Victory for Vettel, but Heartbreak for Hamilton in Singapore

After three consecutive victories for McLaren, it was the turn of Red Bull racing to climb to the top of the podium at Singapore as Sebastian Vettel took his second win of the season to position himself as the primary challenger to world championship leader Fernando Alonso.  We might have seen a different result had Lewis Hamilton, the winner at Monza, not suffered McLaren’s second technical failure in two races on lap 23, but it made little difference to Fernando Alonso who, despite a disappointing qualifying performance, picked up his eighth podium in 14 races this season.

Let’s start things off by looking at Lewis Hamilton’s weekend.  Hamilton went into the race in Singapore on a high after two victories from pole position in the last three races, including an utterly dominant display in round 13 at Monza.  Hamilton would certainly have hoped for a similar result in Singapore, and after a brilliant qualifying performance on Saturday many believed that was exactly what would happen in the race.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-27
Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Hamilton was clearly the class of the field in qualifying.  His pole lap was nearly half a second faster than anyone else, with Pastor Maldonado the only driver to set a time within five tenths of a second of the Englishman, some four and a half seconds back.  Given the performances of Hamilton and Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel throughout practice and the first two parts of qualifying, a close battle between the two was expected in Q3, but it never materialised as the German failed to better his Q2 time, while Hamilton improved by three tenths of a second.  Red Bull expected better and, that being the case, the race was expected to deliver a close battle between the two drivers.

That’s pretty much exactly what happened in the first 23 laps of the race.  Hamilton got away cleanly from pole position and Vettel immediately slotted into second, passing Williams driver Pastor Maldonado on the exit of turn two after the Venezuelan went slightly deep into turn one, compromising his exit in the following corner.  Thereafter, Hamilton and Vettel started to move away from the field, with the gap between the two generally fluctuating between around 1.5 and 2.5 seconds.

The status quo was maintained through the first round of pit stops and the race seemed to be unfolding as many had expected.  However, disaster struck for Hamilton about 10 laps in to his second stint.  A trail of smoke from the rear of the car must have alerted Vettel to trouble and the German soon sailed past the leading McLaren as Hamilton desperately struggled to find a gear, but came up empty, retiring from the race.  The Stevenage born driver said, after the race “It was gutting when the car stopped, I was cruising. I was managing the gap and could have pushed more, I had the pace. I think today would have been an easy win.”

His McLaren team certainly won’t have been happy to suffer their second retirement in two races following Jenson Button’s fuel pump issue in Italy.  It didn’t, though, sound like the team were totally surprised by the failure on this occasion with Hamilton’s race engineer saying to his driver over the radio “We have a gearbox failure. I’m sorry, we did everything we could yesterday”, indicating that the team knew that there was a problem and had done what they could to enable the unit to last the race.

Clearly, though, whatever the team had done was not enough, and if it is the case that the team rolled the dice on a gearbox that was not in the best of health, then questions need to be answered at McLaren yet again.  Surely, if Hamilton’s gearbox was indeed suspect, it would have been better to change the unit and accept the five place grid penalty.  A sixth place start in an extremely quick car would not have been a disaster for Hamilton or McLaren and a win from there would certainly not have been out of the question. Earlier in the season, several operational issues cost both of their drivers a number of world championship points, and with technical failures now creeping in, their championship chances have been severely damaged.

Sebatian Vettel, Red Bull RB8
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s very easy with hindsight, of course, but one thing’s for sure; Sebastian Vettel won’t have cared one iota about McLaren’s problems.  After suffering from his own technical issues this season – including a second alternator failure in the last round of the season – and being disappointed with his Q3 lap on Saturday, the defending world champion would have been delighted with the result on Sunday, which put him right back into prime position to be the main challenger to Fernando Alonso in this year’s world drivers’ championship. As Vettel acknowledged after the race, it’s a shame that the fans were deprived of what might have been a great battle between Vettel and Hamilton at Marina Bay, but after the McLaren driver’s retirement, the German kept his head through two safety car periods – the first caused by HRT’s Narain Karthikeyan hitting the wall in the tunnel under the grandstand on lap 34, and the second very soon afterwards when Michael Schumacher careered into the back of Torro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne – to take what turned out to be a very easy second win of the season.

