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…

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Serene Seb storms to victory in Sakhir

Well, with Sebastian Vettel’s second victory of the season in Sakhir, we now know that there will be no repeat of 2012, with eight different race winners in the first eight races of the season. In Bahrain, at least, though, we did have a carbon copy of the 2012 top three, with Vettel being joined on the podium by Lotus pair Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. While Vettel was untroubled at the front of the pack, the battles raged behind him.

It was a tumultuous, topsy-turvey race; different cars and drivers looked quick at various stages of the race, with McLaren looking extremely strong at certain points, while Mercedes looked to be struggling at times. At the end of the race, though, the only team that maximised the result for both of their drivers was Lotus, with a double podium. Unusually for me, I’m going to take a look at the race, team by team, for the top seven at least.

Vettel, leading Rosberg and Alonso early in the Bahrain GP

Vettel, leading Rosberg and Alonso early in the Bahrain GP

Let’s start with Red Bull Racing. As we know, Vettel took a thoroughly deserved and fairly straightforward victory. He battled with Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso at the start of the race and initially dropped back from his second place starting slot as Alonso opportunistically sneaked around the outside of the reigning world drivers’ champion at turn one. Vettel was back past the Spaniard later on the lap, though, and although it took him a two more laps to find a way past Rosberg’s Mercedes, once he did so on lap three he never looked back, winning the race by just under 10 seconds, looking perfectly in control throughout.

Mark Webber on the other hand had another torrid race. Eventually, the Australian finished where he started, in seventh place, but aside from a spell in second place after the first round of pit stops he never really looked in contention. Webber, of course, was hampered by a three place grid penalty carried over from Shanghai and his collision with Jean-Eric Vergne, but he never looked like he had the pace to compete at the very front of the race. Nevertheless, he battled hard throughout, eventually losing out towards the end of the race as he lost two positions on the final lap. Things could have been even worse for Webber, though, had the stewards decided that his coming together with Nico Rosberg on lap 38 was worth more than just the reprimand that he received after the race.

Paul di Resta drove an excellent race in Sakhir

Paul di Resta drove an excellent race in Sakhir

Force India had an excellent result with a fourth place finish for Paul di Resta. The Scot looked fast throughout the race and can consider himself unfortunate not to be able to take his first formula 1 podium. He led the race at times, and did an excellent job on a two stop strategy, but was overtaken five laps from the end by a charging Romain Grosjean. In contrast, though, his team-mate Adrian Sutil had a poor result. The German had started the race alongside his team-mate in sixth place, but contact with the Ferrari of Felipe Massa on the first lap of the race meant an early pit-stop for Sutil, from which he never recovered, eventually finishing the race down in 13th position – hugely disappointing considering the race that had clearly been in the car in Bahrain.

Next up, I’m going to have a look at the race for Mercedes. A dominant pole for Nico Rosberg on Saturday, their second pole in two races after Lewis Hamilton’s in China, promised much for the race. Rosberg’s previous pole position, in China in 2012, saw him take victory for Mercedes. Sadly for the German, though, there was no repeat in Bahrain in 2013. As many feared, tyre wear was a problem for Mercedes and Rosberg dropped further and further backwards as the race went on. He eventually had to stop four times due to excessive tyre wear, one of just a handful of drivers that needed to do so, eventually finishing in ninth place.

Hamilton improved throughout the race in Bahrain

Hamilton improved throughout the race in Bahrain

Ninth place was where his team-mate Hamilton had started the race after receiving an unfortunate five place grid penalty after a tyre delamination at the end of third practice on Saturday forced the team to change his gearbox. Hamilton’s pace was poor through much of the race, and it looked unlikely that he would score points at times. He fell back at the start and spent much of the race on the periphery of the top 10. In the second part of the race, on the hard tyre, the Englishman came alive, though. As his team-mate fell further back Hamilton pulled himself further forward, passing both McLaren’s and Webber’s Red Bull to take fifth. As he explained after the race “My race didn’t start well at all. I was looking after the tyres but I really struggled on the first two stints and was falling back. But as the temperatures dropped, the car picked up and then I had the grip that I needed to push and close the gap”. A good result for the 2008 world drivers’ champion, who moved into third place in the world drivers’ championship.

