He did it again. Daniel Ricciardo, the shark who scents blood, took advantage of Mercedes dramas for the third time this season with yet another wonderful victory drive, attacking yet faultless.
The blood he homed in on was bad – and was trailing from the shattered unity at Mercedes after a highly charged passing attempt by Nico Rosberg on Lewis Hamilton’s lead made for a collision that’s created ructions in the team. But it’s unfair the Mercedes controversy should overshadow the quality of the winner’s drive.
“We knew he was good when we signed him,” said Christian Horner of his triple race winner, “knew he was very fast. But in all honesty we didn’t realise he was this good – and his confidence is sky-high at the moment. It was an extraordinary drive.” He pulled out 15sec in 30 laps over team-mate Sebastian Vettel – and was easier on his tyres too. He was using up less of the track than Seb, making it look effortless. He puts himself in place to make ruthless capital out of any trouble ahead, locks like a heat-seeking missile onto opportunity.
Then, as the faster Mercedes of the recovering Rosberg came back at him in the closing stages, his steely discipline in taking only as much out of the tyres as he needed, of hitting the lap time he’d been told would just about keep Rosberg off his back, was deeply impressive. Then, just to show he had it all in hand, he reeled off his personal best at the end – 0.5sec faster than his tyre-conserving pace had been.
What Ricciardo’s remarkable run of form is doing, of course, is increasing the strain in the Mercedes camp. There’s an outside chance of a title tilt from the Red Bull driver – which, given the performance superiority of Mercedes this year, would be ridiculous.
The competitive tension between the two Mercedes drivers was finally made physical at Spa – and Ricciardo’s formidable performance ruthlessly maximised the penalty of that; which in turn has increased the load on that brittle Rosberg-Hamilton dynamic all the more.
Mercedes’ post-Hungary discussions were an element of the Spa weekend and played their part in the mood of the team and the tension. Rosberg had been dissatisfied with the ‘resolution’ reached about future team instructions policy, Hamilton pleased. In a Saturday morning meeting at Spa about Hungary’s ramifications, Rosberg was reportedly still furious – which Hamilton claimed to find amusing.
But it had been Rosberg who’d delivered his usual composed qualifying performance to take a clear pole around a wet Spa, Hamilton who’d not been able to keep his brake temperatures in the cool conditions, suffering a glazed front left brake disc and as a result ran wide at Stavelot on his final qualifying lap – losing him the narrow advantage he’d built up over Rosberg on the lap prior to that. Advantage Rosberg.
That was overcome by how much better Hamilton’s start was – enough to get him cleanly into the lead even in the short run to La Source. Lewis’ prospects seemed to be getting better by the second too: Vettel aggressively punished Rosberg’s slow start to run his Red Bull around the outside of that first hairpin, thereby putting a slower car between the two Mercs.
All Lewis had to do now, it seemed, was fend off the trimmed-out Red Bull, prevent Seb from using the slipstream up through Eau Rouge and Radillon onto the long 200mph drag up to Les Combes. Where it all went wrong for Lewis in hindsight was in Vettel’s optimistic braking point for Les Combes as he tried to make that move work. Forced to take to the run-off area, Seb at that moment surrendered second to Rosberg.
Had Vettel not failed to take that third gear zig-zag he’d have been holding Rosberg up badly through the high speed twists of sector two in a car running so little wing – and Hamilton would have escaped the aggressive attentions of his team-mate on the next lap.
The internal resonances at Mercedes of the lap two interface between Rosberg’s right front wing and Hamilton’s left rear tyre are of course considerable. The external ‘noise’ and controversy are already massive. But the incident itself looked relatively tame – a hamfisted attempt by Rosberg at going around the outside that he refused to surrender.