Vettel now moves back into second place in the world drivers’ championship, but it’s a fragile second place given the technical trouble that Red Bull have themselves had this season.  Hamilton, having now dropped to fourth place in the championship, is 23 points behind Vettel now with Kimi Raikkonen between the two, seven points ahead of Hamilton after picking up eight points for his sixth place finish in Singapore.  Both drivers are within a single race win of the 2010 and 2011 world drivers’ champion.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012
Malaysia, 25 March 2012
By Morio (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Far more secure, though, is Fernando Alonso.  The Ferrari driver finished third at Marina Bay, matching his Monza result.  After a disappointing qualifying, which saw him take fifth on the grid after Ferrari’s new rear wing failed to deliver the expected improvements, Alonso capitalised on the chaos around him in the race to slip calmly into a podium position.

With six races left to go this season, the Spaniard is now 29 points ahead of Vettel in the race for this year’s title.  Although that’s only six points more than the gap from Vettel to Hamilton in the championship standings, an advantage in excess of 25 points is important psychologically as it represent more that the points haul for a race win.

What will really give Alonso that little extra element of security, though, is his amazing consistency and the seemingly bulletproof reliability of his F2012.  While the other championship contenders have had their operational issues, mechanical failures and race retirements, Ferrari and Alonso have serenely strolled through the season so far with barely a scratch on them.  Alonso has finished and scored points in every race this season, bar the Belgian grand prix, where he was taken out of contention at the first corner through no fault of his own.  Even at Spa, though, Alonso had the good fortune to see Lewis Hamilton eliminated from contention in the same incident.

At Singapore, the Spaniard passed Ayrton Senna’s record for number of podium finishes, and who’s to say that he won’t equal the late, great Brazilian’s haul of world titles.  It certainly seems like everything is falling into place for Alonso to pick up this third world drivers’ championship, and his first for Ferrari.  The combination of consistency, reliability and an element of luck is certainly looking like a tough one for the rest of the field to compete with.  Despite not having the best car, Alonso is still in pole position for the 2012 Formula 1 world drivers’ championship with six races left to run.

Might McLaren hang on to Hamilton?

Over the past couple of weeks the speculation surrounding Lewis Hamilton, and in particular which team the McLaren driver would be driving for in 2013, has reached fever pitch.  The speculation has been fuelled by a story on the BBC website, citing unnamed sources that have been whispering in the ear of analyst, and former Formula 1 team owner, Eddie Jordan.  More recently, we’ve seen an article from former ITV F1 commentator, James Allen, which ramped up the speculation to yet another level.

Both Jordan and Allen have claimed that Hamilton will leave McLaren for Mercedes, citing a number of factors that support that position.  They may well be right; both are considerably better placed than I am to comment on possible driver moves as people who are on site, at grand prix, speaking to teams, drivers and managers.  However, I believe that there’s an equally strong case for Hamilton remaining with McLaren, and this is what I’m going to set out in this article.  I want to be very clear upfront that this is just my point of view.  I have no inside information.  I may well be wrong.

Michael Schumacher at the 2012 Australian GP
16 March 2012
By Parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

Hamilton’s potential move to Mercedes is predicated on the assumption that the Silver Arrows’ seven time world champion Michael Schumacher is going to retire for a second, and presumably final, time when his current contract expires at the end of the season.  Schumacher, though, is probably in his best form since he returned to Formula 1 in 2010.  Schumacher has been outpaced and outperformed by his team-mate, compatriot Nico Rosberg, consistently throughout 2010 and 2011.  It looked, after the first seven rounds of 2012, that this trend would continue as Schumacher scored just two points and had five retirements.  The European grand prix at Valencia signalled a massive turnaround of fortunes for Schumacher, though.  He finished third, his first podium finish in his second F1 career and, since then has scored points in every round other than at the Hungarian grand prix, where he retired with technical problems.  Since Valencia, Schumacher has outscored Rosberg by 25 points – with 41 points compared to his younger team-mate’s 16.