Hamilton’s old team, McLaren, looked transformed through much of the race. Both 2009 world drivers’ champion Jenson Button and Sergio Perez were solidly in the top 10 throughout the race, despite their modest 10th and 12th place starting positions. It looked, at times, like a complete turnaround in fortunes between McLaren and Mercedes, but it didn’t really last, at least for Button. The Englishman was the second man to have to make four pit stops due to excessive tyre wear – amazingly for a driver that’s usually so kind to his rubber. Like Webber, he eventually finished the race exactly where he started, in 10th place.

The reason for Button’s excessive tyre wear was probably the battle that raged between him and his Mexican team-mate throughout much of the race. The two drivers came together at the first corner and again later in the race as they pushed to, and sometimes beyond, the limit. Perez, after a disappointing first three races for McLaren had been told to ‘toughen up’ by team boss Martin Whitmarsh earlier in the week, and he did just that. The 23-year-old drove like a man possessed, with Button complaining about his team-mate’s driving over the team radio. The Mexican eventually came out on top, though taking sixth place.

A broken DRS destroyed Alonso's race

A broken DRS destroyed Alonso’s race

But what about, Ferrari? It had been a race which had promised much for the Italian team; both cars started the race on the second row of the grid, with Alonso ahead of Massa. Indeed, the Spaniard had looked tremendously fast all weekend and was many people’s pick to win the race, myself included. Disaster struck for Alonso on lap eight as he was forced to pit because his DRS had jammed open. His team managed to force it closed, but Alonso was back in the pits just a lap later as his DRS jammed open yet again. Again, the Ferrari pit crew forced it closed, but the Spaniard would be without DRS for the rest of the race. Considering the loss of a crucial overtaking aid, and the time that he lost in the pits, Alonso worked wonders to finish in eighth position.

Things went from bad to worse for Ferrari, though. Like his team-mate, Felipe Massa was forced to make two unscheduled visits to the pits during the race. Unlike Alonso, though, it was tyres rather than DRS that were the problem for the Brazilian. Massa suffered not one, but two right rear tyre delaminations. The first came on lap 18 and the second on lap 37, destroying his race. Massa eventually finished in a lowly 15th position, behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas.

As I’ve already mentioned, Lotus, in stark contrast to Ferrari, had a brilliant race. Both cars had qualified comparatively poorly with eighth place on the grid for Kimi Raikkonen and 11th for Romain Grosjean. In the race, though, the Enstone based team came alive, making a two stop strategy work for Raikkonen and a three stop strategy work equally well for his French team-mate. Raikkonen admitted after the race that Lotus “did not have the speed to beat Red Bull this weekend” and given that the team did as well as they could have with a double podium.

The man with the biggest smile on his face was Sebastian Vettel, though. There was none of the controversy of his win in Malaysia this time and he extended his championship lead to 10 points over Raikkonen. As I mentioned, Hamilton has moved into third – albeit a huge 17 points behind Raikkonen – with Ferrari’s Alonso a further three points back in fourth place. Next up it’s the start of the European races in Barcelona. It’ll be a crucial point for all of the teams as big upgrade packages will be bolted on to all of the cars. Will any of those upgrades mix up the current pecking order? We’ll find out in three weeks time…

F1 musical chairs

Speculation about possible driver moves provides an almost constant backing track to life in the Formula 1 paddock, a backing track that is never quite drowned out by the roar of F1 engines.  In 2012, this background music has been particularly loud, due primarily to the fact that one driver in each of the ‘big four’ teams was out of contract at the end of the season.  With the news that one of those drivers – Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber – has decided to stay where he is for 2013, announcing a one year contract extension earlier this week, where does that leave things for the other three drivers still ‘in play’ and potentially in the hunt for a new seat: Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa?

