2016 Belgian Grand Prixby Mark Hughes on 29th August 2016
Max Verstappen: he’s lighting up the sport like only a few have ever done. In the beguiling mix of audacity, youth, talent, a total disregard for reputations and the head-strength of a yet-to-be annealed prodigy, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement - and at an untypically sunny Spa this past weekend his following transformed the event to a packed-to-the-rafters celebration, perhaps even worship. Just getting from place to place around town last weekend was an expedition, an adventure amid a sea of orange, beer and cheer – and the atmosphere was amazing and refreshing. Born in Belgium to a Belgian mother and with the Dutch border close by, he is inspiring a following here like we haven’t seen since the days of Schumacher in Germany.
But his popularity and the controversy that follows from his audacity bled out the significant events of this race. Almost unnoticed, Nico Rosberg won it. Against probability, Lewis Hamilton lost only 10 points to Rosberg, taking third despite starting from the back of the grid, a great exercise in damage limitation that leaves him with plenty of new engines and components with which to fight Rosberg for the rest of the season. Improbably also, Mercedes was struggling and with just a slightly different turn of events might not even have been on pole and from there may not have won the race.
Essentially, around Spa and at the high psi imposed by Pirelli, the Mercedes was too good for the tyre! Too much downforce, too much power… For Pirelli – with the blow outs here of 2015 very much in mind – Spa is arguably the biggest challenge faced all year. The combination of long duration high-speed lateral loads and extremely high rotation speeds for extended periods places a potentially catastrophic strain on the rear construction’s relatively weak inner shoulder. It was the blow outs here last year that brought the aftermath of very high minimum pressures that in reducing the contact patch area of the tyre, limits the lateral loads it can generate, thereby keeping strain off that shoulder, making it safer and slower. But what it also does, in spreading the load over a smaller area, is overwork the compound. In this scenario the more downforce the car generates, the more the rubber is abused. The softer the compound the worse the problem is. Combine that with the traction loads imposed by the most potent engine and the Merc W07 was destroying the super-soft, was quick on the soft but couldn’t make it last - and was the only car that preferred the medium. On Friday and into Saturday morning it was not the fastest car over a single lap or on a sequence of them. By Saturday afternoon, into qualifying, the team had found a way of alleviating the worst of the effects and Rosberg took pole. But he might not have; Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen had it within his grasp but it slipped away at the final corner and Red Bull’s Verstappen fell short by only a tenth or so.
But that was on the super-soft and into race day, starting on the soft tyre he, Räikkönen, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo had booked for their opening stints by using it in Q2, he was in better shape. Then he received a present in that three of his key rivals – Verstappen, Räikkönen and Vettel - had their days ruined as they made contact at La Source within seconds of the start. With Hamilton starting from the back, that left only Ricciardo’s Red Bull as a serious rival, one that Nico was always able to keep comfortably at bay. It was almost as if Mercedes won this race only through force of habit on the one hand and under the radar on the other. For while Nico was winning his sixth Grand Prix of the year, the crowd’s focus of attention remained Verstappen who, in his damaged car could finish only 11th but didn’t surrender quietly. In fact amid a flurry of incidents he committed the single most dangerous piece of driving seen on track since the days of Schumacher, switching lines on Räikkönen’s Ferrari at over 200mph, forcing Kimi to swerve and brake on a flat-out piece of straight to avoid an accident that would have been long and extraordinarily violent. Remarkably the stewards didn’t see fit to investigate the incident. Less surprisingly, Verstappen admitted no fault.
Hamilton has known for much of the season that the extra punishment for those early-season breakdowns was imminent. Coming into the weekend already on the seasonal maximum number of turbos and ers-H units, Spa was the chosen venue to voluntarily take the penalties; early enough to give him a hopefully clean run through the season’s second half and with enough passing spots here to limit the damage. And if they were taking a 10-place hit for the first penalty, why not go the whole hog, replace everything – several times in some cases – accepting you’d now be starting at the back but having in compensation ample new components in the system for the balance of the season? So by the time of qualifying Mercedes had introduced three extra engines (with a five-token combustion/turbo upgrade), turbos and ers-Hs into the system as well as additional ers-Ks, control electronics and batteries.
