It wasn’t a classic Belgian Grand Prix by any means, but Spa – by its very nature – always provides talking points aplenty, and this year’s race was no exception.
The one aspect never really in doubt – after the first 10 seconds, anyway – was that Jenson Button, starting from pole position, was going to win. At the flag he had 13 seconds on Sebastian Vettel and 25 on Kimi Räikkönen, having made 44 laps of Spa look easy. “To win at this very special circuit, leading from lights to flag, is very special,” he said, and so it was.
After the sort of up-and-down season he has had, Button really needed an afternoon like this. Perhaps it might have been less straightforward had World Championship leader Fernando Alonso and Jenson’s team-mate Lewis Hamilton not been eliminated in a massive accident – caused by Romain Grosjean – at La Source, the first corner after the start. As it was, his main opposition came ultimately from Vettel, but Sebastian was never able to get on terms, having qualified poorly, and then lost further places in the aftermath of the shunt.
Alonso may have cursed his luck at Spa, being utterly blameless in the accident which put him out, but in a couple of respects he was very fortunate. First – overwhelmingly – Grosjean’s Lotus missed the cockpit when it flew over the top of the Ferrari; two, Vettel was the only one of Alonso’s major championship rivals to make serious inroads into his points lead. As the teams now immediately head for Monza, Fernando still heads the table by 24 points.
The weather may have been splendid over the weekend at Spa-Francorchamps, but on Friday it was appalling – as bad as anyone could remember in this capricious part of the world. It was pouring down when we arrived at the circuit, and it was pouring down when we left. In between times there had been very little action on the track, a source of some frustration to the sodden spectators, who had paid not a little to come in.
Saturday, though, was September 1, so August was blessedly behind us, and in celebration perhaps Spa bathed in a perfect early autumn day. As soon as the morning session began, a lot of cars were out on the circuit, for Friday had been effectively lost, and there was far less time than usual for set-up work.
Alonso was fastest on Saturday morning, but doubted that his Ferrari could compete for pole position. He was right about that, but in the end was not dissatisfied with sixth on the grid: “In fact, it’s our average qualifying place this season, so no surprise. Usually we go better on Sunday than Saturday, so we can be reasonably confident about the race – although I think a win is impossible this weekend. Because of the rain on Friday, no one has any data, so it was impossible to optimise the car. A lot of my closest rivals are starting behind me, and Kimi’s not that far in front – if this result could be repeated in the race, honestly I’d sign for it now!” Little did he know…
Ferrari brought a lot of new aerodynamic bits to Spa, which they were unable properly to test on Friday, and McLaren, too, had updates, which included a new rear wing. On Saturday morning both drivers tried it, but whereas Hamilton had his doubts, and decided to stick with the old wing (as used in Hungary, where Lewis won), Button thought it potentially an improvement, and opted to use it for qualifying.
It was – clearly – the right decision, for while Lewis qualified eighth, Jenson took a superb pole position, his first since Monaco in 2009. “It seems so long ago that this feels like a win,” he said. “I’m surprised the new wing is working so well – consistency was good throughout qualifying, but the race is a bit of an unknown quantity, because no one has done any long runs…”
Hamilton was dismayed after qualifying. “The new wing didn’t seem to be working well on Saturday morning, and we decided the old one would be a safer option. In fact, Jenson’s shown the new one to be very good indeed – our side of the garage was a bit unlucky…”
Not for the first time one was struck by Jenson’s use of ‘I’ and Lewis’s use of ‘we’, suggesting again that one seems more confident than the other in making decisions on his own.
If emotions at McLaren were mixed after qualifying, at Red Bull they were uniformly downbeat. Having needed a post-Budapest gearbox change, Webber knew before he started that he had a five-place grid penalty, and he was therefore doubly disappointed to set only seventh best time. “I’d like to have been higher to take the sting out of the penalty,” Mark said, “I was pretty happy with my lap, but realistically I think P5 would have been our maximum today…”
In qualifying at least, the car apparently lacked pace at Spa, and Vettel – who, remarkably, failed to get into Q3 – seemed to confirm that. Like Webber, he’d felt happy with his lap: “The car felt good, and nothing was obviously wrong – but we just weren’t quick enough…”
Very definitely quick enough, though, were the Saubers, with Perez qualifying fifth – “I wasn’t happy with my last lap, which should have been quicker” – and Kobayashi joining Button, no less, on the front row! “I really didn’t expect second on the grid,” Kamui said. “Our car is normally quick in the races, but not so good in qualifying, so now… starting so near the front, I am feeling confident about the race, but I’m not going to take any risks…”
Right behind Kobayashi, and underlining his raw speed once again, was Maldonado, very happy with his Williams – but much less happy when informed he would be docked three places on the grid for ‘impeding’ the Force India of Hulkenberg. Pastor was one of three drivers to start lower than they qualified. Webber, as we said, was five places down – from seventh to 12th, thanks to his gearbox change, and Rosberg suffered the same penalty for the same reason. Even worse for Nico, he had the problem at the very start of the Saturday morning session, and so missed all of it – which put him into qualifying without a single dry lap to his name. Perhaps not surprisingly, he set only 18th best time, which meant he would start 23rd.