This being the case, Schumacher may well decide that he wants to carry on racing for a while yet.  Bernie Ecclestone – F1’s ringmaster – suggested otherwise to the BBC, in an interview ahead of the recent Italian grand prix, though, but who knows what Ecclestone knows and what he doesn’t know?  It certainly would not be beyond the realms of the possible for Ecclestone to be stirring the pot for his own ends.

It’s easy to forget amid the maelstrom of speculation that Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn has stated quite clearly that Schumacher is his first choice, and that any talk of replacements is premature until the German decides that he wants to retire, if, indeed, that is what he wants to do.  Brawn said, just before the British grand prix, “We are focused on Michael for as long as it takes – and for whatever it takes”.  Would Hamilton really want to move to a team where he knows going in that he is not the first choice?

Lewis Hamilton at the Bahrain GP
21 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

It is, though, undoubtedly true that Mercedes as one of only two true ‘works’ teams in F1 would fit well with Hamilton from a marketing and branding perspective.  It has been said, by Eddie Jordan, that Hamilton’s management team, XIX Entertainment, are trying to position the Briton as a “major global star” and that “Mercedes is a much bigger global brand than McLaren”.  That may well be true, but Hamilton must surely already be considered a “major global star”.  He is, after all, the 2008 world drivers’ champion, the driver that went head to head with and beat Fernando Alonso at McLaren in his rookie year and came out on top.  He also dates a pop star in former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and has a number of “showbiz” friends.

Let’s not forget, either, that Ayrton Senna, Hamilton’s hero, drove for and won three world championships for McLaren.  Senna was without doubt a major global star, without driving for a big brand team.  Isn’t the best way for Hamilton to increase his exposure to win more world championships?  For that, of course, he needs competitive machinery.

Hamilton’s desire and will to win has often been ignored or dismissed as an insignificant factor as speculation about a move to Mercedes has mounted, but I believe that this is a crucial factor that should not be made light of.  It is no secret that the 2008 world drivers’ champion is not satisfied with a single championship and wants to win multiple titles.  This being the case, you need to ask yourself the question “which team is likely to give him the best chance of doing so?”.  If McLaren and Mercedes are the two available options, the answer to that question, based on past performance and, indeed, performance this season, is clearly McLaren.

Jenson Button at the Singapore GP
26 September 2009
By Shiny Things, via Wikimedia Commons

McLaren have, at this stage of the season, what appears to be the fastest car.  They have won five races this season, more than any other team, and have a rich heritage of race wins and drivers and constructors world championships.   The current incarnation of the Mercedes F1 team, in contrast, was born from the Brawn team that steered Jenson Button to the world drivers’ championship in 2009.  Since that season, though, the team has won just once with Nico Rosberg’s maiden victory in Formula 1 at this year’s Chinese grand prix.  At this stage of the season, there’s nothing to suggest that there will be a huge improvement in fortunes for the German manufacturer unless they can deliver a huge upturn in performance with their new triple DRS system and coanda exhaust – both of which were on the car at last week’s young driver test in Magny Cours.

Much has been made of Hamilton’s management team, XIX Entertainment, speaking to Mercedes and other teams about the possibility of a seat for the Englishman in 2013.  I simply can’t understand why this is a big issue, though.  It would be hugely remiss of XIX not to be speaking to other teams given that Hamilton is out of contract at the end of the season.  Even if Hamilton has no intention of leaving McLaren, he cannot be 100% certain about the team’s intentions and putting all his eggs in one basket would be, at best, an extremely risky thing to do.

Talking to other teams can also be a negotiating tactic.  It’s no secret that Hamilton wants to be paid as well as possible – who wouldn’t want that – and wants greater control over his image rights to help maximise his earnings.  There may well be an offer on the table from Mercedes, and they may well be offering more money and more control over image rights than McLaren, but who’s to say that XIX aren’t just using this to drive up the offer on the table from McLaren?  XIX could, as you would expect them to do, simply be trying to ensure that their client gets the best possible deal.  One of the tactics to ensure that this happens would surely be speaking to other teams to ascertain what might be on offer elsewhere.   Certainly that’s what Christian Horner, the team principal at Red Bull Racing has suggested recently.  Horner was quoted as saying “The Hamilton story is about his position at McLaren – about how he can market himself to the world and what rights he gets.  But if he listens to his racing heart, he will stay at McLaren, where he has the best chance to be world champion again”.

