Belgian Grand Prix – day three


The clock has yet to strike seven, but human traffic stretches a long way from the circuit’s main gate towards the village of Francorchamps, wherein the bakeries are already attracting significant custom. It’s a tiny raceday snapshot, but it underlines why the Belgian Grand Prix matters. The start might be almost a full working day away, but the atmosphere is tangible. You don’t get that in Bahrain.

It’s just as well that the race isn’t imminent, because the track is cloaked in regulation Ardennes mist and the medical helicopter – long part of the sport’s furniture – would be grounded in such circumstances. The signature ascent from Eau Rouge to Raidillon lies close to the F1 paddock, but will remain barely visible for another hour or so. Close by the media centre’s entrance, the security guard – someone with whom I’ve been on conversational terms since the mid-1980s – offers a useful piece of meteorological advice. “If you can see the trees opposite the old pits,” he says, “it means there is rain on the way. If you can’t see them, it must already be raining.” Such is Spa’s microclimate that weather forecasts are largely a waste of time: we awoke to tales of probable thunderstorms, but the threat diminished as the race drew closer.

The outlook was somewhat brighter for Mercedes reserve Sam Bird, who on Saturday converted pole position into his fourth GP2 victory of the campaign. With the championship’s top two Stefano Coletti and Felipe Nasr failing to score – Nasr after ramming team-mate Jolyon Palmer at La Source, ruining the fifth-placed Englishman’s chances of a strong finish – Bird edged closer to title contention. Domination on that scale is relatively rare in GP2, but Bird described his Russian Time Dallara as “the best it has been all season”. Compatriot James Calado might have joined him on the podium, but a jammed wheel compromised his tyre stop and he dropped to eighth – which at least gave him pole for Sunday’s sprint. He went on to score his first win of the year, taming a poorly balanced car to head Julian Leal and Adrian Quaife-Hobbs across the line, with Palmer climbing from 15th to sixth. Bird had a more difficult time, slipping back on the opening lap and complaining about a misfire en route to 14th. With Coletti and Nasr again failing to feature, though, he is fourth in the standings, 14 points off the series lead with six races remaining. Calado lies fifth, a further 10 adrift.

British F3 champion Jack Harvey’s GP3 title hopes took a knock on Saturday, when he cut across rival Carlos Sainz Jr’s bows and had a sizeable accident on the approach to Les Combes, causing the race to be neutralised for a third time. It meant an all-nighter for the ART mechanics and earned Harvey a 10-place penalty that condemned him to the back for Sunday’s sprint, won by compatriot Alexander Sims – who received a late call to return to the series with Carlin. Harvey retired after a bright start and lies 40 points behind Argentine Facu Regalia, who moved into the series lead last weekend at the expense of Cypriot Tio Ellinas.

The Union Flag was less prominent in the Porsche Supercup, because Brit Sean Edwards races with a Monaco licence, but he finished second and continues to lead the championship.

A different set of colours was unfurled shortly before the Grand Prix started, when several Greenpeace activists parachuted in to lower a banner from the roof of a pit straight grandstand. They were asking race sponsor Shell to cease its pursuit of Arctic oil, but few protests can have created quite so little impact at an event of this stature. F1’s in-house TV crew – which directs race coverage – broadcast no images at all… and by the time the main banner was visible (during the final formation lap), most photographers had long since disappeared to focus on the start. There was a lot of elaborate calculation for what seemed an initially poor return, but the banner was still hanging at the end. An attempt was also made to hijack the post-race ceremony with carefully placed posters that popped up – hence the booing you might have heard – but the TV director again kept it out of shot. You have to say, though, that Greenpeace could teach some F1 teams a thing or two about planning, because it’s hard to get anywhere near the podium even when you have a paddock pass. A Greenpeace press release revealed that they had surreptitiously been installed several weeks beforehand.

As you’ll be able to read in Nigel Roebuck’s report elsewhere on the site, the race was a touch less complex – notwithstanding Pastor Maldonado’s attempt to launch Paul di Resta towards Brussels, or Kimi Räikkönen’s first race retirement since Germany 2009 – but Sebastian Vettel’s fans will have appreciated the outcome and his extended, 46-point championship lead.

You sometimes see quiet races at Spa, but it’s too grand a theatre for that to dilute the spectacle.

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