After a four-week summer break, Formula 1 returns this weekend with the Belgian Grand Prix – a guaranteed highlight of any season.
The event, of course, takes place at the magnificent Spa-Francorchamps circuit, nestled in the Ardennes forest. The track itself, a favourite of all the drivers, is a majestic 4.352mile behemoth that follows the contours of the hilly landscape and is made up mainly of medium and high-speed corners.
Drivers enjoy the challenge it presents, and the test of their mettle as they hurtle through the likes Eau Rouge, Pouhon and Blanchimont – it is no coincidence that the only drivers ever to win more than one Formula 1 race at Spa are all world champions. Fans enjoy the unpredictable weather, the opportunities for overtaking, and seeing the best drivers in the world pushing an F1 car to its limits.
Juan Manuel Fangio won the first world championship race at Spa in 1950 and, along with Damon Hill, has three Belgian Grand Prix victories to his name. Jim Clark and Kimi Raikkonen have four each, whilst Ayrton Senna can boast five. Of course, the driver with the most wins at this track (six) is Michael Schumacher, as is the case with nearly all but the most modern circuits on the calendar.
And Spa is a very special place for the seven-time world champion. This weekend in Belgium he will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first race in Formula 1 (also at Spa). At the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, one year on from that debut race, Schumacher took his first F1 win. His 52nd win came at Spa in 2001 and he surpassed Alain Prost's record of 51 F1 victories. Schumacher also wrapped up his seventh title at the 2004 race after finishing second behind Raikkonen.
Schumacher has not won this race since 2002 and, of course, is unlikely to do so this weekend. However, he finished seventh last season after starting down in P21 and could well have one of his strongest races of the year here on Sunday.
There is now another German hoping to emulate the successes of Schumacher on the grid, but Sebastian Vettel, and indeed Red Bull, is yet to win a race at this legendary circuit. Last season Vettel somehow managed to crash head-on into the side of Jenson Button's McLaren whilst following him down a straight, on a dry track. Vettel seems to have eliminated such mistakes from his driving so far this season, and would dearly love a win in Spa on his CV.
Another driver without a win at Spa, surprisingly, is Fernando Alonso, despite the Spaniard having 27 victories to his name. He crashed out in wet conditions at last season's race but can perhaps take heart from the fact that a Ferrari has won five of the last eight races held at this circuit. Alonso should be well-placed to challenge for the win this weekend, provided the team have worked out how to get temperature into the Pirelli tyres quickly in cool conditions – a problem that prevented them from qualifying well in Hungary last time out.
In fact, other than Michael Schumacher, the only current drivers who have won this race previously are Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton. Many would argue that Massa should not have won that 2008 race anyway – Hamilton crossed the line to win but was later given a controversial 25-second penalty. The Brit was deemed to have taken the lead from Raikkonen unfairly after going off the track. That judgement itself was debatable, but the Finn crashed out soon after this incident anyway. As it was, Massa inherited the win and Hamilton was left waiting until last season to take his maiden victory at the track.
This 2008 champion will again be one of the favourites for the victory in Belgium this weekend. McLaren team have won the last two races and the expected cooler conditions – just like in Germany and Hungary – should suit Hamilton's MP4-26 more than they do his rivals at Red Bull and Ferrari.
It would also be foolish to disregard Jenson Button, especially after his excellent win in Hungary. All of Button's victories with McLaren have come at rain-affected races and there is a good chance that it will not stay dry at Spa this Sunday. Moreover, the layout of the track and its surroundings mean that it can be raining heavily at some corners yet completely dry at others. Button excels in these mixed conditions.
Further down the grid, we may get to see Bruno Senna back on the grid as Renault are apparently trying to get him into Nick Heidfeld's car for the weekend. At time of writing though, it is unclear whether the switch will go ahead.
In addition to a possible third Brazilian driver on the grid there will be, for the first time in eighteen years, a Belgian driver on the grid in Spa. Jerome D'Ambrosio will hope to do better than compatriot Thierry Boutsen did in the 1993 race though – a gearbox failure in the Jordan meant that Boutsen was unable to complete even one lap.
- Qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix begins at 13:00 BST on Saturday and the race will start at 13:00 on Sunday. Coverage in the UK is available on BBC One and BBC Radio 5 Live.
- For a reminder of how each driver performed in the opening eleven races of 2011, read our Team-By-Team Mid-Season Review.