The telemetry data tweeted at the 2012 Belgian GP

Some say, though, that it goes beyond money, image rights and even the relative competitiveness of McLaren and Mercedes, arguing that relationships between Hamilton and McLaren have become strained and may have irrevocably broken down.  A massive amount has been made of this, and Hamilton’s demeanour at the last two grand prix, fuelled by Hamilton’s misguided act of posting some potentially sensitive telemetry data on Twitter during the Belgian grand prix weekend.  It is certainly true that Hamilton has been downbeat at the last two races, despite his excellent victory at the last race in Italy.  There are, however, other factors that might explain this, for example the death of his aunt leading up to the Belgian grand prix.  Hamilton is famously very close to his family and the death of a close relative might well have had a big impact on his mood.  Certainly, Hamilton would not be the first person to be affected by the death of a loved one.  It’s impossible to know for sure.

Whatever the true situation, McLaren have quite clearly stated that they remain in negotiations with Hamilton over a new contract.  This has been backed up by XIX Entertainment, who have confirmed that they remain in “advanced discussions with McLaren about a new deal” for Hamilton.

With the lack of facts and verifiable information the speculation surrounding Hamilton should be regarded as just that.  As I’ve shown here, it’s just as possible to spin the available information to support the argument that Hamilton will stay at McLaren as it is to spin it to make the case that the Stevenage born racer will move to Mercedes.  This is silly season, don’t forget.  It’s called that for a reason.

Hamilton triumphs as the Ferrari auditions continue at Monza

There was none of the first corner chaos of a week ago at Spa, but it was an action packed Italian grand prix nonetheless.  We saw some outstanding drives from a number of drivers, with Lewis Hamilton taking a brilliant third victory of the season to reassert himself in the world drivers’ championship.  Much of the attention, rightly so, was focussed on an outstanding drive from Sergio Perez, who finished second, while Fernando Alonso also drove an excellent race to finish on the podium.  We also saw a huge performance improvement from Felipe Massa, too, as he finished fourth in Ferrari’s home race.

It would be unfair not to start with Lewis Hamilton, though.  It’s easy to forget amid the storm of criticism surrounding Hamilton after Spa, where he qualified poorly, by his own high standards, and crashed out at the first corner, that Hamilton still led his team-mate in the world drivers’ championship by 16 points.  Such was the shift in momentum, though, that it would have been easy for him to have buckled under the pressure.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-27,
Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Hamilton responded in exactly the right way, however, answering his critics with a pole position on Saturday, followed up with a brilliantly controlled drive to take victory on Sunday, despite the mounting speculation about where he will be driving in 2013.  Indeed, perhaps critically, Hamilton managed to turn the tide back in his favour at McLaren, reasserting himself in the team and re-establishing his post-Hungarian grand prix 41 point lead over his team-mate, Jenson Button, who failed to finish, retiring with a fuel pick-up issue on lap 33.

Indeed, it was a complete reversal of fortunes for the McLaren team-mates.  At Monza it was Hamilton who was in control in qualifying, taking pole by just over one tenth of a second ahead of Button, despite being caught up in traffic on his fastest lap.  Fernando Alonso pointed out that he felt he would have easily managed to take pole position had he not suffered a rear anti-roll bar failure in Q3 stating “I think it would have been the easiest pole position of the year for us”.  We’ll never know whether that would have been the case given that Hamilton felt that he could have gone faster himself.

As we all know, though, no points are scored on Saturdays and it’s the race result that really matters.  Just like Button in Belgium, Hamilton dominated the race in Italy, while his team-mate failed to score.  Hamilton almost managed to take the same lights to flag victory as Button in Belgium, but was denied by Sergio Perez who led for five laps, ahead of his pit-stop, on his way to an outstanding second place.