So there was no need for him to do anything other than a token slow lap in Q1 – and that’s what Lewis did. Getting through to Q2 or further would only have used up more tyres better saved for the race.
So it might have been expected that Rosberg would have a comfortable run to pole. Nico did secure the position – the 28th of his career – but it was way closer than might have been expected. At the minimum pressures imposed here by Pirelli (23.5psi front/22 rear – up from last year’s 21.5/19) the degradation rates were high. Especially of the super-soft (around 0.5s per lap), designed as a low working temperature range tyre. The Mercedes traditionally struggles with this tyre more than any of the other compounds and through the practices the team was trying to find ways of keeping the rear casings from overheating. “Even in this morning’s practice we were seriously off the pace over a single lap,” said Rosberg. “We made a few changes prior to qualifying and it all came together.”
It was the first of his two Q3 laps that secured the spot, by the margin of a tenth-and-a-half of a second over Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. Some of the speed readings through the pole lap are pretty impressive. Eau Rouge apex: 201mph. Raidillon exit top of the hill: 195mph. End of straight before Les Combes: 211mph (12,122rpm in 8th). Rivage: 77mph, Pouhon: 162mph, Blanchimont: 203mph.
Although the degradation rate was high and it took a lot of management even over a single lap, the super-soft was a lot faster than the soft. But the Mercedes was quick enough on the soft that it could still guarantee being comfortably fast enough in Q2 to use this more durable tyre to graduate to Q3, and thereby have it for the first stint of the race. That was the plan all along at Mercedes – and it was a strategy adopted also by Ferrari for both its cars and by Red Bull for that of Daniel Ricciardo. Christian Horner laid out the two alternative tyre strategies for his drivers to choose from that morning – and Verstappen opted to go through Q2 on super-softs. It implied an earlier first pit stop but made getting into Q3 more secure whilst allowing him to retain two new sets of the favoured softs for the race – an advantage that might realistically have overcome the penalty of the earlier first stop. Both his Q3 laps were good, whereas Ricciardo’s were each blighted by errors under braking into La Source and Les Combes, accounting for the 0.3s and three grid places between them. Sandwiched between the Red Bulls were the Ferraris in third and fourth, Räikkönen faster than Vettel for the third time in four races.
Ferrari was experimenting with two different levels of downforce within its Spa package, eventually settling on the slightly higher one. The car was quite well balanced though struggling with traction by the end of the lap on the super-soft. Räikkönen was, as ever, very much at ease on Spa’s high speed sweeps and looked stronger than Sebastian Vettel throughout. They each did precautionary super-soft out-laps in Q2 but abandoned them as it became clear their place in Q3 was not under threat, allowing them both to start the race on the softs. A car that’s gentler on the rubber than most, it was actually seriously competitive here. Had Räikkönen repeated his final sector performance of Q2 in his final Q3 run, he’d have taken pole. As it was, his third place was 0.166s off. “I just got a bit of understeer in the chicane,” he related. “But pole was there for the taking.”
Filling out the rest of the top 10 were the group of cars that couldn’t consider the risk of using the soft in Q2: Force India, Williams and Jenson Button’s McLaren. Around half a second off a Ferrari/Red Bull pace, the Force Indias were nonetheless the next strongest cars around here, Sergio Pérez and Nico Hülkenberg closely matched in sixth and seventh (the latter with a small power unit glitch that cost him some straightline speed) and out-pacing Williams where a software glitch on both cars meant the Mercedes motor couldn’t be used in qualifying mode. But for that, Bottas should have been able to have out-paced the Force Indias but instead was trailing in eighth, two ahead of team-mate Massa who was restricted to one Q3 run having used up an extra set of super-softs in Q1.
In between the Williams pair Button was delighted to have graduated the McLaren through to Q3 and reckoned the Q2 lap which did it was “one of the best qualifying laps I’ve ever done.” The Honda was benefitting from a seven-token upgrade here that was still being run in fairly conservative mode while its reliability was being established. Fernando Alonso in the sister car was in the Hamilton-like position of taking so many penalties that there was never any intention of trying to graduate from Q1 – though in the event the motor cut out as he left the pitlane for what was going to be his only lap.
