By Alan Baldwin
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS (Reuters) – Lewis Hamilton has reasons to be cheerful as Formula One regroups in Belgium with plenty of developments to digest after an August break punctuated by headline-grabbing moves and announcements.
Spa has been good to the Mercedes man in recent years and last season the Briton took a record pole position before celebrating a win that set him on a run of success that culminated in a fourth title.
This time he returns with a 24-point lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, compared to a 14-point deficit last time around.
Even if the weekend turns out to be cold and wet, as is so often the case at the historic track in the Ardennes forests, Hamilton’s spirits are unlikely to be dampened after a refreshing few weeks away.
“The second half (of the season) is always exciting, it’s always intense, particularly when we go to the long hauls,” Hamilton said after winning in Hungary at the end of July.
“The second half is usually … it gets a bit better on our side,”
With nine races to go, the championship could still swing either way and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff is making no predictions.
“If this season has taught us one thing, it’s that there are no clear favourites for specific tracks anymore and that it’s not always the fastest car that wins,” he said in a team preview for Sunday’s race.
“Instead, the competitive balance seems to swing back and forth from circuit to circuit. What is clear is that our competitors are pushing extremely hard and put up a very tough fight.”
Ferrari will also fancy their chances, with their car showing plenty of pace and Kimi Raikkonen standing on the brink of a milestone 100th podium after finishing in the top three in his last five races.
The 38-year-old Finn is a four-times winner at Spa, including Ferrari’s most recent victory at the long, sweeping high-speed circuit that represents one of the greatest challenges for any racing driver.
Raikkonen’s future is also in the spotlight after a summer flurry of driver moves, including double world champion Fernando Alonso’s decision to leave Formula One at the end of the year.
Sauber’s Monegasque rookie Charles Leclerc is strongly tipped to step up to Ferrari but Raikkonen could still find a home elsewhere.
Despite the August factory shutdowns, the break was less of a lull than usual with Australian Daniel Ricciardo triggering a shockwave with his decision to leave Red Bull for Renault in 2019.
That was followed by Spaniard Carlos Sainz switching from Renault to McLaren, following that team’s Alonso announcement, and Red Bull confirming Pierre Gasly this week as Ricciardo’s successor.
The situation at Force India, who will come out of administration after a takeover led by the billionaire father of Williams’ Canadian driver Lance Stroll, means the driver merry-go-round has some spinning to do yet.
One of those who could feature in that is McLaren’s teenage British reserve Lando Norris, who will be making his Friday practice debut in Alonso’s car before returning to his Formula Two duties.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)