Spa is one of the best tracks on the circuit, and this will prove to be a big test for Merc. They showed they can win on smaller tracks and they looked good at a faster track like silverstone. If the Merc is fast and is easy on the tires at spa, then they can win just about anywhere.
Previous year's experience means I've arrived prepared. A Gore-Tex jacket was the first item of clothing in the suitcase on Wednesday morning and making the annual pilgrimage from the press room to Eau Rouge I'm grateful. Crossing under the circuit from the infield there are two tunnels, one for pedestrians and one for the Eau Rouge itself - a dirty stream that lends its name to the most awe-inspiring corner in F1. At the exit of the tunnel a small gathering of fans with General Admission tickets are jostling for position on a muddy mound in the hope of getting a glimpse of an F1 car. Rather unfairly the organisers obscure the sightline of the corner's 180mph compression with green netting and the eager spectators have to make do with the sound alone before craning their necks to briefly see the cars crest Raidillon. A smell of fries and waffles accompanies the letterbox view to offer a full Spa-Francorchamps sensory experience. But for those that can afford it there's a much better one 100 yards up the hill.
Ordinarily you would have to pay upwards of 300 to access the grandstand overlooking Eau Rouge, but fortunately a flash of a paddock pass, a nod and a smile are deemed acceptable currency with the security men on a Friday morning. A small rocky plateau supports two grandstands dotted with spectators, but standing right at the fence is a better option.
First up the hill is Mark Webber and he takes it slowly with two downshifts before the compression and a steady throttle thereafter. Esteban Gutierrez is next up, and whether it's bravery, skill or just the enthusiasm of a 22-year-old, he commits to a single downshift and plenty of kerb at the base of the incline. As he jumps back on the throttle the Sauber wiggles its hips in retaliation over the crest at Radillion and disappears out of sight. Only the constant screaming of the Ferrari V8 tells you that he straightened the car for the Kemmel Straight rather than spinning into the barrier.
It doesn't take long for a dry line to appear and the commitment of the drivers ramps up. Sergio Perez is in attack mode and is one of the first to do away with the downshift and take Eau Rouge with nothing more than a confidence lift of the throttle. More and more drivers follow suit, self-belief growing with every lap. But just as it looks like one of them might keep the throttle wide open throughout, the call from the pit wall comes to change to slicks.
Webber is the first to try a set grooveless Pirellis, but clearly the slick tyres are doing more for him in the dry second sector as two downshifts is still necessary ahead of Eau Rouge. Each year the drivers point out that the corner is no longer a serious challenge in the dry, but in these conditions on cold slick tyres it has the full attention of each and every one of them. Once again confidence grows lap by lap as downshifts make way for half open throttles. In slower corners the drivers are still struggling with the rear of the car, but at Eau Rouge the downforce takes over and sticks them firm to the incline. Such is the confidence that as a dry line emerges the big screens show drivers making adjustments in the cockpit ahead of the corner.
But while masses of downforce may have removed the challenge for the drivers, Eau Rouge remains a thrill for spectators. The speed and the noise are utterly breathtaking, and if the wind is in the right direction the smell of waffles makes way for burnt skid blocks as the cars bottom out. This could be the last time that an F1 car with more than six cylinders takes on this epic corner at a grand prix weekend and it's a privilege to witness it as the V8s scream at 17,000rpm while holding top gear. Nowhere else comes close.
You must, it's a real sight. But I would suggest going to the 24 at Spa or the WEC 1000km because if you go for F1, you need at least a Silver ticket to be able to see Eau Rouge and Radillon. They fence it off with sponsor billboards so people with a bronze ticket can't see it. I know that from experience.