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One of Formula 1's most revered racetracks, the Spa Francorchamps road course has been a mainstay of the world championship calendar since it began in 1950. Renowned for its thrilling, high-speed corners and the capricious local micro-climate which can throw up blazing sunshine and heavy showers in equal measure, the mighty seven-kilometre circuit is still considered one of modern Formula 1's greatest challenges.
Situated in the heart of the deeply-forested Belgian Ardennes, the original Spa was dropped from the calendar in 1970 amid growing fears that Formula 1 machinery had finally outgrown its original 14km configuration. However, a heavily-revised track was commissioned in 1979, omitting the most dangerous village-to-village elements of the original circuit yet retaining the demanding up and downhill swoops that had made the place so distinctive.
The new Spa Francorchamps once again hosted the Belgian Grand Prix in 1983 after a 13-year stint at Nivelles and Zolder. The revised iteration has been kind to Vodafone McLaren Mercedes: team founder Bruce McLaren won the squad's first-ever grand prix here at the wheel of an M7A on June 9 1968 and the team enjoyed a five-year run of victories from 1987-1991. More recently, David Coulthard, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen have all tasted victory for the McLaren-Mercedes partnership.
What do you think of the Spa Francorchamps circuit?Lewis Hamilton: "It's one of my all-time favourites. Even before I first came here, which was back in 2002 for a Formula Renault race, I played it on my computer - it was always one of the best tracks. It has probably the most exciting corner in Formula 1, Eau Rouge, and it's one of the few circuits where you really feel like you're actually going somewhere; you blast off into the forest and get to the top of the hill and can feel the whole circuit beneath you. It's one of the best challenges in Formula 1."
Do you regret the disappearance of many of the older so-called 'driver tracks'?LH: "I don't regret it, but it's a shame. I prefer the more historic circuits like Monza, Silverstone and Monaco. You really feel the history of those places whenever you race there; they have real character. Each time they are refurbished, they lose a little more of their individuality - but they are made safer, so we can continue to race on them - so that's a good compromise."
What are the key areas of the track from a driver's perspective?Heikki Kovalainen: "When you talk about Spa, everybody thinks about Eau Rouge - but the bigger challenge is Pouhon; it's a sweeping, downhill left-hander and is very fast indeed. It's almost flat, but not quite, so it's quite tricky to find a balance that allows you to attack without going off. Drivers love corners like this - high-speed turns that are not quite flat: that's where the real excitement lies because it's up to the driver to make the difference."
What makes Spa different from other circuits?HK: "Spa is a big, fast circuit and still feels a little bit dangerous. For a driver, that always gives you an added element of excitement - it's fast and narrow, almost like a street circuit between the trees. And it's long, so it's very difficult to string a good lap together. The most important thing you need here is bravery: you really need to attack the corners faster than your brain is telling you to. You've got to keep the throttle flat even if it doesn't look possible, you have to trust your instincts and just put the danger out of your mind. It's a real driver's circuit."
Spa and Monza are Formula 1's most severe 'power circuits' - does that change the way you approach these back-to-back races?Martin Whitmarsh, CEO Formula 1, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes: "The reality is that we have tremendous faith in our colleagues at Mercedes-Benz and feel comfortable with both our engine's performance and reliability. The recent engine failures suffered by Ferrari in Hungary and Valencia clearly demonstrate that even a homologated engine can break, so we take nothing for granted. There's always an element of risk whenever you come to two fast and demanding circuits but we have the additional security of knowing both our drivers can each still suffer an engine failure without receiving a 10-place grid penalty."
What developments are on the car for Belgium?MW: "We've got a number of smaller aero developments in the pipeline - there's nothing on the car that will be visually very startling, but there's plenty of detail-work. We're also focusing on further mistake-proofing our systems: the championship is going to be a hard-fought slog until the end of the year and we need to leave no stone unturned in our quest for additional performance and improved reliability. From a human and physical perspective, these two races are also pivotal to our title challenge - it's vital that every member of the team pulls together to make sure these races pass without undue incident and set us up nicely for the final flyaway races."
After three wins in a row for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, the team took positions two and four in Valencia. Did you expect more?Norbert Haug, Vice President, Mercedes-Benz Motorsport: "Yes indeed, we wanted to win. Nevertheless, our result in Valencia is no reason for us to feel disappointed. We scored 13 points which continues the trend of the previous three races. Since Silverstone, we have scored 55 out of 72 possible points in those four races and reduced the gap to the top of the constructors' ranking from 33 to eight points."
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