GRAND PRIX : Belgium : Normal Service Resumes

Posted on September 3, 2015.

Hamilton did the business both in qualy and the race
Grosjean's third place was unexpected but well deserved
Vettel had a frightening tyre failure at the end

 Report by Tony Cotton


I can think of no quicker way of being sacked from the privileged and highly sought after position of FOC Grand Prix reporter than expressing sympathy for McLaren, but I’m afraid I did feel some. They’re not only stuck with the engine deal from hell, but the rules work in such a way that not only are they penalised for having a lame donkey behind the driver’s head, they’re penalised again for the fact that its legs frequently fall off and they have to sew them back on. And not just penalised, they had a penalty between the two cars of 105 grid laces because of replacing a series of separate components which I, or you, or any reasonable person, would call “the engine”. Oh, for the simpler days of the past.

I suppose I should be pleased that after the “summer holiday”, the FIA have introduced a ban on the pits tweaking the launch control after the cars leave the pit. Being an old grump, of course, I’m not. I would ban launch control since, in F1 as in hillclimbing, if you need it in racing you don’t deserve to be in a car that’s got it, and it takes away the advantage of the more sublime talents of the grid. The summer holiday is, of course, meant to be a freeze where everybody comes back refreshed, but much as before. In reality, however much you police factory closures, emails, computer networks etc, you won’t stop some of the cleverest engineers on the planet from thinking, and that must have happened because the grid was quite nicely mixed up from before the break.

Unfortunately for anybody who actually enjoys racing at the front of the grid, Mercedes and in particular Hamilton, were still supreme, being just under a second clear of the third car, Valterri Bottas’s Williams. Bottas was, of course, passed over by the Scuderia in favour of signing Kimi for another year, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that 3rd was an “I’ll show them” performance. Though oddly, another rejected candidate, Hulkenberg, could manage no better than 11th, 6 places behind his team-mate, the normally staid Perez. Perhaps the biggest qualifying surprise would have been Grosjean in 4th, his Lotus making use of Mercedes power on this greatest of power circuits, except that Seb qualified 9th, just behind Maldonado. That perhaps sums up the power advantage of Mercedes, and perhaps also might indicate that Ferrari are one of the few teams who really did follow instructions and do nothing in the break. Kimi suffered the dual indignity of stopping in Q2 due to an oil pressure drop, which necessitated a gearbox change and so a 5 place grid penalty which became a 4 place drop due to McLaren’s 105 place drop. I won’t even try to explain the other grid changes from the penalties, suffice it to say 18 cars didn’t start where they qualified. Perhaps the most significant “offence” was Lotus, who were reprimanded without penalty for spending the night guarding the cars. The reprimand doesn’t make it clear that it was to ward off the bailiffs, not to work on the car.

Even before the start there was drama as Hulkenberg, rapidly becoming this decade’s Chris Amon, had problems. Initially told to pit, he took his slot but the engine failed and there was an aborted start. Sainz also went to the pitlane, down on power. When the reds went out, Hamilton was neatly away but Rosberg was passed by Perez and Ricciardo. Seb was up to 6th by Eau Rouge, Kimi initially taking it a bit easy but finishing the lap three places up in 13th. Vettel showed his customary opportunism by slipping past Bottas on the inside of La Source, and kept pursuing Rosberg. The hapless Maldonado was out a few seconds later with an engine problem caused by thumping the kerbs.

We were treated on lap 10 to one of the manoeuvres that will be shown in the 2015 highlight packages. Verstappen was close behind Nasr, and in Blanchimont, at around 200mph, he went onto the kerbs to try to pass. It didn’t work out, but it was enough to hussle Nasr to the outside at the “bus stop” and gain a place. Brave (or foolhardy) lad. As the race proceeded, the traditionally conservative approach of Williams (a higher downforce setup) resulted in them losing out as Grosjean passed Bottas. Actually, it didn’t matter because the gremlin who had spent the last few races at Mercedes moved over to Williams and they fitted three mediums and a soft at Bottas’s pitstop, so he had another stop and a penalty, which had the positive effect of moving Kimi up to 9th.

