The Ferrari Owners’ Club
of Great Britain

GRAND PRIX: Belgium: So Near, But Not Enough…

06-09-2017

By Tony Cotton, with Nigel Bland 

My old friend Winston D’Arcy advised me many years ago to wait a few days before writing race reports. This gave time for background stories to come out, and so it happened at Spa. While oil-burning is now regarded as a pariah of motoring (my ownership of a Golf TDi has lead to a plague cross and the word “unclean” being painted on my garage door), it’s apparently the cool thing in F1 engines. And by “cool”, I refer to temperature. 

As far as I can understand, the logic is as follows, with apologies to any real engineers reading. F1 is limited to 105 litres of fuel per race. To make best use of this it must be burnt as sparingly as possible. More air – a lean mixture – means more efficiency. This in turn leads to those clever spark plugs we’ve all read about which don’t ignite the whole charge but ignite a very intense fireball which in turn sets off the charge. However, like everything else in F1, it’s right on the edge, and Honda in particular know what happens when the line is crossed. The burn temperature rises and the engine “knocks” and destroys itself. So ideally the engine needs a tad more fuel and that can legally come from a bit of extra oil fed in to the combustion chamber (purely for lubrication,  you understand) by yet another parameter in the mapping.  Even better, the oil can include some beneficial additives not allowed in fuel.  More fuel, better atomisation, problem solved. Needless to say, the experts in this technology are Ferrari and Mercedes, and here lies the controversy. 

The rules were changed to limit oil burning from Monza, and Ferrari pulled back. The rumours – strenuously denied by Mercedes – were that the Silver Arrows introduced a new engine which pushed the tech to the limit at Spa. Denial or not, there can be little doubt that the Mercs had the power advantage.   Hamilton took pole on 1.42.553. It was a stunning lap, especially in sector 2 (roughly Les Combes to Fagnes), thought to be the strength of the aerodynamically superior SF70H. So much so that the only way Seb could get close was an apparently unplanned tow from Kimi, which gave him a sector 3 advantage.  If Seb had miraculously won pole, perhaps the race could have been different, since controlling from the front is always an advantage. Pole put Hamilton equal to Schuey’s 68 pole record, and also finally eclipsed Chris Amon’s 1970 Spa speed record on the old track.  Further down the field, Palmer and Alonso continued the fight for the “most hapless” trophy. Alonso ‘s tow from Vandoorne was reported to be fooling the mapping. The speed wasn’t as rubbish as the computer expected, so the ERS didn’t cut in. Palmer meanwhile achieved Q3, but didn’t run and was penalised due to a gearbox failure.

The race could be described as interesting but not exciting. It was, however, a demonstration of the weaknesses of some drivers. Ocon showed on lap one that speed isn’t everything, a driver needs to assess the risks and more importantly not damage his team-mate. Ocon tried to pass Palmer and Perez three-deep into Eau Rouge on lap 1 – needless to say he squeezed himself into the old pitwall, only the qualities of the Force India saving him.  More silliness would ensue later.

 One could also argue that being in the right team at the right time is a required skill. Alonso must have had the thought as he was contemptuously passed by every Force India and Haas. Not long after this he instructed his pit “no more radio messages”. Out on lap 25, he doesn’t need instructions on how to consistently not finish. Honda’s lamentable performance continues, and the hostile criticism from their chosen team must be difficult for a company with their culture. Remember that they’ve left F1 suddenly in the past.  

Verstappen presumably cursed Renault  engines yet again as his Red Bull coasted to a halt in a pull-in off Kemmel straight on lap 8. How would he perform if he had a reliable car – say a Ferrari?  Which brings in the next basic attribute – know the rule book and the way it’s operated at different tracks.  Spa officials  aren’t renowned for flexible rules, and the yellow flag rule says “reduce speed”.  Kimi didn’t, he applied common sense when he saw Max’s car out of risk, and as a result got a 10 second stop/go penalty. He took it on lap 18, and it dropped him to 7th.  He and Hulkenberg subsequently fighting for 6th, flat through Eau Rouge /Radillon was impressive, but sadly demonstrated again that modern F1 cars have destroyed the challenge of historic corners.

A great pit-stop for Hamilton on lap 12 put him at an advantage. His new softs proved faster than Seb who was staying out on ultrasofts for an extra couple of laps. When Seb pitted, Kimi led briefly, but DRS got Hamilton by.  When Kimi went in it left Seb pursuing the Mercedes. He was always close, but never close enough. Despite the Ferrari being able to use the softer tyres better the Mercedes was just a bit better as an overall package, especially on the hardest “soft” tyres. How times have changed from when Ferraris had the most power but little aerodynamic finesse. Your essay for next week is to discuss when the change happened….

By lap 29, pitstops put the 2 Force Indias together. This is always A Bad Idea. Several times they touched and this time Perez over-defended past the old pits. He suffered a destroyed right rear but did make it back to the pits. Ocon’s front wing, after just failing to clear a fence, was spread across the road, along with several million pounds worth of mid-field points and probably, with luck, both of their careers. The officials might be accused of over-reacting when they put out a safety car. Both Ferraris went onto ultrasofts which looked like a good choice as the Mercedes were on softs. Hamilton lost his cool a little due to the slothful safety car which thoroughly overstayed its welcome – those Spa officials again –  and on the restart he claims to have made a setting error. In fact, it gave him an advantage as it wrong-footed Seb, and although he got momentarily ahead along Kemmel, Hamilton powered away.  The restart also caused a brilliant move as Bottas ran out of power just where Hamilton’s continued, and he was spectacularly passed on either side by Ricciardo and Kimi.  Kimi may be weak on the rules, but these are three drivers who know how to race hard but safely. Around this time came the weak decision that neither Perez or Ocon would be penalised. Overall, a day the officials should not be proud of. 

Although there was close racing, at the front it never realistically looked as though the order would change. With 9 laps to go, the finishing order had been  settled, Hamilton, Seb, a delighted (as always) Ricciardo ahead of Kimi and Bottas.  The “midfield minnow” race was won by Hulkenberg in 6th ahead of  Grosjean ,Massa, an undeserving Ocon, and Sainz. Whilst Grosjean was  7th,  the overall performance of Haas was perhaps better shown by Magnussen in  15th.  With the news that Sauber will get current Ferrari engines in 2018, could this mean that they will replace Haas as the preferred Junior team with Leclerc pencilled in for great things?  Whatever the answer to that, the sad conclusion of Spa is that Hamilton – or perhaps to be more accurate, his team’s engine rules interpreter – is on a roll and Seb’s chances of a fifth title are fading. I hope I’m wrong.