The Inside Line #69: Short-term focus, long-term futures?

TILI Logo PrintIf he’s going to beat him anywhere, he’s going to beat him here. ‘He’ is Kimi Raikkonen; ‘him’ is Fernando Alonso. And ‘here’ is Belgium, and more specifically the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit that plays host to F1’s return from its mid-season break this weekend.

It’s been a fairly run-of-the-mill mid-season hiatus for F1 this year – the news cycle all but disappearing, drivers posting pics of their latest tattoos on Instagram and, oh, billionaires managing to buy their way out of lengthy jail terms [1] – but things will be back with a bang at what is, even with its amendments on the grounds of safety – one of the great circuits in Formula One. The undulating terrain, the sheer length of the lap, the potential for first-corner shenanigans at La Source, the much-hyped Eau Rouge [2] and the almost-as-good double left-handers at Pouhon – Spa always throws up one of the most aesthetically-pleasing races of the season, even if the racing itself in these days of DRS and faux overtaking can be a bit predictable. But while Mercedes and its drivers should enjoy this circuit like few others, eyes will be trained further back to see which of Raikkonen and Alonso can make the most of F1’s annual visit to the Ardennes.

For all of his success elsewhere, Belgium remains a curious blank page in the Spaniard’s overflowing CV – Alonso has never won there in 10 attempts, and has been on the podium just three times, a statistical anomaly for a two-time world champion with a list of records as long as your arm. Which makes this weekend – and whether Raikkonen can finally do something to announce his presence in 2014 – all the more interesting.

The Finn’s record at Spa is better than any other circuit he’s raced at since his debut in 2003 – four wins for two teams, including three in a row between 2004-07. He loves the old-school nature of the track, the lack of corporate BS that comes with racing out in the forest, and his results reflect that. But in a season where he’s failed to finish ahead of Alonso in a race even once, you wonder what Raikkonen will serve up at Spa. And you wonder what conversations will be had – by the sport’s insiders and behind closed doors at Ferrari – if Raikkonen comes back from the break in the same lacklustre fashion he entered it in. The final eight races of 2014 will tell us much about Ferrari’s willingness to continue paying Raikkonen handsomely next season in a comeback that has fallen well short of expectations for most. If a resurgence is going to start, Belgium is the place for it.

A comprehensive preview of the 12th round of the season this weekend features on Episode 69 of ‘The Inside Line’, while Stewart Bell, in his final show in the chair for the time being [3], looks at the future of another veteran, Jenson Button. Button won in imperious fashion for McLaren at Spa two years ago; since then, he’s won one race, been on the podium once in the past season and a half, and had his effort questioned by Ron Dennis as McLaren has slipped further and further back into the midfield. I personally thought Honda’s re-association with McLaren would guarantee Button stays put in 2015, but I’m not so sure now. Especially if a certain Fernando Alonso became available, which is another post for another time.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday August 20, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday August 21.

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[1] That outcome was never, ever in doubt, was it? Old age is surely the only thing that will halt Bernie’s reign. I reckon he has the rest covered.

[2] I so hope this year’s cars, with their reduced downforce, mean we don’t hear drivers describing Eau Rouge as “easy-flat” anymore. There’s something wrong when corners like that and the almighty 130R at Suzuka (well, before the run-off area was extended) become too simple for F1 cars.

[3] And a top job he did too. He’ll be back.

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