Hamilton later claimed that Rosberg had admitted in the debrief that he could have avoided it but chose not to – that he kept his nose there to prove a point. If there was a point Rosberg was looking to prove, it goes back to Bahrain, where Rosberg considered Hamilton’s robust defence of the lead – forcing Nico to back out of it to avoid contact – to be out of order. It was probably significant that Rosberg singled out Bahrain in his public comments here even whilst refusing to fully address the Les Combes incident.
“It’s fair to say the team had one view of the incident and Nico had another,” said a Mercedes spokesman. “Lewis’s comments about what Nico said in the debrief are largely accurate.”
The public criticism of Rosberg by both Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda reflected the loss of what would have been a 1-2 dominant even by Mercedes W05 standards. The car’s strengths were amplified by the demands of Spa. Instead Hamilton retired and Rosberg’s enforced early first stop for a new nose restricted him to second.
As Wolff talked about internal sanctions, the reality was that this is exactly the sort of incident that will unfold between properly competitive racing drivers fighting wheel-to-wheel for a world title. It’s natural, and permissible, for a driver in the lead to cut across the bows of the guy behind if that guy has not got sufficiently alongside to make that impossible.
It requires the guy behind to back off to avoid an accident – exactly what Rosberg did in Bahrain and on the last lap in Hungary. It’s equally acceptable for the guy behind to refuse to back out of it, to risk a collision rather than back down – which is what Rosberg apparently chose to do on this occasion. From a racing perspective there isn’t a good guy or bad guy here; it’s just racing. From the team’s perspective there definitely is – and the bad guy isn’t Hamilton.
The stormy downpour 40 minutes before qualifying meant intermediates for everyone in all three sessions as the Spa weather played its capricious tricks. Occasional follow-up rainfall kept the track from ever reaching the critical changeover to slicks territory.
The Mercedes advantage was exaggerated by the conditions because: 1) it adversely affected the competitiveness of the Williams which in the dry looked formidable and 2) it further punished the extremely low downforce settings forced upon Red Bull by the car’s otherwise lack of straightline speed. End result: Mercedes 2.2sec faster than the best of the rest – a lot even for the longest track on the calendar.
Rosberg’s calm control of his environment in tricky, ever-changing conditions was textbook. Hamilton allowing himself to fall victim to brake glazing in conditions where that’s always a high risk ultimately cost him the opportunity of pole. But he was at least on the front row for the first time since Canada.
After losing all of P2 to a burnt-out wiring loom, Vettel strung together the best lap of the tight group comprising Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams. Red Bull had played the ratio change joker – going for a wholesale shorter set of gears than those chosen pre-season, as the Renault motor still does not have the grunt that was anticipated when the Spa/Monza-defining gearing choice was made.
Furthermore, in order to have a car that was not a sitting duck on the straights, Red Bull stripped it of a lot of its wing, making it gripless through the middle sector but at least competitive in the passing zones.
Ferrari tried a similar set-up in practice with Fernando Alonso but opted instead for a relatively high downforce arrangement. This was made feasible by recent improvements in the heat efficiency of the engine. Wrapping the exhausts in insulating material ensured more of the heat was devoted to spinning the turbo and less to melting the bodywork. It’s given Ferrari an extra 8bhp.
The higher downforce set-up came to Alonso’s rescue with the rain, allowing him to slot in fourth, just ahead of Ricciardo’s Red Bull which took a wild eighth gear ride across the Blanchimont runoff on its last lap. His sector one and two times – quicker than Vettel’s – suggested he’d have qualified third otherwise.
The Williams FW36 is rarely as competitive in the wet as the dry, its relative lack of rear downforce and its tyre temperature sensitivity seeming to hurt it. Valtteri Bottas took his to sixth quickest, disappointing after he’d headed Saturday morning practice with a time that only the Mercedes drivers bettered all weekend – and only by 0.3sec.
Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren was around 1sec off Vettel and Alonso, good for seventh fastest and putting him ahead of Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari and Felipe Massa’s Williams. The latter was another who’d allowed his brake discs to glaze. Jenson Button’s McLaren rounded out the shootout qualifiers.
