A very good Grand Prix, and for the first dozen laps a great one. True, eventually the inherent superiority of the Red Bull RB7 asserted itself at Spa, so that Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber scored a comfortable enough 1-2, but in the first part of the race the action at the front was frantic – indeed four different drivers led before an accident on lap 13, which eliminated Lewis Hamilton and brought out the safety car. At the finish Hamilton’s McLaren team-mate Jenson Button was third, followed by the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso and the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg.
It’s been said before, but it can never be said enough times: take them to a proper circuit, and you get a proper race.
Qualifying at Spa is invariably unpredictable, sometimes chaotic. The weather sees to that, and it’s been that way since the running of the first Belgian Grand Prix here, back in 1925. Fickle doesn’t make a start on it. Torrential rain can materialise from nowhere, and it is not unusual for one part of the circuit – at 4.35 miles it’s the longest in Formula 1 use – to be bone dry while another is streaming.
Conditions on both Friday and Saturday were mixed, but very rarely was the track entirely dry, and after qualifying all the drivers lamented the lack of dry running, for the the forecast for race day suggested that the sun would shine.
For all the uncertain conditions it was the usual suspects who figured most strongly in qualifying. There were, however, some anomalies. Right at the beginning of Q1, for example, Schumacher’s Mercedes shed its right rear wheel on the climb to Les Combes.
The Spa circuit is situated only 50 kilometres from Kerpen, Michael’s birth place, so he not surprisingly refers to it as ‘my garden’. In the days of his pomp he won here six times, and he had reckoned that the Mercedes, while not competitive with Red Bull, McLaren or Ferrari, might be better suited to Spa than some of the recent F1 venues. In that he was right – team-mate Rosberg qualified fifth – but it was hardly surprising that he was dismayed by the thought of starting dead last. This weekend, after all, marked the 20th anniversary of his Formula 1 debut.
If Schumacher didn’t figure, neither – more suprisingly – did Button. In Q1 Jenson was fastest of all, predictably much at ease in the sort of mixed conditions in which he excels. In Q2, too, he topped the lists for a while, but in the late minutes the track was drying fast, and the name of Button began sliding down the list. It didn’t look like a problem, for he was surely capable of responding, and thus he backed off, cooling the tyres, having been informed by McLaren that there was time for one more quick lap.
There wasn’t, though. By the time Jenson made it back to the start-finish line the allotted time had ticked away to zero, and he found himself out of Q1, back in 13th place. And frustrated, you might say.
And there were others, too, notably Alonso. An abiding problem for Ferrari this season has been getting heat into the Pirelli tyres – in a normal summer, with plenty of races in hot weather, this would have become a virtue, of course.
As it is, we have had a succession of races run in unusually cool conditions, and if that has hampered Ferrari it has very much aided McLaren, where there is no problem getting the tyres up to temperature – indeed on hot days it works against them.
Alonso was well in the mix through most of qualifying, and indeed set fastest time in Q2. In Q3, though, he was delayed by Perez on two of his laps, and on the last one slowed at the chicane to let Webber through, fearing that otherwise he might get a penalty. When Alonso is slower than team-mate Massa it raises eyebrows; when he is a second slower something somewhere doesn’t compute. Eighth was not where Fernando had expected to start.
Vettel-Hamilton-Webber is how the first three lined up, but this wasn’t a typical Vettel pole position. In Q1, he admitted, he didn’t feel comfortable with the car. “Then, in Q2 I discovered Spa again – and in Q3 everything was fine. On the last lap I pushed as hard as I could…”
Most of the time Webber looked the more likely of the Red Bull drivers to take pole, but in the end Mark – celebrating his 35th birthday, and also the signing of a new contract for 2012 – set third best time, beaten to the front row by Hamilton.
Lewis always excels at Spa. “I had pole for about five seconds,” he said, after setting his time at the very end of the session, “but then Sebastian came over the line…”
En route to his fastest lap Hamilton was undoubtedly… muscular as he passed Pastor Maldonado’s tardy Williams at the final chicane, but really he had little option. After the chequered flag had fallen the two cars made contact as they went down the hill to Eau Rouge, and while neither driver appeared entirely blameless the Venezuelan was adjudged more culpable than Hamilton, and ‘fined’ five grid positions. Lewis got away with a reprimand.
Undoubtedly the most startling performance in qualifying came from Bruno Senna, seventh for Lotus Renault GP, three places ahead of team-mate Vitaly Petrov. Ayrton’s nephew has been drafted into the team for the rest of the season, replacing the disappointing Nick Heidfeld, who was frequently outpaced by Petrov. Given the testing ban, Senna has had almost no cockpit time this year, and his showing certainly raised an eyebrow or two.
The circumstances of qualifying created an interesting scenario for race day – when rain threatened, but never materialised. As we have said, it’s a long lap at Spa, and in Q3 the drivers – very much keeping the weather in mind – stayed out on one set of tyres rather than the usual practice of running a quick lap, changing to a new set of tyres, then running a second quick lap. In normal circumstances, therefore, you start the race on a lightly used set – but at Spa the top 10 drivers went to the grid on tyres that had done 20 or 25 miles. Throw in the fact that there had been very little dry running, and it was hardly surprising that the drivers were a little apprehensive.
