Well, there were precious little of the usual Spa thrills and spills in round 11 of the 2013 formula 1 world championship. No safety cars, no rain and very little competition for Sebastian Vettel, who cruised to a straightforward, comfortable and comprehensive victory to extend his lead in the world drivers’ championship.
It was a case of winners and losers in Belgium. Vettel clearly fell into the former category, never looking back after cruising past pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes down the Kemmel straight on the very first lap of the race. Unusually, Vettel’s Red Bull had much more straight-line speed than the Mercedes which, with more power than the Renault engine used by Red Bull, usually has greater top speed. The Red Bull was clearly set up to overtake. A risky move considering the notoriously changeable conditions at Spa-Francochamps, but one that paid off handsomely. After passing Hamilton, Vettel was able to build up his customary opening lap gap over the oppositions, moving himself well clear of DRS range and, ultimately, into a race winning position.
Another man in the winners’ category, although you wouldn’t have guessed it by his post race demeanour, was Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard was unfortunate to be caught out by the weather in qualifying, ending up down in ninth place on the grid. However, he soon made up for his poor starting position with a storming first lap of the race. As usual, the Ferrari driver made a brilliant start, clawing his way up from ninth to fifth place on the opening lap. It wasn’t long before he was up to fourth, either, passing Jenson Button’s McLaren on lap four, before moving up to third just two laps later as he made short work of Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes down the Kemmel straight.
Like Vettel, Alonso’s Ferrari was set up with straight-line speed in mind and it paid off for him much as it did for Vettel. The Spaniard had to wait until after the first round of pit stops to affect his next pass, but it came on lap 15, as he passed Hamilton for second position into La Source. That’s the way the podium positions stayed at the end of the race. Hamilton revealed to Vettel as the top three waited to go out onto the podium that he had actually let Alonso through at La Source in the hope that he would be able to use the DRS overtaking aid to blast back ahead of the Ferrari down the Kemmel straight. Indeed, that was exactly what the Englishman attempted to do, but such was the straight-line speed advantage of the Ferrari that the Mercedes was unable to re-pass, even with the aid of reduced drag from DRS.
Even though Hamilton dropped from first place on the grid to third place in the race, I’d still put him firmly in the winners’ category, too, even though it could easily have been a better result for Hamilton had circumstances worked in his favour. As was evidenced by the way that both Vettel and Alonso were able to outpace Hamilton’s Mercedes in a straight line, the Silver Arrows had gone for a higher down force set up than their rivals. This would have benefited them in the middle sector of the track, but left them vulnerable in the first and last sectors, where minimal drag was the order of the day.
Mercedes’s set-up may have been made with the hope or expectation of rain in mind. Had the heavens opened at Spa, as they often do, Mercedes would likely have found themselves in a very strong position to win the race. The extra down force on their cars would have allowed them to cope more easily with the treacherous conditions that the wet weather would have brought, while those with a lower down force setting might well have struggled. That’s all ifs and buts, though. As it happened, the rain never came and Mercedes probably finished as well as they could have with Hamilton’s third position – his fourth of the season – and a fourth place for Rosberg.
What made Hamilton a winner in my winners and losers rundown of the Belgian grand prix was, though, the fact that Kimi Raikkonen suffered his first retirement since returning to Formula 1 in 2011, and his first non points score since the 2012 Chinese grand prix, where he finished 14th. This meant that Hamilton leapfrogged ahead of the Lotus driver into third in the world drivers’ championship. As you will have guessed the Finn falls very much into the losers’ category for this race.
Raikkonen, seemed to be struggling with brakes throughout the race; very unusual for Spa given that the Belgian track is not one that is particularly tough on brakes. Nevertheless, though, we saw the Lotus sitting on the starting grid with smoking brakes and huge clouds of black brake dust coming from the front right disk every time he slowed down. Lotus revealed after the race that a visor tear off had become trapped in the brake duct, causing the brakes to overheat. Raikkonen and Lotus were never really in contention anyway, though, so a retirement at this race, where they weren’t on the pace of the front-runners, was perhaps not as disastrous as it might have been if they were in the hunt for victory. Still, when the retirement came on lap 26 of the race, it would have been enormously disappointing for Raikkonen, especially given that the three drivers he’s battling with in the championship went on to fill the three podium positions.
Another loser at Spa was Paul Di Resta. After qualifying an impressive fifth, and oh so nearly taking a maiden pole position on Saturday, the Scot went rapidly backwards in the race. Di Resta had dropped to seventh by lap two and outside of the top 10 by lap 20. Just eight laps later he was punted out of the race by Pastor Maldonado, making it three races in a row without a points scoring finish for the Force India driver.
Even though Di Resta’s team-mate, Adrian Sutil, picked up a couple of points for a ninth place finish, the Force India team were very much in the losers camp, too. That’s because they’ve now been overtaken by McLaren in the race for fifth place in the world constructors’ championship. It sounds very odd to say it, but even though Jenson Button only finished where he started – in sixth position – both he and McLaren were winners at Spa. They looked much more competitive all weekend and now look in a strong position to maintain their newly established constructors’ championship lead over Force India.
The biggest winner in Belgium was of course Sebastian Vettel, though. The reigning world drivers’ champion now heads this year’s standings by 46 points over his nearest challenger, Fernando Alonso, with Lewis Hamilton a further 12 points behind. Nevertheless, we head to Monza, Ferrari’s home turf, in two weeks time, where the Scuderia will be determined to put on a show for the adoring tifosi.
There are positive signs that Ferrari and Alonso may well be in a position to challenge Red Bull and Vettel after a much improved performance at Spa. Mercedes and Hamilton are very much in the picture, too, and despite his retirement, Raikkonen sits only five points further back in fourth place in the world drivers’ championship. There are eight races to go, and 200 points still up for grabs…