Thursday, 25 October 2012

Raikkonen favourite to taste victory in Belgium

At Spa-Francorchamps

In this remarkable season of unpredictability and uncertainty, of seven winners in 11 races, of the most open title battle in years, Formula 1 is still waiting for one big result.

A victory for the revived Lotus team has looked inevitable since the start of the year. And as the world championship re-starts in Belgium this weekend following a month-long summer break, the expectation is that this could be their race.

The car, from the team formerly known as Renault that won two world championships with Fernando Alonso in 2005-6, has been fast all season. Its best result has been four second places. But the momentum seems to be with them.

Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus pushed Lewis Hamilton's winning McLaren all the way in Hungary five weeks ago. The Finn has a stunning record at the stunning Spa-Francorchamps track that hosts this race and Lotus have been working on a technical trick that could give them a key advantage on the demanding track that swoops and twists around the contours of the Ardennes mountains.

Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen has won the Belgian Grand Prix four times. Photo: Getty

The 32-year-old Finn seems to have a special affinity with the circuit regarded as arguably the biggest test for a racing driver anywhere in the world. He has taken four victories here - and either won or retired from every single race he has competed at Spa since 2004.

Raikkonen's all-action style, based on fast corner entry in a car with good front-end bite, seems perfectly suited to Spa's cascade of long, fast corners.

Two of his wins - for McLaren in 2004 and Ferrari in 2009 - came in years when his machinery was otherwise uncompetitive. The other two were dominant victories from the front in 2005 and 2007.

But Raikkonen's position as arguably the favourite for victory this weekend is not founded just on his renowned Spa specialism. He is widely expected to have the car to do the job.

Lotus have come agonisingly close to victory twice already this year - in Bahrain in April and at the last race, in Hungary at the end of July.

Both times it was Raikkonen who challenged only to just fall short, behind Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel in Bahrain and Hamilton in Hungary. But the Finn, who returned to F1 this season after two unproductive years in world rallying, has actually been Lotus's weaker driver for most of the year.

His team-mate, the Franco-Swiss Romain Grosjean, who is in his first full season, has generally had a marginal advantage - to the point that around the European Grand Prix in Valencia at the end of June there were murmurings of dissatisfaction with the Finn, who won the world championship for Ferrari in 2007.

Raikkonen ultimately finished second to Alonso in Valencia, but had been off the pace of Grosjean all weekend - indeed the younger man was pushing the Ferrari hard when his alternator failed late in the race.

When, following the race, Raikkonen expressed his frustration at it taking so long for Lotus to win, one team member privately expressed the view that he would be better focused on beating Grosjean before moaning about not winning yet.

Since then, though, Raikkonen has upped his game and in the race in Hungary he was fantastic, the middle stint there that lifted him from fifth place to potential victor one of the most impressive pieces of driving all season.

Had Raikkonen not made a mess of qualifying, and taken the front row slot he should have earned rather than the fifth place he did, he might well have won. The same can be said of Bahrain, where a decision to save tyres for the race left him down in 11th place on the grid and with too much to do.

Grosjean, too, must be considered a potential Spa winner. Despite making too many errors, he has been all confidence and commitment this year.

He has looked a different driver on his return to F1 in 2012 from the haunted figure who was demoralised by Alonso during his first half-season at Renault in 2009, after which he was dropped.

The high expectations for Lotus at Spa are partly based on the car's inherent qualifies - a factor in its general competitiveness this year has been strong performance in fast corners, and Spa is full of them.

As well as that, though, is that innovation mentioned earlier. In Hungary, and in Germany the week before, Lotus trialled a clever system aimed at boosting the team's straight-line speed without compromising its performance in other areas.

Like the DRS overtaking aid featured on all the cars, the Lotus system affects the rear wing to reduce drag.

It works by channelling air from scoops behind the driver's head to the rear wing, which this extra air then 'stalls', reducing the downforce the wing creates and therefore its drag, boosting straight-line speed.

What is not clear is when exactly the Lotus system comes into play.

Is it independent of the DRS, as some believe, and therefore active above a pre-set car velocity and usable at all times, including in the race when DRS use is restricted to a specific zone?

Or is it, as BBC F1 technical analyst Gary Anderson believes, linked to the DRS and simply an extra boost to the car's speed when that system is employed, like the system Mercedes have been using but without the inherent compromises that team have discovered?

Either way, it could be a significant boost to Lotus's chances in Spa. Lotus have yet to use the system outside free practice, and this weekend they will again try it out on Friday before making a decision whether to race it.

For all the talk of Lotus, though, a win for them is a very long way from a foregone conclusion. Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren will be as strong as ever on a track that should suit all their cars.

In fact, it will be a particularly interesting weekend all round.

Which teams have made best use of the mid-season break to develop their cars?

Have Ferrari made the step forward in performance they seemed in Hungary to need if Alonso - unquestionably the stand-out driver of the season so far - is to hang on to his championship lead?

Can McLaren maintain the upward momentum they showed in Germany and Hungary after a brief slump?

Will Red Bull finally unlock the potential of what has looked, on balance, overall the fastest car?

The climax of one of the sport's greatest seasons, a hyper-intense period of nine races in three months, starts here.


Ray Crawford Alberto Crespo Antonio Creus Larry Crockett Tony Crook Art Cross

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