Let’s start with Felipe Massa.  The Brazilian’s struggles over the past few seasons have been well documented.  He has not won a race since his home grand prix in 2008 – the very same race that he lost out on the world drivers’ championship to Lewis Hamilton – and he has been comprehensively outpaced by Fernando Alonso since the Spaniard joined the team in 2010.  Massa failed to finish on the podium in the whole of the 2011 season and, up until the British grand prix, Massa’s 2012 campaign had been equally lacklustre, with just two top 10 qualifying slots in the opening eight rounds of the season, and three points scoring race finishes.  Massa’s performance at Silverstone was, though, a dramatic change in his fortunes and by far his best race weekend of the season.  A fifth place grid slot represented his best qualifying position of the season and a fourth place finish in the race, with strong pace throughout, was clearly his best Sunday performance of the season, and his best race result.

Given his dismal 2011 season, Massa was already under pressure going in to 2012, with speculation that he would leave Ferrari almost ever present.  His performances in the opening eight rounds of the season led to rumours that Ferrari would dispense with his services before the season was out but, thus far, that has proved not to be the case.  Now that there’s been an upturn in his form with the result at Silverstone, is there now a possibility that Massa could even stay with the Scuderia beyond the end of the current campaign?  The answer to that question is that yes, it’s a possibility, but despite the supportive comments from Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo and team principal Stefano Domenicali following Massa fourth place finish at Silverstone I expect that the possibility is probably a fairly remote one unless Massa can maintain his improved form over the remaining 11 races of the season.  In my view, Massa would, at the very least, need some podium finishes to stand a chance of retaining his seat.  Even that might not be enough though; I suspect that Ferrari may well have already made up their mind on Massa and that the exit door beckons.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Moving on to Michael Schumacher, who is in the final year of his three year contract with Mercedes AMG F1.  Schumacher hasn’t enjoyed the most successful time of his career since returning to the sport in 2010.  Admittedly, the Mercedes, until this year, hasn’t been a winning car, but in both 2010 and 2011 Schumacher was outpaced by his young team-mate, Nico Rosberg.  Even in 2012, Rosberg enjoys a huge points advantage over his seven time world drivers’ championship winning team-mate, having won the Chinese grand prix.  Schumacher, in contrast, had only scored a meagre two world championship points up until the European grand prix at Valencia; round eight of the championship.  This, though, does not tell the full story of Schumacher’s season.  He’s had five retirements in nine races, four of which were mechanical failures, like the bizarre jammed DRS in Canada.  He has also scored his first podium finish since his return to F1, with third in Valencia and he also drove a brilliant qualifying lap in Monaco to take pole position (although a grid penalty meant he started sixth).  There are, therefore, certainly signs of an upturn in form for Schumacher, and this being the case I would expect that he would want to stay on in Formula 1 for one more year in the hope that Mercedes can provide him with a car that’s capable of delivering another world driver’s championship.

The only question that remains for Schumacher is whether Mercedes would want to keep him beyond the end of his current contract.  The answer to that question is an emphatic ‘yes’.  Despite Schumacher being 43 years of age (he will be 44 before the start of next season), Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn was quite clear when discussing possible driver options in 2013 that Schumacher was very much the first choice.  Brawn was quoted as saying, ahead of the British grand prix, “We are focused on Michael for as long as it takes – and for whatever it takes”.  Let’s not forget that Schumacher and Brawn have a long and distinguished working relationship having delivered world championships together for both Benetton and Ferrari.  It’s no surprise that Brawn would like to continue what has been an enormously successful working relationship with Schumacher.  Given these factors, I expect that Schumacher will stay with Mercedes in 2013, but probably not far beyond that season.

McLaren’s 2008 world drivers’ champion, Lewis Hamilton, is also out of contract at the end of the current season.  Given the team’s well documented issues with pit procedure, strategy and, following the British grand prix, outright pace, many have speculated that Hamilton will take the decision to move on from the team that brought him into Formula 1 at the age of 22, the same team that has been supporting his development since the age of 13.  Hamilton has been linked with drives at all of the front-running teams.  There have been rumours of a move to Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and even Lotus.  We now know, of course, with Mark Webber’s decision to re-sign with Red Bull for 2013, that the opportunity of a move to the reigning world constructors’ champions is not going to materialise, at least not this year.  With Mercedes being quite clear that they will retain Michael Schumacher, if the seven time world drivers’ champion decides he wants to carry on racing at the highest level, the possibility of a move to the Brackley-based team for Hamilton is still possible, but one suspects that the idea of being second choice behind Schumacher would not be particularly appealing to the Englishman.

