The 2012 Formula 1 World Championship picked up almost exactly where it left - in the middle of torrential rain. The races leading up to the mid-season break were all either completely or at least partially marred by heavy rainfall - the British Grand Prix at Silverstone for example - limiting track time for drivers and teams as well as damping any expectations of performance gain from new updates.
The Spa-Francorchamps circuit spread around the Ardennes mountains in Belgium is one of the few remaining old-world race tracks, where there is history, character and passion around every corner. Indeed, some corners have enough soul for whole race tracks - Eau Rouge, Pouhon and Blanchimont come to mind. It is a track already steeped in legend and is almost the perfect route back into the second half of what promises to be an exciting season.
Unfortunately the weather gods played spoilsport, with rain ruling out any serious running in either of the two practice sessions on the opening day and most drivers resigning themselves either to perfunctory bedding-in laps or sitting in the garages to conserve limited wet weather tyres and, more importantly, not have disastrous accidents.
Free Practice 1 (FP1):
The first free practice session at Spa kicked off in the gloom and under laden gray skies, all of which meant that few of the top drivers bothered setting times early in the 90-minute period. When they did go out, the fact Kamui Kobayashi was fastest with 2:11.389 when the lap record, held by Kimi Raikkonen, is 1:45.108, says it all. The Japanese completed 20 laps in his Sauber, the most of any driver in the morning. William's Pastor Maldonado was second, 0.552s off the pace after 14 laps, while Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne brought the Toro Rosso home in third and fourth for the session, with times of 2:12. 004 and 2:12.824 respectively.
"Other than to praise the accuracy of the weather service, which was so precise, there is not much to say about today. We prioritised a bit more running in the morning as the conditions were looking worse for the afternoon," Giampaolo Dall'Ara, Sauber's head of track engineering, explained, "I can't even say we were able to learn anything for the race, as the forecast for the next couple of days is for dry conditions. We just got our basic homework done, with start practice and systems checks."
The general feeling around the paddock, predictably, was one of frustration and annoyance, with drivers and teams admitting virtually no serious practice sessions on the day meant they would approach qualifying almost blindly. More importantly, given the weather predictions for the rest of the weekend is dry and sunny, the loss of track time will make it harder for teams to adjust to both a drying track (with little or no real grip) and set up cars for the rest of the weekend.
"There is not much to say about this first day after the summer break when heavy rain prevented everybody from any meaningful running. The forecast predicts a dry circuit tomorrow, so Spa will possibly be the fourth race in a row with different conditions on Friday than for the remainder of the event," Norbert Haug, the vice-president for Mercedez-Benz Motorsport explained, in a statement on Daimler's official Web site.
Championship leader Fernando Alonso of Ferrari completed only four laps in the first session, with a best of 2:40.749; clearly the Italians were not prepared to risk too much, given weather forecasts for qualifying and the race itself. Alonso's team mate, Felipe Massa, had bad luck though, with a blown engine at the Bus Stop chicane.
Red Bull's Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel were fifth and ninth, with times of 2:13.191 and 2:14.860, while the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button came in 15th and 16th respectively, each more than five seconds off Kobayashi's time.
Free Practice 2 (FP2):
The second practice session was no better. In fact, it was worse! Much worse!
The fastest time of the session fell to Marussia's Charles Pic, with the Russian newcomers enjoying a very rare moment in the spotlight. The Frenchman clocked 2:49.354 to beat Maldonado's 2:51.660, which, in itself, was set right at the very end of the session.
The Toro Rosso team continued to impress, in a manner of speaking, with Ricciardo taking second 0.396s off the pace and Alonso in third with 2:50.497. The rain was far too heavy for any serious running, from anyone at all, and drivers limited themselves to occasional in-and-out laps; Nico Hulkenberg's five laps, for Force India, was the most run by any driver and the McLaren, Lotus-Renault, Red Bull and Mercedes teams set no times at all, as too did Massa.
"It's been incredibly wet today - there were lots of rivers running across the track and lots of aquaplaning, so you had to be very wary out there. There's no real benefit to be gained from pushing the car, but there are always things we can learn," Hamilton explained to the team's official Web site, adding, "so we did a couple of installation laps to check the effects of the upgrades we've brought to this race and see how the tyres switch on in the wet. It's going to be challenging tomorrow. If it dries out, the track will be green in the morning."
Weather predictions suggest the rest of this race weekend will be a dry one, which means the first few minutes in the final practice session are likely to be interesting experiences, to say the least, for all drivers. Nobody has run a dry lap at Spa so far this weekend and, as befits a track with so rich a history of motor racing and speed, this is an unforgiving track if you are not properly set up. The elevation changes, the fast sweeping corners that characterise much of the 7km run and the fact the heavy rains would have washed away all of the rubber on the track (laid down, under dry conditions, by cars running at racing speed; this provides additional grip, particularly through corners) means we are unlikely to see fast times until well into the final minutes of the third practice session.
Expect the traditional top-runners - the Ferraris, the Red Bulls, the McLarens, the Lotuses and the Mercedes - to return to the sharp end of the grid in dry conditions. The Ferrari team is probably the only one of those who might be hoping for a bit of rain on Sunday, given the car still lacks outright pace, relative to its competitors, but has shown itself adaptable and nimble in changing conditions.
So... what do the weather gods have in store for Spa on Saturday and Sunday?
Well, BBC's weather service predicts sunshine all through Saturday, with some cloud cover towards the afternoon and early evening. The final practice session of the weekend starts at 9.45 am BST, is, as usual, a 90-minute session and, happily, is expected to be bright and sunny, with a maximum air temperature of 12 degrees Celsius, 75 percent humidity, excellent visibility and a north-north-easterly breeze of about nine miles per hour. As the day wears on, the clouds are expected to start drifting back over the track, with temperatures rising to 15 degrees Celsius by the time qualifying starts (at 12 pm BST).
Where to Watch Live (all times BST):
You can watch all the action from the third and final Free Practice sessions on Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports F1 HD from 9.45 am to 11.15 am. The qualifying session will be live on the same channels from 12 pm to 2.35 pm and also on BBC One and BBC One HD from 12.10 pm to 2.30 pm.