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…

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.