Romain Grosjean’s Haas was fastest of those not making it to Q3, the team having made recent progress with its poor braking stability. Team-mate Esteban Gutiérrez was a couple of places behind but penalised a further five for having impeded Pascal Wehrlein in Saturday morning practice. The Renault was very closely matched with the Haas, the Enstone team continuing to make steady progress in improving the car. Helped by the dramas of Hamilton and Alonso, they cleared Q1 with ease with Magnussen then going 12th fastest, Palmer 14th.
Carlos Sainz in the only Toro Rosso to clear Q1 was 15th, the 2015-spec Ferrari being progressively further out-powered as current engines continue to be developed. Joining him in Q2 at the expense of the Saubers and Kvyat’s Toro Rosso was Pascal Wehrlein who did a superb lap in Q1 (ninth overall) but then had no new super-softs left for Q2. New Manor team-mate Esteban Ocon impressed with his confident handling of the car on his debut and was within 0.5s of Wehrlein, just pipped by Felipe Nasr’s Sauber but ahead of Kvyat and the Sauber of Ericsson.
The remarkable run of sunny weather unwitnessed around Spa even by those who’d been visiting for three decades meant no respite for the tyres on Sunday. At these pressures, the degradation rates were so high that it already looked likely to be a default three-stop race and track temperatures of 36-deg C just played further in that direction.
A scorching sun blasted the orange-clad hordes camped in the verdant tectonic uplift valley, its light glinting off the cars, a silver Mercedes on pole but most eyes on the matt blue and yellow machine alongside it. Verstappen’s Red Bull was the only car in the first two rows with the red-striped super-soft tyre rather than the tougher yellow-walled soft and so it was a virtual given that he’d be a very early stopper. But the prospect of him at least leading and the crowd eruption that would follow was one to savour.
But it didn’t pan out that way. Rosberg’s clean start took him into an uncontested lead in the short run to La Source, Verstappen bogged down badly and the two Ferraris were, as usual, the fastest things off the line, almost instantly past the Red Bull. Vettel saw the Red Bull disappearing backwards in his peripheral vision and was on the outside of team-mate Räikkönen as they approached the turn. But Verstappen continues to race beyond the usual borders of time and space and had actually – behind Vettel’s line of sight – repassed Räikkönen on the inside. There was a gap there, so why not? There are certain invites a racing driver learns not to immediately accept, but there are rules for the others, not 18-year-old Max. He thrust himself into that gap. Vettel: “As I turned in I could hardly even see Kimi any more in my peripheral vision. There was no way I could see that Max from all the way back was trying to repass. So as I turned it, it sandwiched Kimi.”
As Seb left room for two cars rather than three, the Ferraris touched, Räikkönen was flicked into Verstappen and rebounded back into Vettel who spun, but kept the engine running. Verstappen with half his front wing missing and a heavily damaged underbody fought out the exit with Räikkönen and charged flat out down the hill to the eighth gear blast of Eau Rouge. Kimi felt with dismay his front right tyre was punctured, the Ferrari soon leaning over drunkenly, sparks cascading from the underbody, as the field surged by – Hülkenberg, Ricciardo, Massa, Grosjean, Bottas, Sainz, Pérez (who’d visited the turn one run-off in company with Button), Button, Wehrlein, Palmer, Magnussen, Gutierrez and – Alonso, up to 12th from 22nd. True, incident through the field meant a path opened in front of him, but he made characteristically aggressive use of the opportunity. His fellow back row starter Hamilton – four places behind at the end of the lap - was being more circumspect. “I used my experience from China [where he clashed on the opening lap from the back] today,” he explained, “and didn’t go too hard. There was a Ferrari limping along the straight with a puncture and it wasn’t clear which side to pass it on and I didn’t want to risk it – and Fernando came past me there.”
