Tackling the tests of Spa

The legendary track is full of challenges which drivers love taking on, with the constant threat of rain adding to the mix.

Jenson Button prepares to tackle the legendary Eau Rouge corner at the Spa-Francorchamps track during qualifying for last year's Belgian Grand Prix.
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Spa-Francorchamps is one of the last great Formula One tracks still on the circuit and all the drivers will be relishing tackling it this weekend when the Belgian Grand Prix takes place. Sunday's race should be a cracker, not just because of the tight championship battle, which has the top five drivers separated by just 20 points, but because of the surroundings. Belgium always throws up a good race because it is a long track, full of high-speed twists which are a test of the car, but also has plenty of passing opportunities.

It also has a number of classic corners, led by Eau Rouge. The steep high-speed climb up the hill through Eau Rouge, which has a left to right kink, is one of the best corners in Formula One, and as a driver if you get it right it gives you a real buzz and sense of momentum. In my day you took Eau Rouge flat out and there was very little in the way of a run-off area. Obviously you did not want to make a mistake because if you went off there it would inevitably end up being a huge accident.

In 1993 Alex Zanardi, my teammate at Lotus, went off in practice there and he had a massive crash, wrecking the car and being ruled out of action for the rest of the season. In a way the danger of the corner made you concentrate more and made you fixate on getting it absolutely right. The rewards for getting through Eau Rouge are considerable as there is a long straight after the bend and if you get the corner right then you carry a serious amount of speed down that straight and that could get you a couple of tenths of a second off your lap time.

In a race that could allow you to get some momentum on the car in front and try and complete an overtaking move at the next turn. There is now a run-off area, which I saw the other week when I was there for the GT1 sportscar racing series. A lot of drivers were using the run-off area to compensate if they got the corner wrong and in the end the stewards had to start penalising them as it was diminishing the challenge of the track.

Of the other corners Pouhon is also fast and will test a driver's bravery, as will Blanchimont to a lesser extent after the redesign of the circuit. The other challenge at Spa is the mixed weather that the Ardennes Forest seems to nearly always provide. It can be wet one minute, dry the next and it can be a real challenge to make sure that you as the driver are on the right tyre at the right time.

But that is a skill that every driver should have and is part of what makes up being a Formula One driver. It is not just about driving fast, it is about using your brain, judging the conditions and what is around you and making the correct calls. We saw Jenson Button use his head in the wet in Australia at the start of the season, and the McLaren-Mercedes man was rewarded as he won the race. In 1997 it was very wet at Spa for the start of the race but it dried out after a very difficult opening few laps.

I managed to get my strategy right as I knew that the track would dry quickly because of the way it is laid out, and I was one of the first ones on slick tyres. I was not in the fastest car in the field in the Sauber that year, but I was able to finish fourth ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, who would go on to be world champion that year in the Williams. However, it did not always go my way when it rained in Belgium.

In 1998 there was a huge crash shortly after the start as the drivers struggled to see in the poor visibility caused by the spray that was being thrown up by the cars as they exited the first turn, the tight La Source hairpin. I was in the middle of the pack in the Stewart I was driving and thought I had managed to avoid it by being careful, and slowly moving around the debris that was going on around me.

But one of the wheels broke off David Coulthard's McLaren ahead of me, bounced up and landed on to my rear wing. The impact broke the wing and the rear suspension and I was forced to get out of the car, although the race was stopped anyway. You do need some fortune at Spa when it is like that and that year it did not go for me. Mixed weather is forecast for this weekend, particularly for qualifying, and it will be fascinating to see how the new generation of drivers handle it.

In the past confident drivers like Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen have normally done well here, winning at Spa multiple times, and Mika Hakkinen also went well there. While the Red Bull-Renaults of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel will be competitive, I think Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso will be the two who will have the ability to push the hardest and get the most out of their car.

They are the two most confident drivers and you need a lot of belief in yourself at Spa. Johnny Herbert is a former Formula One driver who completed in 161 races, winning three times sports@thenational.ae