Jules Bianchi got the Marussia into Q2 with a bit of help from Esteban Gutiérrez’s Sauber breaking down and Force India’s Nico Hülkenberg messing up under braking into the chicane on both his last two laps. André Lotterer made a good job of his F1 debut at 33 years old, qualifying the Caterham 1sec quicker than regular Marcus Ericsson.
The black skies had passed by 2.00pm and the few clouds around were white and fluffy, though the track was relatively cool at 21-deg C. Heat haze hovered around the rear of the 22 cars lined up on the grid, all but that of Adrian Sutil wearing the yellow-walled soft option tyre rather than the white-walled medium on the 13th-place Sauber.
The soft was the faster race tyre, its slightly higher degradation rate not enough to overturn its initial pace advantage. Over 15 laps it was calculated to be around 13sec faster, varying from car to car. Study of the degradation rates had led most teams to plan around two-stop races for the 44 laps – though an appropriately timed safety car could shift them onto a one-stop.
As the Ferrari mechanics went to start Alonso’s car on the dummy grid it failed to respond. The in-car battery had somehow emptied itself of charge and a portable jump-start battery was urgently required, but was in the pitlane. Retrieving it from there and using it to start the car ensured the team had transgressed the regulation requiring all personnel to be off the grid at the 15sec signal – and this would incur a 5sec penalty at his first stop.
Hamilton made a peach of a start to lead, Rosberg bogged down, Vettel ducked out from behind, braked later than late, lightly locked the inner front, released the left pedal and drove around Nico’s outside, squirming ahead as he headed down the steep hill towards the mighty Eau Rouge – a corner that’s been restored to its rightful place as one of the great ones thanks to the reduced downforce and increased torque of the 2014 cars. That and the abolition of the FRICS ride-levelling suspensions means the cars now bottom out at the compression and slide into vicious-looking oversteer snaps as they head up the hill.
It’s at this point that Vettel was using all the electrical energy he could conjure, knowing that the rise through here onto the long Kemmel straight afforded him his best opportunity of ever getting ahead of Hamilton. At all other tracks all the extra 160bhp of electrical energy is available throughout the lap.
Spa, at 4.3 miles, is too long for that and you need to be tactical in where it’s used. Choosing where to deploy it and for how long is quite a challenge – and what’s best for ultimate lap time isn’t the same as what suits the tactical demands of the moment. Vettel had a pre-race plan to use it all here, trying to replicate the move he put on Hamilton on the first lap last year.
He almost made it work. Hamilton was on the defensive inside line as they raced to the top of the valley at over 200mph, obliging Seb to try for the long way round on the approach to the tight zig-zag right-left of Les Combes and the beginning of the descent back down the valley. Vettel stood on the Red Bull’s brakes as late as he dared, a gamble he reckoned worth taking.
But it was too much for tyres still not fully up to temperature. As they locked he realised there was no way of making the turn, obliging him to use the run-off area – and so Lewis’ fate was locked in place as Rosberg took up second and the Red Bull slalomed its way back on track, just ahead of Ricciardo – who’d also had a brief excursion across the run-off, albeit a shallower one than Vettel.
1. D Ricciardo, Red Bull 1h 24m 36.556s
2. N Rosberg, Mercedes +3.3s
3. V Bottas, Williams +28.0s
4. K Räikkönen, Ferrari +36.8s
5. S Vettel, Red Bull +52.1s
6. J Button, McLaren +54.5s
7. F Alonso, Ferrari +61.1s
8. S Pérez, Force India +64.2s
9. D Kvyat, Toro Rosso +65.3s
10. N Hülkenberg, Force India +65.6s
11. J Vergne, Toro Rosso +71.9s
12. K Magnussen, McLaren +74.2s
13. F Massa, Williams +75.9s
14. A Sutil, Sauber +82.4s
15. E Gutiérrez, Sauber +90.8s
16. M Chilton, Marussia +1 lap
17. M Ericsson, Caterham +1 lap
J Bianchi, Marussia 39 laps
L Hamilton, Mercedes 38 laps
R Grosjean, Lotus 33 laps
P Maldonado, Lotus 1 lap
A Lotterer, Caterham 1 lap
Behind him was Alonso, Bottas, Magnussen, Räikkönen, Massa and Button. Räikkönen sliced by Magnussen for seventh into the chicane. Jules Bianchi’s great qualifying work in the Marussia had already been wasted as he’d got tangled up with Romain Grosjean’s Lotus exiting La Source, puncturing a tyre and forcing a long drive back to the pits.