Sergio Perez, Sauber C31,
Australia, 16 March 2012
By parepinvr4 via Wikimedia Commons

Perez’s performance was all the more impressive given that he had qualified in 12th position, immediately behind two of the world drivers’ championship contenders, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber.  Yet again, the Mexican made a different strategy work to superb effect, on this occasion starting on the prime tyres and running a long first stint before switching to the options for the final part of the race.  This enabled Perez to storm his way past both Ferrari’s with fresh tyres after his pit stop in a manner reminiscent of Lewis Hamilton’s drive to victory in Canada.

Despite setting lap times that were, at one stage, some 1.5 seconds a lap faster than the leaders, the gap to Lewis Hamilton was just too large to bridge.  Hamilton had been conserving the tyres and upped his pace enough after Perez had passed Alonso to ensure that he wouldn’t be caught.  As a result, victory eluded the young Mexican, but he still managed to take his third podium of an increasingly impressive season, equalling his result in Malaysia.

It can only be a matter of time before Perez tastes victory in Formula 1.  It may well not be with Sauber, though, as the manner of his performance at Monza has reignited the speculation that Perez might be the man to partner Fernando Alonso at Ferrari in 2013.  When asked whether he thought that this performance would increase his chances of securing a drive with the Italian team, Perez responded by saying “I don’t know. I am sure not at all. I am fighting for my team and I will always fight for the team I am in, I will always give my maximum”.  While Perez won’t admit it I’m sure that his drive in Italy, in front of the tifosi, will have done exactly that.

The previous quotes from Ferrari that Perez needed “more experience” to drive for Ferrari (Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo) and that he was “too aggressive” (Ferrari Driver Academy head Luca Baldisserri) look a little silly after the Mexican’s performance at Monza.  It was a performance full of controlled aggression, including a couple of brilliant overtaking manoeuvres on Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen, and maturity befitting a driver of more experience.  It will certainly do his reputation no harm whatsoever, and it can only enhance his chances of driving at Ferrari in 2013.

Let’s not forget, though, that Perez will have plenty of competition for that drive.  I’ve written previously about the reasons why Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen would be a good option for Ferrari in 2013, but after a much improved showing perhaps it’s still a little too early to discount the current incumbent, Felipe Massa, altogether.

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2012,
Malaysia, 24 March 2012
By Morio (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not unfair to say that the Brazilian’s season so far has been lacklustre, to say the least.  His performance at Monza did, though, suggest that he might still stand a chance of retaining his seat.  After qualifying an excellent third, under a quarter of a second behind pole man Lewis Hamilton, and driving a very strong race, Massa can count himself unlucky not to have taken his first podium finish of the season, eventually finishing fourth after living up to his promise to support Fernando Alonso, by allowing his team-mate to pass him for third position.

It was unquestionably Massa’s strongest performance of the season, with fourth place equalling his result at Silverstone and meaning that he has more than quadrupled his number of world championship points in the last five races, after scoring just 11 points in the first eight rounds of the season.  Will this improved performance level be enough for him to hang on to his seat alongside Alonso in 2013?  Massa certainly thought so, stating after the race “For sure my own personal race was very important, but also helping Fernando as well to be in the condition to fight for the championship, which we know is very important for the team. I think both came together during the race”.  Certainly Ferrari are not ruling out the possibility that Massa will stay with the team, but I still suspect that the decision has already been made and he’ll find himself elsewhere in 2013.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona via Wikimedia Commons

Alonso, though, will have been glad of the Brazilian’s help at Monza.  With third place, Alonso declared the race “the perfect Sunday”, and the result means that he has managed to extend his world drivers’ championship lead once again.  After Spa, Sebastian Vettel had closed to just 24 point behind Alonso, but with the German’s alternator failure meaning that he failed to score, he had dropped to fourth place in the championship some 39 points behind the Spaniard.  Lewis Hamilton has moved into second in the championship after his third win of the season – matching Alonso’s total – 37 points adrift, with Kimi Raikkonen, despite not managing to record a victory this season, in third in the championship, a point behind Hamilton.

