After taking pole position – his fourth on the trot – for the Belgian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton admitted he was surprised to find he had done it. On a track drying out quickly after a quick shower, he nicked it from Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, but if that were gratifying, he was under few illusions about race day. “I hope we can fight for it tomorrow,” he said, “but I still feel the Red Bulls are ahead…”
Hamilton was on the mark – about one of the Red Bulls, anyway. Lewis’s Mercedes led away, but, as he said, through Eau Rouge Vettel caught him ‘massively’, and up the hill to Les Combes he was helpless to keep the Red Bull back. “Once I was past,” Sebastian said, “we had fantastic pace – incredible pace – and were able to control the race, and we didn’t expect that…”
So it was that Vettel, newly dyed hair and all, won the Belgian Grand Prix, the 31st victory of his F1 career. In so doing he extended his World Championship lead to 46 points, no less, moving ever closer to that fourth title.
Sebastian was keen to stress that, no, it wasn’t all over, that this time last year he had been a similar number of points behind Alonso, yet was able to overhaul him before season’s end, and Fernando said that that gave him hope, as well. The difference is that in 2012 he led the championship in far from the fastest car, and was always going to be vulnerable to the Asian streak that Vettel always seems to get going in the autumn. Sebastian was indeed playing catch-up – but doing it in a quantifiably quicker car; this time around he comfortably leads the point standings – and still has the quickest car. The championship may, who knows, still be up for grabs at Interlagos in November, but at the moment that is not the way to bet.
Roundly beaten, like everyone else, Alonso nevertheless finished second at Spa, and afterwards said he felt happy with the way the weekend had gone. While there was nothing he could do about Vettel’s Red Bull, he had the measure of everyone else, finishing second after qualifying only ninth.
This was not, in point of fact, a true reflection of his Ferrari’s competitiveness. Q3 was run in mixed conditions, and while Hamilton and the Red Bulls were out at the right time (the very end of the session, when the track swiftly began to dry), the Ferraris were not.
For all that, Alonso said before the race that he was very confident of a good race. “I can see signs of progress here. Some of the new components are maybe not too obvious, but we have taken some steps in developing the car, and we feel very positive. Forgetting Q3, Ferrari have been fighting for the top positions in each session, and I’m sure that in the race – whatever conditions we have – we will have a good pace.”
So he did – as long as you left Vettel’s Red Bull out of the equation. This was one of those rare years when everyone made it through La Source unscathed, and Fernando was at his opportunistic best on the opening lap, coming over the line in fifth place, having overtaken Räikkönen, Grosjean, di Resta and Webber. Thereafter he picked off Button on lap three, Rosberg on lap six and Hamilton – after the first stops – on lap 14.
“Today,” said Fernando, “we got back some of the optimism we’d recently lost. We had to recover some places after starting so far back and actually it was a bit boring after we got into second place because by then Sebastian was so far ahead, and there was no one close behind me…”
Alonso was right. In absolute terms, this was one of the least eventful races at Spa on record. “When the car works so well at such a fantastic track,” said Vettel, “you don’t want the race to finish…” He wasn’t necessarily speaking for everyone.
Hamilton and Nico Rosberg finished third and fourth for Mercedes, less than three seconds apart, but although Lewis never looked like repeating his Hungaroring victory, he wasn’t too downhearted afterwards. “It was a tough race,” he conceded. “I must say I’d thought that if race day was dry we were in for a difficult time from Red Bull, of course, but also –after seeing their long run pace in practice – from Ferrari. Our car seems to be less good on low-downforce circuits like Spa, and we may struggle a bit at Monza, too – I reckon we’ll be more back on the pace at Singapore. We’ve made progress, I think, but the other guys have made more than we have. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Although Hamilton has invariably excelled at Spa, last year he was comprehensively blown away by McLaren team-mate Button, who had one of his unstoppable weekends. No one needs to be reminded of the dreadful season the team has had, but at this circuit he adores Jenson was in superb form, and pleased to report that McLaren had indeed made some progress with its difficult car. Sixth in qualifying, sixth in the race, may not have been earth-shattering, but at least Button was vaguely in the mix this time, and it had been a while.
In a way the most startling fact of the Belgian Grand Prix was that Räikkönen’s Lotus failed to finish, thus breaking a sequence which began with his return to F1 at the beginning of the 2012 season. From very early in the race Kimi was troubled by brakes, which were running too hot, and not offering much in the way of retardation. Eventually, trying to pass Felipe Massa’s Ferrari at the Bus Stop, he found himself completely brakeless, went over the chicane, and retired soon afterwards. A big blow to Raikkonen’s title aspirations, this, for both Vettel and Alonso scored well.
For much of Q3 it had looked likely that Paul di Resta’s Force India would be starting from pole position. As the last part of qualifying began there was rain in the air, and whereas the rest went out initially on slicks, Paul and his team opted to use intermediates from the outset. It looked an inspired decision, too, for swiftly the weather worsened, and while his rivals slithered around, then dashed in for intermediates after a single (unfinished) lap, di Resta was able to set a time. As the rain continued to get worse, it was clear that no one could equal it, but unfortunately for Force India conditions then suddenly, significantly, improved again in the last couple of minutes, and Paul slipped from first to fifth. Still, it was a great starting position, but in the race he fell foul of Pastor Maldonado’s Williams in a mix-up at the Bus Stop, and that was that. Team-mate Adrian Sutil salvaged something for the team with ninth place.
Before the race started proceedings were enlivened by members of Greenpeace, who parachuted down onto the roof of the grandstand on the start/finish straight, and proceeded to hang down banners protesting against oil excavation in the arctic. The title sponsor of the Belgian Grand Prix is, of course, Shell.
Clearly these people were very well organised, and had put much thought and preparation into their protests. The FOM-controlled TV cameras stayed well away from the pre-start goings-on, but nothing could be done to sidestep those after the finish, for these were displayed on the victory podium, suddenly looming into sight in front of the drivers. Clearly these elaborate posters must have been in situ for some little time, which was amazing, given that the security at Spa is ordinarily off the clock, in terms of the police closing roads, and so on. “Heads will roll for this,” someone in the press room muttered, and no one was inclined to disagree.
In between these protests we had the Belgian Grand Prix, which was thankfully free of serious accident – but also, unfortunately, largely free of incident and excitement, too. As soon as Vettel was past Hamilton, the game looked to be over. Sebastian led Lewis by 1.4 seconds at the end of the opening lap, and next time round that had doubled. Lewis, pole position man or not, had nothing for the Red Bull, and although Ferrari came back strongly at Spa, with Alonso best of the rest, no one is betting a dime against Vettel’s fourth championship.
“We… had a bit of pace in hand,” said Sebastian, “so we could control the race.” Indeed he did. With a dozen laps to go, his race engineer got on the radio to him: “Open the gap to Alonso – there could be rain coming…” In fact, the rain never materialised, but Vettel duly obliged with a new fastest lap next time round, and on lap 40 – four from the flag – he did it again. Just for the hell of it, just because he could.