Supposing they staged a World Championship, and nobody wanted it? Twelve rounds into the 2009 season, that’s how it is starting to look. The Belgian Grand Prix, won by Kimi Raikkonen, produced the sixth different winner in six races, and the first victory for Ferrari in 2009. Championship leader Jenson Button was eliminated on the opening lap, but his points lead – 16 – remains healthy, if not comfortable, with five races to go, and as someone said afterwards, “At this rate, all Jenson’s got to do is sit in the motorhome, and he’ll still be World Champion…”
Well, maybe, maybe not. The fact remains, though, that no one is mounting a consistent challenge to Button – even though his own results have lately been lamentable. After winning six of the first seven Grands Prix, he hasn’t so much as made the podium in the last five – but during that time none of his rivals has won more than once.
Raikkonen’s victory in Belgium may have been unexpected, but he has always shone at this circuit, even during otherwise dormant periods. “I’ve always been very good here,” he said afterwards. “Spa is a proper, old-fashioned, circuit, and it just seems to suit me.”
It’s fair to say that this time around he did not have the quickest car, and needed to rely a good deal on his KERS to keep the Ferrari in front. But Kimi’s opposition came not from a Red Bull or a Brawn, but… a Force India.
When the mood is on him, and his car is to his taste, Giancarlo Fisichella’s considerable natural talent is matched by his work ethic, and it was just so at Spa last weekend. “We had a new aero package in Valencia,” he said, “and it was good, already worth six-tenths a lap. We came here with the same package, but with a Spa wing, and the car was quick out of the truck. In practice it felt good, and in qualifying, too – and of course Spa is one of my favourite circuits.”
Even before race day it had been weirdest weekend anyone could remember. Over time there has been many an unexpected grid, but invariably this has been due to erratic weather, as at Suzuka in 2005, when three superstars – Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso – started well towards the back, and then made fantastic progress through the field. On the very last lap Raikkonen took the lead from the man who had started from pole.
That was Fisichella, then driving for Renault. And at Spa it was again Giancarlo who qualified fastest. It is a fact that Force India’s overall level of competitiveness has gone up considerably in 2009, thanks to a deal done with McLaren at the end of the last season. Essentially, the ‘back end’ of the car (including gearbox) is McLaren technology, and at the same time Force India went from Ferrari to Mercedes engines. Even so, the cars have remained towards the back of the pack, and none could have anticipated a pole position for Fisichella – who was offered at odds of 150/1 before qualifying started.
It came at a good time for both team and driver. There have been murmurs in the paddock of… bills still to be paid, let’s put it that way. As for Giancarlo, the word at Spa was that he will partner Raikkonen in the Ferrari team at Monza; there is, after all, no point whatever in the team’s continuing with Luca Badoer (slowest of all at Spa, as at Valencia), and Fisichella assuredly offers a safe pair of hands before a home crowd.
After the race he declined to comment on the rumours, but of course, if it comes, it will be an offer no Italian can turn down. That said, Giancarlo may have mixed emotions, for undeniably his Force India was the quickest car at Spa, and had there not been two-lap ‘safety car period’ (following a multiple shunt on lap one, which eliminated not only Button, but also Lewis Hamilton, Romain Grosjean and Jaime Alguersuari), he would almost certainly have scored a remarkable victory. By the time the safety car was deployed, he had put himself out of Raikkonen’s reach, but on the restart Kimi put the KERS to good use on the climb after Eau Rouge, and zapped by Fisichella, not even troubling to tow him.
Thereafter the pair were never separated by more than a second, but although both acknowledged the superiority of the Force India, Fisichella was helpless in the Ferrari’s ‘dirty air’, and on the hill – traditionally the main overtaking spot at Spa – Raikkonen had KERS to keep him safe.
If there was sympathy for Fisichella, however, there was pleasure in the continuing resurrection of Raikkonen, who won for the first time in nearly 18 months. Probably it has come too late to save his Ferrari drive in 2010, but at least it served as a reminder to such as McLaren and Williams that he can still deliver when he feels like it.
Third in the Belgian Grand Prix was Sebastian Vettel, pleased to have scored some decent points after a lean spell of late. “We got more points than the other championship contenders, and took six points out of Jenson, so that’s good. I was probably too cautious in the early laps, but in the second and third segments the car was fantastic, I must say. I think we should be really competitive at Monza – the Red Bull works really well at low-downforce circuits. This championship isn’t over yet, no way…”
Out of the points, as at Valencia, was Vettel’s team mate, Webber, who was punished with a ‘drive through’ after almost tangling with Heidfeld’s BMW in the pit lane. “I was released by the team, and did as I was told,” Mark said. “Unfortunately that meant a penalty, and after that the whole afternoon was damage limitation, quite honestly…”
Rubens Barrichello, the winner in Valencia, finished seventh this time around. “At the start,” he said, “my car went into anti-stall – and didn’t move. This has happened several times, and we need to sort it out. After that, I was near the back, and just drove as hard as I could. In the last few laps my engine was smoking badly – I prayed for it to stay together, and fortunately it did. Not a great day, but I’m two points closer to Jenson…”
Not a great weekend for Brawn, then, but again Barrichello had much the upper hand on Button, qualifying fourth, 10 places higher. McLaren, too, had a dispiriting time of it, neither Hamilton nor Kovalainen making it through to Q1. “I didn’t think we’d be quickest here,” Lewis commented, “but I thought we’d be higher up than this. We were slow in sector two of the lap – but also slow in a straight line, so we couldn’t afford to put on any more wing…”
There was remarkably little difference in overall performance between Bridgestone’s compounds this weekend, the softer of the two compounds offering more grip, the harder more stability. Depending on the circuit, the temperature, the set-up, how a car uses its off-the-peg Bridgestones determines its success at a given weekend. At Spa there was no doubt that Force India were ahead of the rest. If only it hadn’t been for that restart…