As teams pack for Belgium, a strong sense of uncertainty looms.
Formula One cars have remained dormant for nearly a month, with mandatory factory shutdowns in place for a span of two weeks. In an attempt to put that length of time in perspective, Sebastian Vettel's crushing penalty with the safety car on the track -- which seems like ages ago -- was only just last race.
No team heads to Spa as the overwhelming favorite. Red Bull is concerned about its straight-line speeds; both current McLaren drivers made it less than a full lap last year at Spa and are coming off dismal results in Hungary; and Ferrari, although showing improvement in the past several race weekends, still has some speed to make up.
The Maranello outfit does, however, have the advantage of employing one of just two active winners at Spa-Francorchamps (Felipe Massa in 2008). The other is of course Michael Schumacher, but if he were to win Sunday, it would be the most surprising victory of his career.
This season, among circuits that have hosted at least three F1 events, no track has had fewer previous race winners entered (Turkey also had just two entering 2010, but didn't start hosting F1 races until 2005). That likely means a first-time winner will emerge at Spa, one of the most prestigious races of the year.
So, who is the likeliest first-time candidate? If recent history has anything to say, it's that momentum matters, even if the series has been on holiday for nearly a month. Consider that the past three winners at Spa have finished on the podium in the race immediately before Belgium.
Additionally, no points leader entering Spa has left victorious since Schumacher in 2002, which leaves Fernando Alonso and Vettel (who both finished on the podium in Hungary behind Mark Webber) as the men to watch this weekend. Vettel finished on the podium here last year, and Alonso did so in 2007. The odds seem favorable for one of them to find himself on the top step Sunday, but, as we've witnessed this season, nothing is guaranteed.
Spa-Francorchamps has a remarkable history.
It held its first race in the early 1920s, about when the 24 Hours of Le Mans was introduced in France. Throughout the 1950s and 60s in Formula One, it ran approximately twice the length of its current layout and could best be described as having long straightaways that were broken up by even longer straightaways.
The sheer speed of the track made it very dangerous, and many drivers perished there in those decades. Jackie Stewart nearly died in the 1966 edition and, because of his experiences, led the rally for significant safety improvements throughout Formula One.
The track today is still one of the fastest on the planet and is well regarded among drivers for its various challenges: flat-out straights, elevation changes, and slow- and high-speed corners alike.
Spa's position on the calendar is fitting, as it's the perfect tuneup directly before another very quick circuit: Monza.
The most successful makes in F1 history, Ferrari and McLaren, have taken this track by storm in recent seasons.
Although the two have always been good at Spa, they have been sensational in the past nine events.
The manufacturers have combined to sweep all nine races, with a total of five drivers experiencing victory in that span. Not since Jordan in 1998 has another make taken the checkered flag here, and that run could continue, pending Red Bull's performance.