The 2012 Formula 1 World Championship is set to return to on-track action during the weekend of 31 August - 2 September, with teams racing around the legendary Spa-Francorchamps track in the Belgian Ardennes.
"It feels appropriate to be returning to the fray at Spa-Francorchamps. Formula One's historic venues provide us with a richly storied backdrop that few sports can match, and Spa is truly one of the greats. Everybody is looking forward to hearing the engines fire up in anger once more, and there are few better places on earth to watch a Formula One car at speed than around Spa," Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, said, to Formula1.com.
The mid-season break has left the drivers' championship in an interesting position and any of the top three or four placed could still stake a legitimate claim to this season's championship. The constructors' title is a little less open, given the dominant performance of both Red Bull drivers all through the first half of the season (click here for a detailed IBTimes UK season re-cap).
All of the momentum going into this break was with Ferrari and their Spanish No 1, Fernando Alonso. The double world champion had a difficult start to the season, despite winning the second race of the season (at Sepang in Malaysia), and had to wait till the Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo to really announce himself as a title challenger. However, since then, the former Renault ace has finished on the podium in four of six races (winning at Valencia and Germany) and been on pole twice.
McLaren had a strong start to the season but progressively faded away from the sharp end of the grid, losing places not only to Ferrari and Red Bull but also the Mercedes works team and Lotus-Renault. A late charge in the Canadian and Hungarian races saw some measure of self-confidence and belief return to the Woking team but they will need to improve, drastically, if they are to catch Ferrari and Red Bull, never mind stay ahead of an improving Lotus.
"The past few weeks have been a perfect combination of a bit of downtime to relax and some great training, all of which has had me raring to get back in the car. Spa is the daddy of them all, one of the all-time great grand prix tracks, and Monza is one of the most historic and evocative circuits on the calendar. They're each places with their own unique atmosphere," McLaren's Jenson Button explained, to Formula1.com
Red Bull are perhaps strongest placed of all the major teams for this title. They have a reasonably fast car and both drivers - Vettel and Webber are consistently scoring points - unlike Ferrari and McLaren, where Felipe Massa and Button, respectively, must start contributing.
"Spa is the best track to have after a break and it's extremely rewarding for drivers at that venue. It's obviously remained pretty much unchanged for some time and it has a lot of character. Eau Rouge is a very special part of the track. It's one of the classic tracks where you feel like an F1 car belongs on the circuit. We're looking forward to going there and challenging for the victory," Webber said to Formula1.com.
Finally, Ferrari will be keen to pick up where they left off and ensure all the hard work developing the F2012 over the first half of the season doesn't go to waste.
"Everyone has been able to recharge their batteries, ready for the next part of the season," Luca Marmorini, the Italian team's head of engines and electronics, told the official Web site, "And while it's true that we were unable to work for two weeks, which could carry the risk of people losing concentration, it is also true that, being away from the daily routine in a relaxed environment, you can find that good ideas come to you."
Introducing Eau Rouge and Blanchimont
The Spa-Francorchamps circuit is one of a handful of old-world Formula 1 venues left and the 7.004km long circuit is famous for two corners - Eau Rouge and Blanchimont.
Let's start with Eau Rouge. The start-finish straight at Spa is nowhere near as long as those at more modern tracks. Nevertheless, as you exit the final chicane - the Bus Stop - you're already pushing through the gears to fifth and 295km/h by the time you hit the braking point for the La Source hairpin, the first corner. Switch down rapidly to first gear and 60km/h here, making sure you stay tight to the apex, get a nice clean run through and get smoothly on the power in the exit... because what comes next is one of the most awe-inspiring corners in Formula 1 - Eau Rouge. A blind and steep uphill left-right combination taken almost flat-out, it's one of those turns that you just close your eyes and hope the road is there... because you can't see it through the turn.
"You come into the corner downhill, have a sudden change [of direction] at the bottom and then go very steep uphill. From the cockpit, you cannot see the exit and as you come over the crest, you don't know where you will land. It is a crucial corner for the timed lap, and also in the race, because you have a long uphill straight afterwards where you can lose a lot of time if you make a mistake," Alonso explains.
If that weren't bad enough, Spa also offers Blanchimont - an ultra-fast sweeping left-hand corner that is Turn 17 on the modern track. The approach does nothing to control the speed into the corner - drivers are flat out from the moment the exit Turn 15, the Curve Paul Frere, at 245km/h in fifth gear. They continue building speed all the way back uphill and through the insignificant bend in the track that passes for Turn 16. By this time they're doing 300+km/h in sixth gear. Blanchimont itself cannot really be taken flat out - the turn is too hard to do that but drivers will routinely race through at speeds touching 300km/h and then brake hard for the right-left Bus Stop chicane that marks the end of the lap.
300 for Schumi
Meanwhile, the serious business of championships aside, history is set to be made at the Belgian race track, with seven time world champion Michael Schumacher to race in his 300th Formula 1 race.
The veteran driver has already been assured the status of a legend in the sport, after racing to five world championships for Ferrari, between 2000 and 2004, to add to the two he won with Renault in 1994 and 1995. This was an era the Italian-German combination absolutely dominated the sport - in 2002 Schumacher won 11 of 17 races and finished on the podium in all three and in 2004 he won 13 of 18 races. Schumacher now joins an incredibly exclusive club - only one other driver has more than 300 Formula 1 starts - and that is former Ferrari team mate Rubens Barrichello, who retired with 326 appearances.