Not a good weekend for Mercedes, this, for Michael Schumacher, starting his 300th Grand Prix at the circuit he loves best in the world, qualified only 13th. Hardly the celebration he would have wanted.
By the time Charlie Whiting flicked the red lights off to start the Belgian Grand Prix, Maldonado was already well on his way, but the Williams’s over-eager start – Pastor claimed that the clutch ‘slipped out of his hand’ – played no part, save perhaps unsettling other drivers, in the carnage that was to come at La Source. However, Maldonado was punished by the stewards, to the tune of five grid positions at the next race, Monza.
What happened was that Grosjean chopped across from left to right, leaving Hamilton a gap between the Lotus and the wall that was narrower than a McLaren. At once the two cars tangled, after which Grosjean’s flew over the top of Alonso’s Ferrari, which had been minding its own business, trying to keep clear of trouble.
Nor was the accident yet over for Fernando; immediately following the assault from Grosjean’s Renault, the Ferrari immediately was struck hard – and pitched into the air – by Hamilton’s damaged McLaren. Alonso wasn’t impressed by Grosjean’s behaviour: “Twelve starts, seven accidents…”
Clearly Romain needs to sit down and take stock. His fundamental talent is huge, but when the red lights go out his commonsense seems to desert him, and his driving on Sunday was simply idiotic: had experience not taught him that La Source on the first lap is a matter of survival, nothing more or less?
Anyway, yet another of Grosjean’s 2012 Grands Prix was over almost before it had begun, and he took with him Alonso, Hamilton and also Perez, whose Sauber was also damaged beyond immediate repair. After the race the stewards announced a one-race ban (plus a fine of 50,000 Euros) for Grosjean (such as was awarded, in less culpable circumstances, to Mika Hakkinen back in 1994), and if missing Monza gives Romain the opportunity to reflect, it will have served a good purpose.
The track surface was predictably showered with debris, and there are always concerns when cars have to go through it, for carbon shards can be like razor blades. The safety car came out immediately, and for three laps they trailed around behind it, in the order: Button, Räikkönen, Hulkenberg, di Resta, Schumacher and Ricciardo.
At the start of lap five they got the signal to go again, and at once Button put a marker down, pulling out 2.8 seconds in a single lap over Hulkenberg, who had got by Räikkönen. Nico looked in excellent shape at this point, for he, together with Rosberg, had started on the hard Pirellis, with everyone else on the mediums.
Maldonado’s already dramatic afternoon came to a swift end on lap five. Having picked up a puncture, he pitted for fresh tyres, but then lost no time in colliding with Glock’s Marussia. Pastor’s inherent pace is beyond dispute, but that display at Barcelona now seems like a long time ago.
While Button calmly disappeared into a race of his own, the man on the move behind him was Vettel, fighting his way through from 11th on the restart. Seb was in the mood to go racing, and picked off car after car on the approach to the Bus Stop chicane at the end of the lap. On lap nine indeed he very nearly had a coming-together with team-mate Webber, but both survived.
Hulkenberg’s pace on the hard Pirellis prompted Force India to bring di Resta in early, on lap 10, to put him on the same, and it was clear that all the front-runners would be following suit.
“We really weren’t sure about strategy before the race,” Button said afterwards. “We were playing it by ear – one stop? Two? Three maybe? In a way, I was lucky, though – it’s always easier to control tyre degradation when you’re leading, rather than chasing…”
Once the first stops had been made, all the significant runners were on the hard tyres, and the situation now was that Button led Räikkönen by a comfortable nine seconds, with Hulkenberg a further four seconds behind, then Webber, Massa and Vettel.
In the end, though, Button distanced himself from Vettel, and Seb distanced himself from the rest, and the pair of them achieved this by virtue stopping only once for tyres, and making the hard Pirellis last longer than their rivals, all of whom pitted twice.
Not a Spa classic, then, but for all that a race of memorable moments, not the least of which was Räikkönen’s fantastic pass of Schumacher, no less, at the entry to Eau Rouge on lap 34. “The car wasn’t very nice to drive today,” Kimi said afterwards. “It was OK on new tyres, but otherwise I was struggling for grip, and I didn’t seem to have full power – even with DRS, I couldn’t pass Schumacher on the straight, so I had to try something else, take a risk, and it worked…”
There was also an extraordinary moment at the Bus Stop chicane when Vettel came up to pass Schumacher for second place. Michael was to the left, and as they went through the chicane side by side, he simply drove across the bows of the Red Bull – and straight into the pits. Sebastian rather charitably described this as, “A moment of confusion for Michael…”
Vettel still has only one victory to his name in 2012, but – having started out of the top 10 – he was well pleased with his second place, not least because it brought him back to second place in the World Championship again. “I really didn’t expect the tyres to last so well,” he said. “One stop seemed out of the question, but in the end it was not a big problem. I’m happy with the result today.”
Not as happy as Jenson, though. “In the past Spa hasn’t been my luckiest circuit, but I just love it – I always have. Yeah, I know Eau Rouge is easy flat in these cars, but still it’s an amazing corner, in the sense of the g-forces you feel through there… It’s an amazing place – there’s so much history here, and it feels so good to be part of that now…”