There still seems to be no single driver that is managing to put themselves consistently in position to challenge Alonso’s dominant championship position, however.  Hamilton will certainly fancy his chances of becoming that driver in a McLaren car that has now won the last three races, but we can surely rule out Jenson Button now.  Yes, the 2009 world drivers’ champion is 10 points closer to Alonso than he was before the mid-season summer break, but there are now only seven races to go.  The 78 point gap – more than three race wins – just looks too big to bridge.

Will Button now play second fiddle to Hamilton and support his team-mate’s bid for the world drivers’ championship?  He has said that he wouldn’t expect the team to ask him to do that until it becomes mathematically impossible for him to win the championship – and with 175 points still left to play for it’s not yet that – so I suspect that Button won’t be playing a supporting role just yet.  Indeed, Button acknowledged after the race that winning the championship “is going to be very very difficult” for him, but refused to give up on his chances of the title at this stage of the season.  However, with it being clearer than ever that Massa is playing a supporting role to Alonso at Ferrari, McLaren may well regret not asking Button to support Hamilton now – it could make the all important difference come the end of the season.

Button shines amid the chaos at Spa

Well, Formula 1 certainly returned from its summer break with a bang as the start of the Belgian grand prix saw two of the leading contenders for the 2012 world drivers’ championship taken out of the running at a chaotic first corner.  Although we’ll never know what those two drivers – Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton – might have been able to do at Spa, it’s hard to argue that Jenson Button would have been remotely affected.  Button produced an outstanding performance at Spa to take his second victory of the season, becoming the fourth multiple winner of the season.

Aside from Button’s win there was also some outstanding racing at Spa, most notably between Kimi Raikkonen, who took his sixth podium finish of the season by finishing third, and seven time world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher, who eventually finished seventh in his 300th grand prix.  Raikkonen’s pass on Schumacher through Eau Rouge was, in particular, brilliant, and the best overtake of the race for me.

Some of the less experienced drivers on the grid could certainly learn from these two former world champions.  I’m referring, in particular, here to Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado.  Grosjean’s move at the start of the race triggered the truly terrifying first corner crash that ended the races of Alonso, Hamilton, Perez and of Grosjean himself, while Maldonado was again involved in incidents in both Saturday and Sunday.

Romain Grosjean, Lotus E20, Jerez, Spain
10th February 2012
By Gil Abrantes from Portugal (IMG_8193.jpg) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start by looking at the first corner crash that triggered a safety car period and ended the races of a number of drivers.  The incident was triggered by contact between Grosjean and Hamilton, which launched both drivers over the top of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.  Grosjean appeared to be completely to blame for the crash as he moved sharply from left to right, cutting across the front of Hamilton’s McLaren.  Hamilton, running along the inside of the track, almost completely up again the white line marking the edge of the track, was left with nowhere to go and there was contact between the right rear of the Lotus and the left front of the McLaren, triggering carnage.

This was not the first early race incident that GP2 champion Grosjean has been involved in this season, but it was certainly the most spectacular and dangerous, and it will certainly reignite the debate about safety in F1 and possibly accelerate the introduction of cockpit protection for the drivers.  Certainly, Alonso can count himself extremely lucky not to have been injured in the incident as Grosjean’s car was launched into the air, dangerously close to his head.  The Spaniard said after the race that the impact ‘felt like a train’.

The stewards deemed the incident so serious that they later handed Grosjean a 50,000 Euro fine and a one race ban.  The stewards said that they ‘regard this incident as an extremely serious breach of the regulations which had the potential to cause injury to others”.  Grosjean has shown some prodigious speed this season, but has also been involved in several incidents, suggesting that he still has a fair amount of maturing to do as a driver.  His post race statement, where he admitted that he made ‘a mistake and…misjudged the gap with Lewis’ did, though suggest that it is certainly not beyond him to learn from such mistakes and convert speed into consistency.

Pastor Maldonado, Williams FW34, Spa, Belgium
2nd September 2012. Copyright: Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

The same cannot be said of Pastor Maldonado, who was once again the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons.  Since his victory in Spain, Maldonado has failed to score a single world championship point and he continued this trend at Spa.  It could have all been so different for the Venezuelan, who qualified a brilliant third, but, owing to his own stupidity, started only sixth.  The Williams driver received a three place grid penalty from the stewards after holding up Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg in the first part of qualifying, despite being told not to hold him up over the team radio as the German closed up behind him.