Rosberg was hard onto Hamilton’s tail, the two silver bullets descending through Malmedy, Rivage, Liege, the big fast never-ending left of Pouhon preceding the Fagnes chicane and the Paul Frére turn at the valley’s floor that brings the track back out onto the public road section, rejoining the original long circuit there. Up through the blind kink of Blanchimont and the rush up to the braking zone for the chicane and onto the pit straight Hamilton crossed the line just half a second ahead of his team-mate who, tight and tidy through La Source, was already planning his slipstreaming move up the hill.
Again, Hamilton was forced to get defensive as Rosberg was sucked into the tow. Taking the left-handed outside line Rosberg pulled a long way alongside Hamilton and into the braking zone they duked it out. Rosberg crowded Hamilton in on the approach, but wasn’t quite far enough alongside to claim the line, his front wing around level with the front of Hamilton’s side pod as they made the first part of the turn.
It was at this point that prudence would have normally insisted Rosberg surrender the corner but on this occasion he wasn’t in the mood. He left himself there; a split-second decision, probably borne of a stubborn determination not to back down when he didn’t need to, if his post-race comments to the team are any guide. He, after all, had the comfortable points advantage, could more easily afford a collision in championship terms than Hamilton.
As Hamilton made for the left hander, his left rear snagged Rosberg’s front wing and instantly punctured. Rosberg was leading, much of the wing’s endplate plucked off but still structurally OK, Hamilton was consigned to a slow drive back to the pits. The tyre finally collapsed as he exited Pouhon, ensuring all sorts of downforce-depriving bodywork damage.
Rosberg’s wing damage wiped out the Merc’s former huge performance advantage over the field and a tightly-packed Vettel, Alonso, Ricciardo, Bottas and Räikkönen ducking and diving colourfully behind him. His focus was not even diverted by a piece of Bianchi’s tyre carcass wrapping itself around the car’s antenna and flapping around in the cockpit for a couple of laps before releasing itself.
Ricciardo’s low downforce set-up allowed him to maximise his DRS to breeze past Alonso up to Les Combes on the fourth lap and he was quickly upon the tail of team-mate Vettel – and looking faster. Seb was using all the road on exits and sometimes more, Daniel had track to spare and still was catching.
Through Pouhon on lap five Vettel was nailing it, but it ran him wide, put his right-rear onto the astroturf, still damp from the overnight rain. A spectacular tank-slapping slide was beautifully caught by Vettel but made him easy meat for Ricciardo who crossed the line just 1.1sec behind Rosberg and continued to tail him closely for the next few laps while easing gradually away from the Vettel-Alonso-Bottas-Räikkönen train.
Mercedes needed to get a new nose on Rosberg’s car but needed first to allow some field spread to not lose him too many places. He was brought in at the end of the eighth lap, the new nose was fitted in 10sec and he was fitted with a set of the slower prime tyres. This was the logical time to use them, when he’d be making his way through slower traffic anyway. He rejoined back in 15th.
Ferrari brought Räikkönen in on the same lap. The thinking here was that, knowing Alonso was going to have to serve his 5sec penalty at his stop, he was sure to lose places. It was therefore looking like Räikkönen was going to represent their best chance and this was an attempt at undercutting him past Bottas and Vettel. It worked.
