The 2013 Formula 1 world championship returns after a mid-season break, with the Belgian Grand Prix at the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the picturesque Ardennes mountain range. The iconic 7.004km circuit has two of the most famous corners in Formula 1 history and ranks high on the list of favourite circuits for almost every world champion.
The race weekend will consist, as usual, of two practice sessions on Friday. There will be a third practice period on Saturday morning, followed by the qualifying. The race is scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
Where to Watch Friday Practice Live
Live coverage of the first practice session starts at 8.45am BST on Sky Sports F1. Coverage is also available on BBC Two, from 8.55am BST.
Live coverage of the first practice session starts at 12.45am BST on Sky Sports F1. Coverage is also available on BBC Two, from 12.50am BST.
Real-time internet updates are available on the Live Timing section of the sport's official website.
Drivers' Championship Review
Red Bull driver and defending world champion Sebastian Vettel holds a comfortable 38 point lead over Lotus-Renault's Kimi Raikkonen in the race for this season's title. However, the German will also have one eye trained on Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, who was in superb form in the last race at Hungary.
Vettel has 172 points in his Red Bull, with Raikkonen on 134, Alonso on 133 and Hamilton on 124. The world champion's team mate, Mark Webber, is fifth with 105 points. Barring a miraculous turnaround in form for any of the other drivers, it should be safe to say that the 2013 world champion will be one of Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso and Hamilton.
Constructors' Championship Review
Vettel and Webber's consistent points scoring results in the first half of the season have given Red Bull a massive 69 point lead over Mercedes in second. The Milton Keynes team have 277 points to Mercedes' 208. Ferrari are third with 194 but need Alonso's team mate, Felipe Massa, to start scoring points to have any hope of catching either Mercedes or Red Bull; Massa will start the Belgian Grand Prix in seventh with 61 points. Lotus are fourth in the constructors' race with 183 points and are locked in an intriguing race for the top three with the Italian team.
One reason why the drivers enjoy Spa so much is because it remains, in some senses, a very old-fashioned track. Outright speed is a critical component of success around this circuit, as is superb car control. The track is the longest on the contemporary calendar and that is in itself a challenge, since drivers need to concentrate that much more, particularly during the outfield sections where it can often feel like you're driving all alone in the wilderness.
But it is speed that is the defining characteristic of this circuit and it is Eau Rouge and Blanchimont that come to mind at this time. These are two of the fastest corners in the sport, with each taken at speeds in excess of 300km/h. Indeed, coming out of Eau Rouge (an insanely quick uphill left-right combination at the start of the lap, with an exit speed of 310km/h) drivers will be flat out down the Kemmel Straight (through the Ardennes Forest) and will literally stand on the brakes for the Les Combes-Malmedy sequence, braking down to 140km/h before exiting at 180km/h.
If that were not 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 (Curve Paul Frere) at 245km/h in fifth gear. They continue building speed all the way back uphill till they are in excess of 300km/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.
"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 Eau Rouge.
Overall, apart from speed, a balanced car will be necessary since the speed demanded in the first and third sectors is countered by the relatively slower and tighter middle sector. The second sector starts at Les Combes and runs through the middle of Paul Frere (Turn 14 and 15), which is a sequence of eight corners and includes Rivage (a tight right-handed U) and Turn 12 (the entry to Fagnes) which is a third-gear right-hander.
These are not the only high-speed corners on the track. The double-left that is Pouhon is taken at 290km/h, coming off the short exit from the Rivage section.
Mercedes and Red Bull Racing will be heavy favourites heading into this race weekend, for obvious reasons. The German works team and the defending constructors' world champion have the two fastest cars on the grid and that gives them a major advantage in this race.
Title rivals Ferrari will be there or thereabouts though; what the scarlet cars lack in qualifying pace they usually make up with improved race pace, better tyre handling and race strategy. However, even they will be hard pressed to secure a meaningful result this weekend.
Lotus-Renault had a mixed time here last season - Kimi Raikkonen qualified fourth and finished third but team mate Romain Grosjean failed to finish the 44-lap race. And the Finn acknowledges this could be an unpredictable race as well.
Aside from the top three, McLaren-Mercedes and Force India will be eager to resume racing as well. The Indian team holds a narrow two-point lead over the Woking outfit in the race for fifth.
"For the best set-up at Spa you need to make a significant aerodynamic compromise, because the first and third sectors are made up entirely of long straights, where you want the minimum downforce... and then there's the middle sector which has plenty of corners where you want the maximum aerodynamic downforce," Alonso continues, ahead of the weekend's hostilities.
- Name: Spa-Francorchamps
- Length: 7.004km
- Lap Record: S Vettel (Red Bull; 2009) 1:47.623
- 2012 Pole Position: 1:47.573 - Jenson Button (McLaren-Mercedes)
- 2012 Winner: Jenson Button (McLaren-Mercedes)
Pirelli will bring, as expected, the P Zero Orange (hard) and P Zero White (medium) tyres to Belgium. Spa is not only the longest circuit on the contemporary calendar but also one of the most demanding. The vertical loads on the front tyres through Eau Rouge and Blanchimont will be tremendous.
A statement from the Italian manufacturers says: "Here [at Spa] the tyres are subjected to very high longitudinal forces and blistering can be an issue due to the stress put on the tyres under braking. Therefore, the two hardest compounds are also the ideal choice at this race."
The first session on Friday morning starts at 10am local time. Weather forecasts for Spa suggest a bright and sunny day, with temperatures hovering in the mid-to-early 20C range. However, the problem with Spa is extremely unpredictable weather. Not only is the circuit so large that it is very possible to have rain at Blanchimont and sunshine at La Source but the fact that it is high up in the Ardennes makes sudden rain or changes in weather conditions a very real possibility.