Maldonado had said, before his grid penalty, that the team was “looking forward to making up for what we lost in the first part of the season”, after a number of lost points scoring opportunities.  Perhaps his desire to make up for past errors caused him to be a little over eager at the start of the race as he clearly jumped the start.  So clear was his jump-start that we witnessed race starter Charlie Whiting shaking his head in amazement as the Williams sped into second past a number of stationary cars.

Maldonado’s jump-start was subject to a stewards investigation and he would almost certainly have received a penalty during the race had he not crashed out of the race a few laps later following an incident with Marussia’s Timo Glock after the end of the safety car period.  As it turned out, the steward punished the Williams drivers for both the jump start and the incident with Glock, handing him two five place grid penalties for the next race at Monza.  Maldonado is certainly another driver that has shown some impressive turns of speed this season, but, as I’ve written about before, he is extremely hot-headed and has been involved in far too many incidents for anyone’s liking.

What is perhaps most worrying about Maldonado is that, unlike Grosjean, he seems completely incapable of acknowledging when he is at fault.  We’ve heard a number of excuses from him, notably ‘cold tyres’ for his incidents with Sergio Perez in Monaco free practice and the race at Silverstone.  This time Maldonado claimed that he ‘made a slight mistake at the start because the clutch slipped out of my hands before the red light switched off’.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-27,
Sepang, Malaysia. 23rd March 2012
By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Jenson Button was, though, completely untroubled by Maldonado’s jump-start or  the carnage at La Source at the start of the race.  Indeed, the Englishman was barely troubled by anything or anyone all weekend, having produced a completely unexpectedly dominant display in both Saturday qualifying and the race on Sunday to make the best possible start to the second half of the season.

The key to Button’s success seems to have been opting for McLaren’s new front wing after Saturday free practice, while his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, opted for an older spec wing and a higher downforce set up.  While Hamilton struggled for pace in qualifying, Button was serene.  We’ve often seen Button struggle with a car that was not to his liking while Hamilton has been able to somehow extract performance, but this wasn’t the case in Spa.

It’s well known that there’s no one better than Button when he’s got the car set up to his liking and there was no better demonstration of this than his performance in Belgium.  Indeed, Button produced a qualifying performance that was reminiscent of his team-mate’s performance in qualifying at the previous race of the season in Hungary.  Like Hamilton at the Hungaroring, Button’s time in set in Q2 would have been good enough for pole position had it been set in Q3, and like Hamilton in Hungary, Button followed a brilliant Q2 performance up with a further two searingly fast hot laps in Q3, both of which were good enough for pole.

Button’s qualifying performance was certainly impressive – surprisingly it was his first pole position for McLaren in his 50th race for the team – but so, too, was his performance in the race.  Button became the first driver to take a lights to flag victory in 2012, having one stopped his way to victory by 13.6 seconds from Red Bull Racing’s double world champion Sebastian Vettel.  Button was never challenged, pulling effortlessly away after the safety car pulled into the pits to record one of his very best Formula 1 wins.

Honourable mentions also go to Torro Rosso who, after a fairly dismal season, secured a double points finish with an eighth place finish for Jean-Eric Vergne and a ninth for Daniel Ricciardo.  Force India will be similarly pleased after a double points finish of their own – the highlight being a brilliant fourth place for Nico Hulkenberg.

Certainly, though, it was not a good weekend for either Hamilton or Alonso.  The latter saw Vettel move into second place in the world drivers’ championship just 24 world championship points behind him after his first DNF of the season.  This, of course, means that Alonso would lose his lead in the world drivers’ championship if he fails to score on Ferrari’s home turf and Vettel takes victory.  Who would have imagined that that would be possible before today’s race?

Button has clearly given his championship chances a huge shot in the arm with this performance, but the task of winning a second drivers’ championship still looks to be a massive challenge for him.  He has, though, closed to within 16 world championship points of his team-mate and reduced the deficit to championship leader Fernando Alonso to 63 points.  The 2012 Formula 1 season has certainly been full of surprises and a few more may yet be on the cards.