Verstappen was understeering off the circuit with his absence of front downforce and losing many places. He would pit at the end of the lap for a new nose, with the Ferraris following in, Kimi a long way back and with the underbody plank on fire. Vettel rejoined near the back a few seconds ahead of Verstappen, with Räikkönen a lap behind already. Button was dicing with Pérez into the Bus Stop and in getting off the throttle took the following Wehrlein by surprise, the Manor hitting the McLaren hard enough to send it airborne, Pascal then trailing to the pits to retire, followed by Button. A few moments later Sainz spun onto the Kemmel straight after suffering a right-rear puncture, the result of having run over Verstappen’s debris. He tried bringing it back to the pits but it was too heavily damaged and virtually undriveable. As the Toro Rosso was cleared, the virtual safety car was applied for a lap, during which time Massa took the opportunity to pit and be rid of his super-softs, exchanging them for softs.
They were racing again for just over a lap when Magnussen, running eighth behind team-mate Palmer, lost the Renault at the top of Raidillion. The combination of a heavily fuelled car with super-high tyre pressures, running in turbulent air, got the car into a big slide. Applying opposite lock at around 190mph, it was impossible for Kevin to get it off again quickly enough to avoid spinning to the right, then hitting the bank backwards, the Renault then spinning on its axis and hitting front end-on. Even before Magnussen had climbed out of the car to be led limping away, the safety car was deployed, the cue for both Force Indias, Grosjean, Palmer and Räikkönen to pit to be rid of their super-softs, followed a lap later by Bottas and Gutiérrez. The pack circulated for a few laps, Räikkönen was allowed to un-lap himself – and then the race was red-flagged as it became necessary to move a tractor on-track to help rebuild the Raidillion tyre wall.
Until next year’s rule changes, teams are still allowed to change tyres after a race has been red-flagged – and Rosberg and Pérez were switched to mediums without having the inconvenience of a pit stop, while Alonso and Hamilton were switched from their original mediums onto softs. The red flag was a blow for Hülkenberg who otherwise would have been poised to lead when Rosberg and Ricciardo on their older tyres would have almost certainly pitted before they could have pulled out a pit stop’s worth of gap on him. The Force India proved to be comfortably the third fastest car in the race after Mercedes and Red Bull, with the proviso that both Ferraris were compromised in their performance by underbody damage. Red Bull estimated the underbody damage to Verstappen’s car was in the order of 1.2s, with a further loss of performance as the tyres degraded quicker. With 34 laps to go, the safety car period had effectively moved the race to a two-stop for most of the field. Tyre conservation would therefore be even more crucial in order to get the required stint lengths.
The order behind the safety car at the start was: Rosberg, Ricciardo, Hülkenberg, Alonso, Hamilton, Massa, Pérez. Vettel was now 11th, Räikkönen at the back but at least now on the same lap as everyone else.
A big period of stalemate then ensued, Rosberg pulling out of Ricciardo’s DRS reach but no more than was necessary, the pair easing away from Hülkenberg, with Hamilton putting an easy DRS pass on Alonso for fourth up the Kemmel straight but not in a position to be in too much of a hurry to catch Hülkenberg on account of having to drive to his tyre casing temperatures. Alonso was left to defend from the closely following Massa and Pérez. Grosjean fell off the back of this group as he progressively lost power for many laps. It was later restored under guidance from the team, by which time he’d been passed by, among others, the recovering Vettel, Bottas and team-mate Gutierrez.
A few places behind, Verstappen was repelling Räikkönen’s advances very robustly. On the 12th lap Kimi tried for the outside into Les Combes at the end of Kemmel straight, got alongside but was then forced to leave the track as Max banged wheels. After cutting across the run-off apron and emerging ahead, Räikkönen was obliged to give the place back but on the next lap was trying again, getting on the DRS on the Kemmel straight. With a big speed difference, the Ferrari devoured the gap to the Red Bull. Just as we saw in Hungary, Verstappen hovered in the middle of the track and simply waited for Räikkönen to choose a side – and only then chose to go that way too. It was a horrifically dangerous move, forcing Räikkönen, travelling in excess of 210mph, to brake and jink left to avoid what would have been an enormous accident. It didn’t actually break the letter of any regulation and as such wasn’t investigated by the stewards, just underlining how misguided it is trying to encompass every racing situation into a catch-all regulation. It was every bit as lethal as the very similar move Michael Schumacher put upon Mika Häkkinen a few yards further up this piece of track in 2000. “I’m fine with good hard racing,” said Räikkönen, “but if I have to brake on the straight at 340kph so as not to hit someone, then something is not correct. For whatever reason the stewards said it was OK. There will be a massive accident some day. Maybe he needs an accident before things are more clear to everyone.”
