The Ferrari Owners’ Club
of Great Britain

GRAND PRIX: Spa-Francorchamps: Mercs Make a Mess

09-09-2014

Report by Tony Cotton (with hat-tip to Nigel Bland)

The editor invited me to report on Spa because I’ve raced there with my single-seaters. Eau Rouge was a glorious, fear-filled thrill for club racers, and thanks to less downforce and plenty of power it looks as though it’s now almost like that for the F1 heroes. It seems to be just one of the positive effects of the current regulations, the end result being entertaining races. I remember some years ago I turned off Spa to listen to Gardeners’ Question Time. I didn’t this year.

As well as good racing, this year has been notable for the dominance of the Mercedes engines. I was talking to a friend during one of my club race meetings in the week before Spa, and he introduced me to his son, who is Andy Cowell, CEO of Mercedes Engines. I asked if the innovations were his ideas, but he was very quick to emphasise that it was a team effort. The theme of pulling together arose again when he explained that they had 480 people working at the factory, and that they tried to subcontract out as little as possible. This isn’t because of secrecy, but because it leads to quicker problem solving – instead of arranging meetings and apportioning blame they can be solving problems. Like all people who are very good at what they do he made it sound easy. The Mercedes culture seemed to be team work and a pride in getting the job done. This would prove to be a prescient conversation…..

Qualifying

A wet track caused problems in Q1, and gave us a big wobble artfully caught by Alonso out of Eau Rouge. Hamilton had an off at the awful Bus Stop, but recovered and still posted fastest lap, which gave an indication of the strength of Mercedes. There was praise for F1 recruit Jules (nephew of Lucien) Bianchi who hauled the Marussia into Q2 at the expense of Hulkenberg. The other recruit, three times LeMans winner Andre Lotterer had reputedly been put into the Caterham as Colin Kolles wanted his opinion of the car. Incidentally, you noticed that now Air Asia’s Tony Fernandes has quit the team they’ve also lost car branding from Airbus, who coincidentally have 492 planes in service with or on order from Fernandes’ Air Asia?

Aside from the odd hiccup, qualifying went pretty much to form, with Hamilton timing his qualifying run badly and coming in behind Rosberg, Vettel in third being over 2 seconds slower than pole, and Alonso only another 7/100 behind. To put all this in perspective, 2 seconds behind Vettel gets us down to 10th on the grid. So it looked as though the only question was which Mercedes would win. And yet….my collaborator in this report pointed out that the cars weren’t “paired” as often happens, for example Kimi was eighth, and that the first four cars on the grid just didn’t look as good as the others in the race. Had they been set up to qualify well in the less than perfect conditions at the expense of race pace?

Race

As Ferrari supporters, we like drama, but what happened on the dummy grid wasn’t drama of the good type. The computer apparently tripped over itself and Alonso was left stranded. He got away after a delay with mechanics working on his car on the grid, but this was to result in a later 5 second stop-go, which detracted from a good race but was probably the best he could have hoped for.

Come the race proper, Hamilton had a great start and took the lead, Rosberg behind. Ricciardo passed Alonso, while Vettel demonstrated the spectator appeal of these cars by slipstreaming and then failing to stop at Les Combes Even more fun came at Les Combes on the next lap when the normally mature Rosberg was excessively optimistic and rather than give way Hamilton tried to block. Personally I’d say 80% Rosberg, 20% Hamilton, but completely against the corporate culture of working together that Andy Cowell was talking about. Maybe that’s why Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda both used the word “unacceptable” to describe the affair. On the other hand, the cynic in me does ask whether secretly at least the marketing department are happy. All the press reports referred to how Mercedes were set to dominate when the two drivers took each other out. They probably got five times the coverage a steady 1-2 would have got. The older reader may recall how similarly delighted Toyota were in 1993 when Bailey and Hoy had a spectacular BTCC crash at Silverstone.

