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Formula 1

Gary Anderson: Spa is key indicator in 2021 F1 title battle

by Gary Anderson
4 min read

Formula 1 comes back to life at Spa this weekend for the Belgian Grand Prix with a big question still to be answered: which of Red Bull or Mercedes will have the advantage and what does it mean for the rest of the season?

We saw the performance between the two swing one way then the other in the first half of the year, but it looks like the developments Mercedes brought to Silverstone were in the right direction and gave it that extra tenth or two that was badly needed.

At Silverstone we didn’t really get a clear picture. The Red Bull looked to be the faster car, but the cooler temperatures in qualifying caused front tyre warm-up problems and we all know what happened in the main race.

But at the Hungaroring, Mercedes had the clear advantage at a track where everyone expected Red Bull to be strong.

I think whichever team, Mercedes or Red Bull, has the advantage at Spa could be in very good shape for the rest of the season. And that’s all because of the characteristics of the track.

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Spa is always talked about as a real drivers’ circuit, and it’s still that today. But it’s also an engineers’ circuit because there’s a wide range of challenges around the lap that vary, it’s not just about getting the best ‘average’ out of the car to work on a conventional circuit.

It used to be more of a problem to get the correct compromise between trimming out the downforce and still having enough grip for the middle sector and also the challenging corners elsewhere, but that has changed a little since the high-downforce cars with the wide tyres came in for 2017.

Max Verstappen Red Bull Belgian Grand Prix 2020 Spa

Now the fast corners in the first and third sectors that were once a big challenge have become easy flat for F1 drivers even when on low downforce. So provided you can get the braking stability you need for Les Combes and the chicane at the end of the lap, that’s the best solution for the car set-up.

This should mean that we won’t see Mercedes and Red Bull taking dramatically different approaches and we should get a reasonably good idea of their pace.

You’ve also got to factor in the ERS package. Early in the season, the Honda power unit seemed to have the advantage in terms of the way it used its energy recovery system, but it’s possible Mercedes has regained that ground.

Spa will be revealing here. It’s probably the ideal circuit for ERS.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Practice Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

This is because there’s so much laptime to be found with the way you deploy the power up the hill out of Eau Rouge. It’s not about increasing overall top speed, it’s more about recovering the speed lost with tyre scrub through Eau Rouge, accelerating up the hill through Raidillon and improving the car’s average speed for more of the straight. This extra power also helps to make that set-up compromise easier than it once was as there’s so much to gain there.

Historically, Spa has been good for Mercedes – which has won five of the seven races held here since the V6 turbo hybrid engines came in back in 2014.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Race Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

Ferrari won the other two in 2018 and ’19, although by the latter year there were question marks over what it was doing engine-wise at a circuit where power is very important.

Statistics say that the Mercedes should go well here, especially as the changes to the floor, bargeboards and the ‘cake tins’ inside the wheels at Silverstone seemed to work quite well.

So if Red Bull is faster at a track that puts high all-round demands on the car and engine package, that means it could well have the edge more often than not for the rest of the season.

If Mercedes is ahead, perhaps the freight train we’ve become so used to could be up and running again?

Of course, the two rivals might also end up nip and tuck, which would be good news for the rest of the year.

There is still the development war, which could change things, and it’s clear Red Bull is determined to win this championship after watching Mercedes win for seven seasons.

It’s in the perfect position to do so despite the bad luck of Silverstone and Hungary, and I suspect if it doesn’t win it from here it will feel like it’s lost the championship rather than Mercedes having won it.

But whichever of Red Bull or Mercedes has a pace advantage this weekend will look in very good shape for the rest of the season.

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