered flag as Hamilton fell to defending champion Sebastian Vettel, who stormed through the field in his Red Bull after qualifying sixth. The Ferraris had an awful start to the season, with Fernando Alonso qualifying 12th and Felipe Massa an abysmal 16th.
The Italians struck back through clever race strategy and stunning driving from Alonso, in the second race of the season - at a rain-soaked Malaysian Grand Prix - but the pace of the McLarens and now the Red Bulls was clear to see. The two had the Maranello outfit beat hollow in dry conditions, which is still the case.
As the season unfolded, it became clear this was going to be an extremely competitive season, made startlingly clear by the fact that a record seven different winners took the chequered flag at the first seven races. Mercedes' announced consistent improvement by Nico Rosberg winning in China and by now the Lotus-Renault outfit was also beginning to challenge the top teams, with former champion Kimi Raikkonen and Frenchman Romain Grosjean at the wheels.
Vettel finally took his first win of the season in Bahrain, with the Lotuses in hot pursuit. By this time however, uncharacteristic errors were beginning to creep into McLaren's performances - Hamilton was delayed by poor pit stops in Malaysia and again at Bahrain, costing the 2008 world champion at least once race win, and their drivers were not at all happy.
The F1 circus then shifted to Spain where an improving Ferrari outfit was beaten to the punch by a surprise race-winner in the form of Williams' Pastor Maldonado (the British outfit will probably remember the race more for the horrific pit lane fire). For McLaren and Red Bull however, the Circuit de Catalunya was a race best forgotten. Vettel could manage only seventh on the grid and sixth overall, while Hamilton and Button were 24th (demoted to last place after McLaren miscalculated fuel loads in qualifying) and 10th on the grid and eighth and ninth in the race.
The Spanish Grand Prix marked a turnaround of sorts for Ferrari and Fernando Alonso. The former double world champion managed his best finish since the admittedly fortunate win in Malaysia as well as his best qualifying performance so far in the season and that coupled with Vettel and the McLaren's poor showing suggested a slight but significant season-defining moment.
That trend appeared to continue in the next races, with Ferrari chief Luca di Montezemolo exhorting his troops to push harder. Heading into the Monaco Grand Prix, the McLarens admitted, for the first time in the season, they were going through a difficult time. Both drivers came out to express their own disappointment at the lack of pace.
The Monte Carlo Grand Prix saw Mark Webber score his first win of the season, with Alonso continuing to impress in the Ferrari. Hamilton fought his way to fifth, while Button retired with damage to his car.
The first trans-Atlantic race of the season was at Canada and suddenly it was Vettel and the McLarens back on top, the former with a dominant pole position (the only driver to drop below the 1:14.000 barrier through practice and qualifying) and the latter with the race win. Alonso had to be content with a fifth place finish, despite a strong qualifying performance.
The action then shifted back to Europe, where Alonso scored his second win of the season (the first driver in the 2012 championships to score two race wins) after a stunning and chaotic European Grand Prix around the streets of Valencia. It was Vettel's Red Bull that qualified on pole for the second race in Spain and the German was unstoppable for the first half of the race. however, a major crash on the 27th lap and a mechanical failure for the Red Bull meant Alonso, who fought his way through after qualifying only 11th, not only took the race but lead of the world championship.
It was on to Silverstone and the McLarens were confident of a happy homecoming, amid all the talk of a Formula 1 Grand Prix around the streets of London. Unfortunately, it all continued to go horribly wrong for the Woking-based team, with the Ferraris and Red Bulls dominating a race so badly hit by rain that Button confessed to being "scared" to drive. In fact, warnings were issued in the build-up to the qualifying sessions, asking spectators to stay away because the excessive rainfall played havoc with parking facilities. However, the race did go through, despite the fact it rained almost non-stop through the weekend, and Webber emerged victorious. The Red Bulls and the Ferraris locked out the top four finishing places (and four of the top five qualifying slots). McLaren's homecoming misery was compounded by the fact both Lotus-Renaults and the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher beat them to the chequered flag.
The season then went to the Hockenheimring in Germany, where the rain gods followed and we were in for another wet weekend. The season's rain-masters rose to the occasion and Ferrari and Fernando Alonso delivered a perfect weekend, with pole and race win, to stretch the Spaniard's lead in the drivers' championships. The fact Red Bull only managed fifth (Vettel) and eighth (Webber) just made it better. There was some respite for McLaren, as new parts and mechanical upgrades meant Button finished second, his first time on the podium since China in April.
The last race before the summer break was at Hungary, where the McLarens, riding on those same updates, stormed to stunningly quick times all through the practice sessions (once again, the majority of the weekend was a wet one). Hamilton, in particular, was in outstanding form, and drove a faultless race to pole and the chequered flag, leaving the Lotus duo of Raikkonen and Grosjean trailing in second and third and, more importantly, championship rivals Vettel and Alonso in fourth and fifth.
Drivers' Championship Standings (Top Five):
- Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) - 164 points
- Mark Webber (Red Bull) - 124 points
- Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) - 122 points
- Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) - 117 points
- Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus-Renault) - 116 points
Constructors' Championship Standings (Top Five):
- Red Bull Racing-Renault - 246 points
- McLaren-Mercedes - 193 points
- Lotus-Renault - 192 points
- Ferrari - 189 points
- Mercedes - 106 points
The Belgian Grand Prix
That brings us to the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix, scheduled to run from 31 August to 2 September. Will Ferrari and Fernando Alonso pick up where they left off from the first half of the season and continue to inch away from their rivals or has the summer break given the Red Bulls and the McLarens just the motivation to gun down their Italian rivals? And what of dark horses like the Lotus and Mercedes' teams. Former world champion Raikkonen has been in impressive form since his return to the sport and as he showed in Monaco, you can never really discount seven time world champion Michael Schumacher.
Stay tuned to IBTimes UK's coverage of the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix and the Formula 1 season to find out!