With Rosberg hobbled by a damaged wing – albeit still leading – and Hamilton relegated to trailing round with a damaged car, his pit hoping for a statistically likely safety car and the driver constantly whinging that he wanted to come in and have his dinner, it began to look especially interesting. Alonso wasn’t equipped to take advantage whereas Ricciardo, in a chassis clearly better than its engine, quietly moved up to overall third and then serenely passed his wayward team mate on lap 6. As the pit-stops started, Ricciardo took the lead and pitting apart retained it until the end. Rosberg looked to be catching him in the last few laps, but Ricciardo has the air of a class driver who can move up a notch when required. He proved the Red Bull is to be reckoned with. If Ferrari have ambitions to be best of the rest this year, it isn’t looking good. In fact, if the Mercedes madness continues, a quiet £10 on Ricciardo clinching the title with dubious double points looks a decent investment. Pity I don’t gamble.

Alonso pitted from second, but the 5 second penalty dropped him down the field to 7th.. He showed some of his legendary overtaking on lap 13 coming out from his +5second pit stop, passing the potentially difficult Perez on the inside on the turn in turn 9. On lap 21 Alonso was in 6th and came up behind Kevin Magnussen. The latter proved difficult – not a great driver but a good weaver in a mediocre car with a strong engine. It did, however, lead to watching Alonso catch the car at around 180mph through Eau Rouge/Radillon. You and I would have needed a brush to sweep it up. Alonso bided his time but after his pit stop was left behind Magnussen again. Eventually he made a move at Rivage, where his target swerved unpleasantly. On lap 42 of 44, the train of 5th to 8th came across the hapless Ericsson in the Caterham. Alonso tried to do the double and as Magnussen hesitated he moved out – but so did Magnussen and Alonso ended up with two wheels on the grass at 200mph. I’ve tried 80mph on grass in several single seaters; it rarely ends in joy. But that’s why he’s Alonso.

The slight slowing led to Button passing him and a superb fight for a couple of corners. Of the two McLaren drivers, Button looked like a racer, Magnussen like a thug. And as a thug he duly squeezed out his team-mate, allowing our man back past. As Alonso tried to pass again at Rivage on the next lap, the Dutchman again pushed him off, Alonso losing a place to Vettel. Then on the final lap Alonso succumbed to Button, ending 8th on the track. If he hadn’t lost those 5 seconds, it could have been very different indeed as he would have put fresh air between himself and Magnussen. He was promoted to 7th when the stewards slightly bizarrely penalised the Dutchman 20 seconds for putting Alonso onto the grass, which whilst it potentially had the worst outcome of all his moves, it seemed to be a genuine racing incident.

Raikonnen took an early pit stop (lap 8) and proceeded to do what he does best – a series of super-fast laps, full of commitment which took him to second until the next pit stops dropped him to 7th. Fresh tyres and an audacious pass at the Bus Stop got him past Button, behind Bottas, another seemingly taking advantage of a race rather than qualifying set up car, and a recovering Rosberg. Raikkonen was promoted to third when Bottas pitted, and to second when Rosberg pitted. Rosberg passed back with ease thanks to DRS while Bottas, who gets even more convincing at each race, did the same 4 laps from the end, to leave the cars in that order at the flag. Incidentally, his pass of Raikkonen was nowhere near as impressive as his move on Vettel into LesCombes for 4th. Sad to say, with the F14T as it is, 4th is a good result and a credit to Raikkonen’s determination.

Down the field, Toro Rosso continue to impress. Kyvat drove a mature race to 9th despite his years, and Jean Eric-Vergne, who wasn’t much slower than Ricciardo last year, was only slightly behind in 11th. Max Verstappen has become the first 16 year old to test an F1 car, and will join Torro Rosso next year. It occurred to me that teams will need to appoint child protection officers. It doesn’t sound right.

I usually try to find some optimism when I write these reports. There’s no doubt in my mind that Alonso still remains the ultimate driver combining speed, commitment and something that only one driver of a silver grey car (Button) shared at Spa – intelligence. Raikkonen had a good day, and, I suspect, a more appropriate setup, and drove his heart out. They make a good team. There’s major friction in Mercedes, possibly enough for one of the drivers to be leaving after this year, giving room for Vettel to move on from Red Bull where he’s currently outclassed in almost every way by Ricciardo. McLaren are proving with the MP4-29 that mediocrity can be an ingredient in a top F1 team, and Magnussen is unimpressive. Williams are once more a top team…but with only one car/driver. So is there some possibility that despite the F14T being unlikely to be remembered as a classic, there is an opportunity in the last seven races for Ferrari to take advantage of other teams’ disintegration. After all, a lot of this sport is, surprisingly, about teamwork.