“We were going very much into the unknown today,” said Webber, “in terms of what the tyres might do – and I’m not just talking about blisters…” Vettel agreed: “When the front tyres blistered, there was a lot of vibration, and it really wasn’t very comfortable going into Eau Rouge or Blanchimont like that. In the end, we’re sitting in the cars…”
As a rule of thumb, then, the intention was to change tyres as soon as practicable, to get rid of the set that had run in Q3. Medium and soft were the compounds brought by Pirelli on this occasion, and of course the top 10 drivers necessarily started on soft. Button, though, hadn’t made it to Q3, and was therefore able to take a different tack, and start on the medium tyres.
Although the start was reasonably straightforward, there was chaos at La Source, as invariably there is on lap one. Senna, sadly, undid all his good work in qualifying by slamming hard in Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso, which had started an impressive sixth. And behind them cars started bouncing off one another.
“I got a terrible start,” said Webber. “The anti-stall kicked in, and I thought I’d get passed by about 30 cars – but fortunately most of them hit each other at the first corner…”
The sensation at the start was Rosberg, who came out of La Source with only Vettel ahead of him, and on the long climb to Les Combes – the designated ‘DRS Zone’ at this track – Nico was able to take the lead quite easily.
This was to become a phenomenon of the afternoon. Some are in favour of DRS, and some are not, but either way there was no doubt that at Spa the zone was too long, making overtaking too straightforward. Any driver leading another narrowly out of Eau Rouge was like a tethered goat. On lap three Vettel took back the lead from Rosberg in exactly the same way, and we would see it time and again throughout the race.
Sebastian immediately began to pull away, but after five laps was into the pits, keen to get rid of that first set of tyres. Webber, indeed, had stopped a couple of laps earlier than that, as had Button, who had had his required run on the medium Pirellis, and wanted to be on the soft ones as soon as possible.
In the first part of the race, though, the man really going motor racing was Alonso. From his eighth grid position Fernando was up into fifth by the end of the first lap, and on the second he got by Hamilton. By lap six he had also passed Massa and Rosberg, and that – given that Vettel had pitted by now – took the Ferrari into the lead.
Alonso made his first stop on lap eight, and that briefly put Hamilton into the lead – until he came in on lap 10. Briefly Rosberg was now in front once more, but in a staggering demonstration of his confidence in the Red Bull – and in his own abilities – Vettel passed the Mercedes on the outside at flat-out Blanchimont…
That was a move to make you doubt your own eyes – and there had been another a couple of laps earlier. As Alonso accelerated down the hill to Eau Rouge, immediately after his stop, Webber was closing on him – and going into the first, left-hand swerve, he went by! No one could ever remember a pass – a competitive pass – being made here in any F1 race at Spa, and it said much for both drivers that the moment didn’t end in tears.
“Yeah,” Mark agreed, “it takes two guys for that situation to work out OK. Fernando’s a great driver, and he’s also smart enough to know when enough’s enough. Believe me, there are a lot of guys I wouldn’t have tried that with…”
On lap 13 Hamilton, running fifth behind Kobayashi’s Sauber (which had not yet made a stop), overtook – DRS again – on the hill, but as they approached Les Combes Kamui closed again, and was almost alongside (on the outside) as they reached the turn-in point.
Perhaps Lewis had not expected the Sauber still to be close at hand. Whatever, he steered slightly left, giving himself the ideal line into the corner – and the cars touched. At once the McLaren pitched into the guard rail more or less head on, and when it came to rest there was initially no movement from the driver. Eventually Hamilton stirred, and removed the steering wheel, but he seemed shaky as he stepped out, another to rejoice in the strength of the contemporary Grand Prix car.
As soon as the safety car was deployed, Vettel dived straight into the pits, and really this put his victory beyond doubt, for when they were given the signal to go again, three laps later, he was on new tyres, where his rivals were not. Although Alonso led them away again, it wasn’t long before Vettel was able to DRS him on the long hill. And once into the lead anew, Sebastian pulled easily clear.
His team-mate might, who knows, have been able to go with him had he, too, stopped for tyres as the safety car came out. “I radioed in,” said Webber, “saying that I wanted to come in, but I never heard anything back…” As it was, Mark had to run a very long stint on his second set of tyres.
The final round of pitstops, at which most drivers were required to take the slower, medium compound tyres, began on lap 29, with Alonso followed by Vettel on 30 and Webber on 31. On lap 32 Button, who had been making striking progress, was also in – but he of course had started the race on the medium tyres, and was therefore able to stay with the soft ones.
On lap 37 Webber passed Alonso again, this time less dramatically (DRS on the hill) than before, and began slightly to close on Vettel. But the pattern was now set, and the Red Bulls simply swept on to the finish. Alonso, meantime, had no answer for the soft-tyred Button, who moved by – yes, DRS again – on lap 42, thereby claiming the last spot on the podium.
The other talking point in the late laps concerned the Mercedes drivers. Schumacher, having started from the back, indeed drove an extremely good race at this track he loves, and was up to sixth, behind team-mate Rosberg. We began to wonder if ‘team orders’ – now fully legal again, of course – might come into the reckoning…
Finally there came a message on the radio: ‘Nico, we need you to save some fuel…’ Given that three of the 44 laps had been run behind the safety car, that seemed a touch unlikely, but Rosberg duly acquiesced, and the Mercedes hierarchy had the finishing order it perhaps preferred…
Three races – Silverstone, the Nürburgring, the Hungaroring – had gone by since the last Red Bull victory, and some had begun to wonder if perhaps a little of the earlier magic had been lost. On the strength of Spa, they should not put too much store by that theory. “The car,” said Vettel, “was simply fantastic today – maybe the best it’s been all season…”
Button, meantime, was left to ponder how different his race might have been, had it not been for that ‘communication’ mistake in qualifying…