Vettel pitted on the 10th lap, Ricciardo pitted from the lead on the 11th, Bottas and Alonso on the 12th. When the airgun clatter had stopped and the pitlane was quiet once more Ricciardo led by 2.4sec from Räikkönen, Vettel, Rosberg and Bottas.
Alonso’s penalty had dropped him behind the yet-to-stop Jean-Éric Vergne and Magnussen. He quickly fought past the old-tyred Toro Rosso but had more of a fight on his hands trying to pass the McLaren, Magnussen plenty aggressive in keeping him behind, lots of hand gestures coming out of the Ferrari cockpit.
Meanwhile Hamilton was circulating – not particularly quickly with his bodywork damage giving him plenty of oversteer – down near the back and imploring the team to retire him. There was no prospect of making significant progress through the field and all he was doing was using up valuable engine mileage. The team insisted he stay out, but were essentially hoping only for a safety car to bunch the field. “Even if that happens,” Hamilton pointed out, “I haven’t got the downforce to pass anyone.”
1. Nico Rosberg 220
2. Lewis Hamilton 191
3. Daniel Ricciardo 156
4. Fernando Alonso 121
5. Valtteri Bottas 110
6. Sebastian Vettel 98
7. Nico Hülkenberg 70
8. Jenson Button 68
9. Felipe Massa 40
10. Kimi Räikkönen 39
11. Kevin Magnussen 37
12. Sergio Pérez 33
13. Jean-Éric Vergne 11
14. Romain Grosjean 8
15. Daniil Kvyat 8
16. Jules Bianchi 2
Ricciardo had more pace than Räikkönen and just before the Ferrari was forced in for its second stop on lap 20, Daniel’s lead was out to almost eight seconds. Räikkönen’s last three laps before his stop were slow as his rear tyres had degraded and the places he’d made up by stopping early first time around would be lost again.
Back in fourth, Rosberg’s early stop and delay meant he was strategically compromised unless he could use the car’s pace to scythe past those ahead. But it wasn’t happening. The trimmed-out Red Bull of Vettel was proving too fast on the straights to pass and this was allowing Ricciardo to pull out a vital gap.
There was an urgency therefore for Rosberg to pass Vettel and on the 17th lap he tried for a late-braking move into the chicane. His fronts locked heavily, he cadence braked his way to the edge of the run-off and just managed to rejoin without losing a place. But this allowed Bottas close enough to slipstream past under DRS up the Kemmel straight.
With his tyres flat-spotted Rosberg came in for his second stop on lap 19 and was fitted with a brand new set of options. Now we were about to find out the Merc’s true pace – and it was too much for Vettel. With Seb circulating in the 55sec range, Rosberg on his new tyres let loose with a 51.9. Red Bull had left it a lap too late to respond. They brought Seb in on lap 22 and he rejoined behind not only Rosberg but Räikkönen too.
Ricciardo stayed out long, pitting on lap 27 and being fitted with the obligatory slower prime tyres. He began his final stint leading by just 3.3sec from Rosberg who’d been making great progress on his new options for the previous eight laps. But the best of those tyres had already been taken. His pace was now no better than Ricciardo’s, who maintained his cushion. After this became clear, Mercedes decided upon an alternative: a third stop to get onto another fresh set of options to use the car’s pace. This, they calculated, would get him onto the Red Bull’s tail coming into the last lap…
“We could have just responded to them pitting by bringing Daniel in as well,” explained Christian Horner. “But we thought that would have been riskier than leaving him out, given how fast the Mercedes could go. We gave Daniel the lap times we needed from him that we figured would keep him just out of reach at the end. His target was 1min 53.4sec, assuming Rosberg was going to be in the 51s – which he was.”
Ricciardo, desperate still to have rubber left at the end, duly posted the following sequence:
1min 53.4sec, 53.4sec, 53.4sec, 53.2sec, 53.4sec 53.2sec, 53.2sec, 53.5sec, 53.5sec, 53.5sec.
