As with previous 2023 events it means that car set-up is frozen after FP1 as the field heads into qualifying, and any changes thereafter will trigger a pitlane start for the sprint and the grand prix itself.
The teams have already gained familiarity with the new format, as it was implemented in Azerbaijan and Austria.
Spa poses a significant challenge due to the high sensitivity of cars to downforce, drag levels, and ride height. The compression at Eau Rouge further complicates finding the right balance.
At the Belgian location, engineers typically have three practice sessions to conduct experiments and assess the straightline speed of their competitors before finalizing the optimal approach for qualifying.
Afterwards, they will only have one session to make the essential set-up calls.
If they make a mistake, their cars may become unbalanced for the remainder of the weekend. This would result in their drivers being unable to effectively defend during the uphill stretch from Eau Rouge and Raidillon, or experiencing reduced speed while navigating the corners on the rest of the track.
Teams often react to where they think their cars are likely to start, for example when those with grid penalties have erred towards less downforce and maximum straightline speed in order to help their passage through the field.
The alternative approach is to focus more on the twisty Sector 2, where extra downforce pays dividends.
Eau Rouge track action
Photo by: Erik Junius
Teams will complicate matters for themselves by introducing unfamiliar components that they must familiarize themselves with and enhance during the sole practice session. In preparation for Spa, everyone strives to achieve a configuration with reduced air resistance, often necessitating the use of newly designed wings or brake ducts specifically tailored to the demands of the track.
Certain teams may also receive general updates that they need to familiarize themselves with. For instance, Alpine will be introducing a new floor for this upcoming weekend.
Spa is also only the third race with the new Pirelli tyre construction introduced at the British GP, with the harder C2 only seen previously at Silverstone, and the softest C4 only run in Hungary, and thus teams are still learning about them.
The weather forecasts predict a high possibility of rain on Friday, adding to the excitement. This will make it more challenging to make important decisions while considering the rest of the weekend. In wet conditions, having additional downforce is clearly advantageous.
“The primary issue for us is the possibility of a rainy FP1, which has been a frequent occurrence throughout the years,” expressed Tom McCullough, the performance director at Aston Martin. “It is worth noting that this year we are heading to the event slightly earlier than usual, prior to the August break.”
“You will heavily depend on your simulation tools. We are still gaining knowledge about these tires, and you will jump right into a weekend where you have to finalize your low fuel, high fuel, and wet setup all in one session at a rather distinctive track. I believe we are in a satisfactory position.”
Jonathan Eddolls, the chief race engineer of AlphaTauri, highlights that the Italian team faces a more challenging situation compared to others due to the fact that their new member, Daniel Ricciardo, is still in the process of familiarizing himself with the AT04.
“I suppose that sprint weekends present a greater challenge for everyone,” he states. “I believe that placing greater importance on pre-event preparations and utilizing a reliable simulator can help you start off strong.”
“For Daniel, it will certainly pose a greater challenge as he is still familiarizing himself with the car. We are transitioning to a track with a significantly altered downforce level, different track conditions, tougher tires, and cooler temperatures.”
“I believe it will be a matter of attempting to achieve a setup that is as similar as possible at the beginning, and then providing him with the necessary laps to fine-tune the balance, likely focusing on the aerodynamic balance during the first practice session.”
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Eddolls recognizes that teams frequently adopt varying strategies regarding drag levels, and the actions of your competitors influence your own decisions.
“Occasionally, the ideal outcome derived from simulating your car may vary for different individuals,” he explains. “In such cases, if there is a significant difference in top speed, it may be necessary to deviate slightly from your perceived optimal strategy in order to align with the rest of the competitors.”
“So for sure, rear wing will be a story. We’ve got new ones coming, specific to that event. We do all we can in terms of our pre-event simulation work, looking at last year. Our approach this year to try to come up with an optimum that works for us, but that puts us in sync with the others.
“And in the event that we run out, we will need to make adjustments for the qualifying round, although that process is never simple either.”
Theoretically, the limited running should benefit the teams that possess superior simulation tools, ultimately resulting in the usual top performers being more well-equipped.
“I cannot reword.”
“I am optimistic that the situation will be similar at Spa. I believe that all the teams have made significant progress with the simulation, allowing us to have a clear understanding of our current position.”