The possibility of Hamilton replacing Felipe Massa at Ferrari – if, as I suspect, the Brazilian does not stay on with the team beyond the end of the current season – is an extremely remote one, in my view.  Given that Fernando Alonso has already said that he gets some say over who will be his team-mate at the Italian team, it would be incredibly hard to imagine him rubber stamping Hamilton as his team-mate.  The memory of Hamilton and Alonso as team-mates at McLaren in 2007 – Hamilton’s rookie year in Formula 1 – is still relatively fresh.  The relationship between the team-mates was not good and as they battled it out for supremacy in what was probably the fastest car that season.  That at times bitter inter-team battle ultimately allowed Kimi Raikkonen take the world drivers’ championship for Ferrari, who also took the constructors championship that year.  Despite having agreed a multi-year contract, Alonso left at the team at the end of that campaign, returning to Renault for two seasons, before moving on to join Massa at Ferrari in 2010.

With no seat at Red Bull, Schumacher the first choice to stay on for another year at Mercedes, and Alonso highly unlikely to countenance having Hamilton as his team-mate at Ferrari, the Englishman is left with very few worthwhile options for 2013.  In my view, the speculation about a move to Lotus is not credible, which leaves staying at McLaren as the 2008 world drivers’ champion only realistic choice.  This is exactly what I expect Hamilton to do, despite the team’s recent struggles.  Don’t forget, too, that despite the speculation about Hamilton leaving McLaren, there has been a notable lack of speculation about who might take his seat at McLaren if he did decide to leave.  This is in stark contrast to the Massa/Ferrari situation, and this contrast, in my view, gives an indication about the relative likelihood of Massa and Hamilton leaving their respective teams.  It’s also easy to under-estimate the value of loyalty, but I think that this, along with McLaren’s position as one of F1’s top teams over the past few decades, will mean that Hamilton stays with the Woking-based outfit.  After 14 years affiliated with the team that stood by him in 2011, despite his own troubled season, I would expect that it would take more than a disappointing start to 2012 – don’t forget that there’s still over half of the season to go – to persuade Hamilton that his future lies away from McLaren.  The length of any new deal for Hamilton at McLaren will, though, be extremely interesting.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So, with Mark Webber definitely staying at Red Bull Racing for 2013, and assuming that my other assumptions are correct, who will race alongside Fernando Alonso at Ferrari in 2013?  The most credible drivers to be linked with a drive with the Italian team are Force India’s Paul di Resta and Sauber’s Mexican driver Sergio Perez.  For me the most logical option is Perez.  He’s a Ferrari development driver and despite Ferrari Driver Academy head Luca Baldisserri saying recently that he was “too aggressive” and Luca di Montezemolo saying “to drive a Ferrari you need more experience”, I can’t see Ferrari turning anywhere else if they replace Massa.  As I mentioned, di Resta is the other current F1 driver that’s been linked with Ferrari, but I can’t see that happening.  Di Resta is a Mercedes protégé, and if he moves from Force India, the only place that I could see him going would be to the Mercedes works team, possibly to replace Schumacher in 2013 if the German decides to retire again.  The other possibility for the Mercedes drive, if Schumacher decides against continuing in Formula 1, is di Resta’s Force India team-mate Nico Hulkenberg, but as I’ve already said, I do expect Schumacher to stay on with Mercedes for another year.

The other big question mark for 2013 is Bruno Senna’s position at Williams.  Williams’s upturn in form in 2013 has been notable, and all of a sudden the Grove-based team are a more desirable place to be in 2013.  Senna was only confirmed at Williams for 2012 and while he has been consistent and a steady points scorer, his performances have not been as spectacular as many fans of his uncle, the late, great triple world drivers’ champion, Ayrton Senna, had hoped for.  There has been a lack of speculation about Williams and Senna and their plans for 2013 thus far, but I expect that to change as other drivers’ and teams’ plans for 2013 become clearer.

I might be completely wrong about all of my predictions for drivers and teams for 2013, of course.  Schumacher might choose to retire.  Massa might have a brilliant second half of the season.  Hamilton’s contract talks with McLaren might reach an impasse.  Only time will tell where everyone ends up when the music stops…