Belgian GP: The winners and losers

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.

Vettel leads from Hamilton and Rosberg in the early stages of the race

Vettel leads from Hamilton and Rosberg
in the early stages of the race

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.

A less than delighted looking Fernando Alonso on the podium in Belgium

A less than delighted looking Fernando
Alonso on the podium in Belgium

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.

Hamilton led the race into La Source, but was soon passed by Vettel

Hamilton led the race into La Source,
but was soon passed by Vettel

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 pulls in to the pits to retire from the Belgian grand prix

Raikkonen pulls in to the pits to
retire from the Belgian grand prix

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.

Jenson Button on his way to sixth place at Spa

Jenson Button on his way to sixth place at Spa

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…

Frustration at Ferrari

After losing out on the world drivers’ and constructors championships to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing in 2012, Fernando Alonso and Ferrari made a strong start to 2013, winning two of the opening five rounds of the season. However, more recently things have been going less well for the Scuderia. The first race after the summer break – at Spa at the end of this month – may well determine how quickly Ferrari shift their resources to their 2014 car.

So, what has gone wrong at Ferrari? I think that there are a number of issues, the biggest of which is that the team seem unable to develop the F138 to keep pace with their rivals. This is not a new problem for Ferrari – we saw the same problems with the development of last year’s car – but it is one that they seem no closer to solving.

Lewis Hamilton at the Singapore Gp in 2009; one of two races he won that year for McLaren

Lewis Hamilton at the Singapore GP in 2009;
one of two races he won that year for McLaren

As teams, drivers, media and fans know, development is vital in F1. Starting the season with an uncompetitive car isn’t the end of the world if you can improve it more rapidly than your competitors. An excellent example of that is McLaren’s 2009 season, during which Lewis Hamilton won two races, despite neither car finishing higher than fourth in the first nine races of the 17 race season. Knowing the importance of development is not the same as being able to develop the car, however.

Alonso revealed at the last race in Hungary that the F138 is currently in the same specification that Alonso drove to victory in Spain, some five races earlier. This isn’t because Ferrari, have been lazy, of course. The team has been bringing new parts to races – like the new diffuser that they brought to the Hungaroring – fitting them to the car, only to find that they fail to bring the expected improvements to performance. Wind tunnel and simulation data are failing to accurately predict real world performance – a massive issue.

Vergne's tyre exploding at the British GP

Vergne’s tyre exploding at the British GP

If their development problems weren’t bad enough, Ferrari seemed to have been affected badly by the change in Pirelli’s tyre construction. Following a number of unsightly and dangerous tyre delaminations earlier in the season, the Italian tyre manufacturer was criticised by a number of teams, but Ferrari were not among them. Despite calls to change the tyre construction, the teams couldn’t agree to the switch. This all changed after the British grand prix, though. The multiple tyre failures that we saw in that race forced an immediate reaction and just a couple of rounds later – at the last race in Budapest – we saw the 2013 tyre compounds paired with the 2012 tyre construction to address the problems. Essentially, this meant a switch from steel belted tyres to tyres with Kevlar belts.

The change in tyre construction means that heat is better dissipated by the tyre, rather than retained in the steel belt. This, of course, will benefit teams that suffer from high thermal degradation of their tyres, most notably Mercedes who won the race through Lewis Hamilton in Hungary. Teams that haven’t struggled to the same extent with tyre degradation issues are likely to be disadvantaged, though. We saw Force India struggle at the Hungaroring, with Ferrari also suffering.

Alonso qualified sixth in Canada, but raced strongly, finishing second

Alonso qualified sixth in Canada,
but raced strongly, finishing second

Ferrari have had issues in qualifying this season and have only had a single front row start in 2013; for Felipe Massa in round two in Malaysia. Conversely, though, their race pace has been extremely strong, with Alonso, in particular, able to move forward rapidly on Sundays. This is likely down to car characteristics, with the F138 struggling to heat its tyres and bring them into ‘the window’ of operating efficiency for a single qualifying lap, but looking after the same tyres well on race day. The change in the construction of the tyres means, though, that the help in heating the rubber that Ferrari would have received from the steel banded tyres has disappeared. As we saw at the Hungaroring, Ferrari’s race pace was disappointing, with Alonso finishing where he started in fifth place – aided by the difficulties suffered by Nico Rosberg and Romain Grosjean – while Massa dropped one place from his starting position to finish eighth in the race.

As we saw from Lotus’s performance in Hungary, though, it is certainly possible for a team that enjoyed the steel belted tyres to perform equally strongly with the Kevlar belted construction. Lotus is a team that have been extremely good on tyre wear, and might have expected to struggle with a tyre that dissipates heat more rapidly. This wasn’t the case in Hungary, though, with Raikkonen benefitting from a two stop strategy to finish second, while Grosjean can count himself unlucky to have finished sixth, after receiving two penalties from the stewards. Some of Lotus’s strong performance on the Kevlar tyres might be attributable to the high heat at the Hungaroring, but Force India and Ferrari suffered in the same conditions, so there’s almost certainly something that these two teams can learn from Lotus.

The second of two almost identical crashes for Massa in Monaco

The second of two almost identical
crashes for Massa in Monaco

The final issue for Ferrari is their drivers. After a strong start to the season Massa is now starting to struggle quite badly. A poor start to 2012 saw heavy speculation that the Brazilian would be replaced at Ferrari for 2013, but a strong end to the season saw him retain his seat and an even stronger start to 2013 seemed to have dispelled any doubts about Massa at Ferrari. A run of five crashes over the course of four grands prix weekends – Monaco (twice), Canada, Britain and Germany, where he spun out on lap four – has reignited the speculation over the 32 year old’s future at Ferrari, though.

Ferrari President Luca Di Montezemolo has gone from being supportive of Massa, saying last month that “Felipe is fully aware he can count on our total confidence in him” to saying more recently “in the past days, we were very clear with him: both he and us need results and points. Then, at some point, we will look one another in the eye and decide what to do”. Fernando Alonso has not been immune from criticism, either. Recent speculation has linked the Spaniard to Mark Webber’s seat at Red Bull Racing, with the reaction from Ferrari being whispers about Alonso failing to get the best out of the car in qualifying and Di Montezemolo publicly rebuking the double world driver’s champion.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, Ferrari’s form at the Belgian grand prix at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps may well prove crucial to determining where the team focuses its resources; the F138 or the 2014 challenger. I expect that a lack of improvements will see 2013 being sacrificed in favour of next year’s car. With James Allison joining Ferrari as technical director next month, this may well be the plan at Maranello in any case.

It is crucial that, whatever they decide to do, the team pulls together and avoids a sustained period of destructive speculation surrounding their drivers. With silly season just getting started that might be easier said than done, however. It looks like it could be a challenging second half of the season for Ferrari.