Formula 1

Mercedes battle heads to Spa as F1 returns

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It may have felt like forever but this weekend Formula 1 returns from its summer break at one of the most famous circuits in the world, Spa-Francorchamps.

Located in the Ardennes forest in Southern Belgium, this stretch of tarmac is home to some of the most iconic corners and has hosted some of the most memorable races in F1 history.

From the climb up Eau Rouge, through the sweeps at Pouhon and Blanchimont to the tight Bus Stop chicane, there is not a corner at Spa that does not get the pulses of drivers and fans alike racing.

All about Mercedes

At over four miles, Spa is the longest circuit of the year, that is despite the modern layout being a mere shadow of the original, and with that length comes a series of straights that will see Mercedes and their three customer teams show their power advantage.

The mix of slow, medium and high-speed corners will give Red Bull some areas to try and make up for their engine deficit, but anything other than a Mercedes/Williams podium would be a surprise.

The low downforce set-up required also plays to the strengths of Force India who, despite being weak in qualifying, will likely be battling in the top six and could be a good bet for a podium if trouble hits those in front.

Vijay Mallya's squad has consistently been one of the best teams in terms of looking after the tyres and while that may not be such an issue at Spa, it could provide them with further opportunities to capitalise on their expected return to form.

If Red Bull want to target one Mercedes-powered team then their best bet maybe McLaren. While overtaking maybe tricky, the lack of downforce on the MP4-29 may offer Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo a chance to just stay ahead through the twistier second sector, but for the world champions, after recording another great win in Hungary last time out, simply scoring points good points will be their main aim.

Key time at Ferrari

Another team who may be happy simply to score some points will be Ferrari. This time of year is always a very active one for those at Maranello as the upcoming Italian Grand Prix at Monza is often the time of year bosses look at where they stand and turn some focus towards 2015.

Currently the speculation around both drivers' future is strong as Fernando Alonso is linked with a return to McLaren, while rumours over Kimi Raikkonen and whether he may retire again also continue.

For the Finn, Spa may be a pivotal race in that regard because, with his four wins, Raikkonen is the most successful of the current generation of drivers in Belgium so if his poor form versus Fernando Alonso continues here, questions will be asked if he can produce the results expected when he returned at the start of the year.

In the coming weeks, through Spa and approaching Monza, we may learn some more about if either man may be moving on but in the meantime heading to Belgium, any signs of progress and a battle with Red Bull will be the aim for the Scuderia.

Bucking the trend

In the midfield battle, while the two Mercedes-powered teams of Force India and McLaren will likely see a jump up the pecking order, Toro Rosso may buck the trend of Renault teams struggling along Spa's endless straights.

The junior Red Bull team are traditionally among the fastest in a straight line, despite their Renault power unit, and this is because they run less wing and have a slipperier car.

As a result Daniil Kvyat and Jean-Eric Vergne could potentially rival their big sisters, as they did in Austria and could be in the battle for the final points paying positions.

As is always the case, the weather will also likely play a role at some point during the weekend as the micro-climate of the Ardennes produces rain storms not even picked up on radars.

If this is the case then again the strength of the Toro Rosso in the wet mean they will be one to watch during the weekend.

Caterham set for boost?

Towards the back of the grid the usual suspects will be battling it out for the minor race positions.

Lotus and Sauber will likely duke it out to see who joins Marussia and Caterham in exiting Q1 during qualifying, but in the battle for the wooden spoon, Spa could see a boost for backmarkers Caterham.

Belgium will mark the first significant upgrade for the Leafield team in several races as the funding for the developments was agreed soon after the new owners took over.

What this will mean in their battle with Marussia could be crucial for the run to Abu Dhabi though the likelihood of any changes to the current bottom three in the Constructors' championship is very small indeed.

Rosberg vs. Hamilton... and the gloves are off

But heading to Spa, the story once again will be about the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

After the team orders controversy in Hungary just under a month ago, it was confirmed during the break that indeed the scrap for the Drivers' title is officially on as Hamilton and Rosberg will be able to race without interference.

This will only add to the tensions between the two drivers that were already increased following Hamilton's actions in Budapest.

With just 11 points between them, in Rosberg's favour, Hamilton will be keen to again taste success on a circuit he won at in 2010 and was controversially stripped of victory in 2008. It has also not being a particularly strong circuit for Rosberg neither, despite several top six finishes, he has only a best result of fourth place from last year.

Therefore the odds could be on for Hamilton to close down that gap if a trouble-free weekend ensues but based on recent races achieving that, particularly on a Saturday, has been easier said than done.

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