Tyre changes had started on lap 8, all but the backmarkers starting on softs. Seb stayed out longest of the leaders, pitting on lap 14, which might have alerted us to a Cunning Plan – a one stop strategy. It’s a mark of Hamilton’s advantage that he pitted a lap earlier but only lost his lead for the ¾ lap before Seb pitted. Rosberg had earlier tucked in for second and as the stops unwound on lap 15, the Mercedes pair were never again threatened. Perez and Grosjean, both of whom impressed, held onto 3rd and 4th until the next stops, swapping over just before Perez pitted.

Ricciardo suffered an engine failure halfway through the race on the pit straight, and after eventually remembering what to do with the steering wheel, left the car to be recovered while there was an effective virtual safety car. Seb took 3rd on lap 22 as the virtual safety car returned to its virtual garage. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks as though the plan was to look at the wear and then take a decision. The mediums apparently run better in cooler conditions, so a bit of Ardennes cloud cover was welcome, and the decision was made on lap 30. By lap 24 Grosjean was behind Seb, consistently slightly faster, but was it enough to get past? By lap 36, the tyres were showing their wear and the car was a bit wild. On lap 40, the gap was down to half a second, and we held our breath as Seb drove a VERY wide car, spending as much time looking in the mirrors as at the road. It’s a pity that holding their breath was exactly what the tyres didn’t do. As Seb exited Radillon, the right rear let go, looking pretty much the same as Rosberg’s had in Friday practice. Pirelli said it was “excessively worn” (and that the Rosberg tyre had impact damage), but to misquote Oscar Wilde ”To lose one tyre is unfortunate; to lose two looks like carelessness”. Seb continued driving as fast as possible, which shows his commitment, and didn’t make it easy for others to pass. Technically, he was racing for position, so why should he? He was classified 12th.

After the race he made his position clear. “These things are not allowed to happen. If it happens 200m earlier, I’m not standing here now. I don’t know what else needs to happen. It is the sort of theme that keeps going around – no-one is mentioning it, but it’s unacceptable.”

With Seb’s demise, Grosjean naturally inherited 3rd and a safe 8 second gap to Kyviat, who was the same distance ahead of Perez in 5th. Grosjean’s 3rd was a very popular podium, and it’s highly appropriate that he achieved this success at Spa, which marked his nadir in 2012.

Meanwhile, back on lap 28, Kyviat came into the pits, with a massive dab of oppo through the chicane, for fresh soft tyres. He exited 10th, but the softs gave him about a second a lap. He proceeded to slice through the field,  taking Verstappen, unfortunately Raikkonen, Massa with a superb move into Les Combes, and on lap 41, eventually Perez to finish 4th, and the only non-Mercedes engine in the top 6. Perez and Massa finished 5th and 6th, with Kimi finishing 7th. He managed to hold off Verstappen on the last lap, the Dutchman getting past on the approach to les Combes but not making the corner. Kimi had driven an apparently error free race, but bluntly the combination of SF15-T and the Finn was workmanlike rather than exciting, which may not bode well for 2016. Bottas, scuppered by the tyre error, and Ericsson completed the top 10, Nasr was 11th and Seb was followed in by the McLarens and Manor Marussias.

With the race over battle continued. Pirelli’s Paul Hembery commented: “I’m not going to criticise Sebastian”, which was generous. He continued “The only thing thing you can do is put a limitation on laps per set.” He also said that there had been 70,000 tyres since the Silverstone debacle (my description), which would be the “they’ve never done THAT before”, except that of course they have done that before. The overall impression was that there wasn’t a big issue. If that’s what he believes, then Mr Hembery, Pirelli and F1 have in fact got major problems.

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