He was like a metronome as Rosberg closed spectacularly – but not quickly enough. This was a brilliant drive from Ricciardo.
Meanwhile things were hotting up some way behind this duel. Räikkönen, on older tyres than Bottas behind him was struggling to hold the Williams back. Their duel was interrupted as Rosberg drove past them (up the inside of Bottas into the eighth gear Blanchimont!) on his fresh tyres in his chase of the leader but soon Bottas was back upon Kimi, getting by into third on his second attempt into Les Combes on lap 40.
Vettel had fallen off their pace and was pitted for a third time for fresh options on lap 34. This dropped him down behind the ongoing scrap between Magnussen and Alonso, which had been joined now by Button. Vettel on his new tyres was looking to pass Jenson by the 37th lap while just ahead of them Magnussen was chopping across Alonso’s bows on the exit of Rivage. A four-car Formula Ford-like scrap was about to unfold.
On the 41st lap Alonso was tight into Magnussen’s 200mph slipstream down the Kemmel straight as they came to lap Ericsson. Magnussen moved right to pass the Caterham but Alonso was already partly there and had to put half his car on the grass to avoid what would have been a huge accident. The stewards would later award Magnussen a penalty for this.
Alonso’s lost momentum allowed Button to steal past him into Les Combes. Jenson immediately followed up with an attempt to go around the outside of team-mate Magnussen at the downhill Rivage, only to be hung out to dry, this allowing Alonso and then Vettel to barge ahead of JB.
Back up behind Magnussen again on the next lap into Les Combes, Alonso tried again to pass him, but didn’t quite make it work, allowing Vettel to get partly alongside. Alonso tried on Magnussen yet again at Rivage – and for the umpteenth time was forced onto the run-off, this allowing Vettel to properly pass the Ferrari and attack the McLaren.
1. Mercedes 411
2. Red Bull-Renault 254
3. Ferrari 160
4. Williams-Mercedes 150
5. McLaren-Mercedes 105
6. Force India-Mercedes 103
7. Toro Rosso-Renault 19
8. Lotus-Renault 8
9. Marussia-Ferrari 2
10. Sauber-Ferrari 0
11. Caterham-Renault 0
Vettel diced with the super-aggressive Magnussen for the next few corners and finally got by in niggly fashion on the pit straight into La Source going into the last lap, the pair almost banging wheels. As they fought out La Source Alonso tried a move up the inside of the McLaren but hit the back of it instead, smashing the Ferrari’s front wing and allowing Button to pass for seventh.
Vettel may have taken victory in this ‘Formula Ford’ scrap but he was four places and 52sec behind the winner of the race proper – his team-mate Ricciardo, who began the last lap 4sec clear of Rosberg and rattled off a personal best just to cap off a day of perfection. Bottas took another podium, albeit a distant one and Räikkönen’s fourth represented his best performance of the year – appropriately at his happy hunting ground.
Mercedes finally acceded to Hamilton’s request to retire him six laps from the end. He was totally calm afterwards but adamant about what had happened – something that Rosberg himself later backed up. Just as at Monaco, the steely ruthlessness behind the measured nice guy Nico had showed itself. It’s a mindset that upset the team here but which in combination with his composed speed and long-game logic just might secure him the sport’s biggest prize.
Hamilton can have no serious complaints and if he wants to beat him is going to have to put the sort of faultless weekends together he was managing in the early part of the season. A lot of water – and bad blood – has passed since then.
The grimaces and stony expressions at Mercedes could hardly have struck a bigger contrast with the mile-wide beam of Ricciardo, arguably F1’s star of the season to date. Winning Grands Prix is becoming a routine to him now. “Yeah, it was a good one,” he said between the beam.
“Any win in F1 is special, but around this place is especially great. We had pretty good pace, the consistency was there and we were making the tyres last. It was just up to me at the end to stay consistent and focussed.” He makes it sound easy. He makes it look easy. Sebastian Vettel can tell you that it’s not.