Subsequently, they were separated by their different strategies and it was perhaps for the best they didn’t encounter each other on track again. Verstappen’s car was in a worse way than Räikkönen’s and Kimi was able to emerge well ahead.
Ricciardo had stayed within less than 2s of Rosberg for several laps but when the time came for Nico to up the pace, Daniel was unable to go with him. Every time he tried, he got the radio message that he was overheating his tyre casings. On the medium tyre, the Merc was simply faster than the soft-shod Red Bull.
Meanwhile, Hamilton (on the soft tyres fitted after the red flag) made a simple DRS pass on Hülkenberg’s third place on the 18th lap, by which time he lay 6s behind Ricciardo and 11s adrift of Rosberg with 26 laps to go. In earlier days it may have looked like an exciting chase was in prospect. But this is the Pirelli era of tyre-deg racing. Just as Ricciardo could not extend himself to catch Rosberg before having to back off to avoid permanently frying the rubber, so the same applied to Hamilton as he tried to chase down the Red Bull. Those gaps remained pretty much static and the podium was now established. Hülkenberg was a lonely fourth, out of the reach of Alonso who continued to fend off the dicing Massa and Pérez. Vettel would gradually pull himself up to this group, pulling along Bottas in his wake. Räikkönen, after a struggle that got physical at Les Combes, forced his way past Grosjean, the pair of them having just passed Palmer who was fading, excessive tyre temperatures forcing him onto a three-stop strategy.
Massa would eventually suffer much the same problem and after being passed in physical style around the outside of Les Combes by Pérez, used up more tyre life in trying to fend off Vettel, who after a couple of straight-ons eventually found a way by into the Bus Stop chicane. Thus forced to back off to avoid a third stop, Felipe was obliged to surrender a further place to team-mate Bottas. Shortly after passing Massa, Pérez was able to use the Force India’s stronger pace to make an easy DRS pass on Alonso for fifth, a move subsequently copied by Vettel for sixth. Alonso was nonetheless delighted with his day’s work. “To finish in the points at Spa would have been unthinkable a year ago,” he observed. There’s a feeling that, finally, the McLaren-Honda partnership is on a productive path and that good days are coming.
After trailing Ricciardo for many laps, Hamilton upped the pace and by the 30th lap was within a couple of seconds of the Red Bull – but that had taken all the life from the Merc’s tyres. He was brought in for a second stop, dropping him behind Hülkenberg again but with more than enough pace on a new set of mediums to repeat his earlier DRS pass on the Force India – and set the race’s fastest lap. Ricciardo remained well out of reach.
On the final lap Räikkönen managed to salvage a solitary point by making a DRS pass on Massa’s struggling Williams. Kimi’s day – like the whole event – had been coloured by Verstappen. But actually, the real significance of Räikkönen’s weekend was that with Mercedes in uncharacteristic difficulties, it was he more than any of the others who looked to have had the performance to have punished that. The failure to grab pole led to the first corner incident which in turn spiralled his day into mediocrity. In reality, Verstappen’s involvement in Kimi’s race was just an irritant, way less significant than what had been lost elsewhere.
Things just hadn’t panned out Kimi’s way; they’d gone in Rosberg’s favour instead. “Yes, generally I had it under control because I had an awesome car and Lewis wasn’t there to battle it out.” Nor were Räikkönen and Vettel on a day when Ferrari just might have had a stronger combination of pace and tyre usage under these very particular Pirelli-dominated circumstances.