Ambient 23° Track 38° Humidity 39% Wind 7.1 m/s
The weeks off apparently did F1 some good as the Belgian GP managed to cook up more than a few surprises, including a remarkable lack of rain.
From Valterri Bottas’ daring fashion choice to run a Medium right rear with the rest of the car sporting a rather fetching Soft tyre ensemble to Ferrari’s epic gamble on the life of Vettel’s tyres which failed in spectacular fashion in the last laps, there was no small amount of excitement. Chief among them, a resurgent Grosjean was pushing Vettel late for P3 when Sebastians tyre finally let go. Despite the Enstone outfit’s brilliant finish, they will still have to pay the fine to get their cars out of impound tomorrow, but it’s likely they’ll come up with some spare change from the cushions for a few bottles of champers to celebrate their podium finish tonight.
Not surprising at all, though was Lewis Hamilton’s 39th win which was made somewhat easier by Rosberg’s poor start. The fact that Nico had taped start instructions to his wheel was perhaps a giveaway that he would struggle, though in his defense (having installed one myself) it’s much more time consuming than one might think to install an infant seat in a car.
Even the pre start was full of surprises as both Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz failed to make the grid necessitating an aborted start and 2nd formation lap.
Ricciardo and Maldonado also were sacrificed to the racing gods, both with mechanical issues. Maldonado was out early days and Ricciardo rolling to a halt halfway through the race and being the cause of the Virtual Safety Car.
Once the chaos settled it was good battles round all the top 10 places throughout the race and some clever pit work by Force India and Lotus during the VSC ensured a slow burn to the finish for all the places save the top two. Verstappen drove exactly like one would expect a teenager to, with a series of bold overtakes livening up the day for the Dutch fans.
Williams and Ferrari no doubt will be looking in the coulda woulda shoulda mirror rather hard this week and for Ferrari in particular it was not how they wanted their 900th GP to turn out. Hard questions, too, for Pirelli as two tyre failures in a weekend will test the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Have at it in the comments and stay tuned for the update!
Staggering heaps of Sun poured onto the asphalt in thoroughly uncharacteristic fashion for the Ardennes as last minute odds and ends were tended to by manically anxious team personnel. With new start procedures in effect, engineers were unusually attentive to drivers as they prepared to set off into a new world. Well, most of them as Hulkenberg had suffered engine problems that almost kept him from making the grid and then ensured that a second formation lap would be required when his car gave up the ghost just short of its grid position. Not to be outdone Sainz was then forced to pit on the 2nd formation lap.
Pre-race interviews featured Uncle Bernie trying to distract from the rolling horror show that is McHonda by confirming that the Lotii were impounded, but were still going to race. Apparently, his milk dodge from earlier in the week had failed to keep the press from noting that even with an engine upgraded with 3 tokens Honda were still lagging close to a second a lap behind whatever misery bomb was up the road from them and nowhere close to anything that might be considered acceptable. Hard days for Macca fans indeed.
Lights out saw Rosberg struggle and drop down to P5 while Perez and Ricciardo were, well, clutch at the start with Sergio nabbing P2 and giving Hamilton a serious look into La Source and Ricciardo vaulting neatly into P3 with a remarkably racy looking Red Bull. Vettel, Grosjean and Kvyat also did well in the start sweepstakes but the big winner was Verstappen who nabbed 6 spots in the opening lap.
Rosberg had already started to limit the damage lap 2 when Maldonado announced his retirement from the race with a loss of engine. Nico made short work of Bottas before the Venezuelan retired from P7, aided by a strong headwind in the DRS zone, as well as his remarkably superior car. Verstappen and Kvyat continued their charge early days as Ricciardo closed up to but was unable get round Perez.
Grosjean had been quiet at the start but with unusual Gallic efficiency was rounding up Bottas for P6 when Ricciardo decided to change the conversation at the front and go for the undercut on Lap 7, emerging on the Medium tyre.
Perez answered next lap choosing Softs for his next stint but it was not enough and Ricciardo claimed the place from Sergio as his move began cascading through the field. Bottas came in with the Force India and rocked out with a pair of mismatched tyres, an occurrence Rob Smedley was still unable to fully explain even after the race. That would prove brutal for the Finn’s race as he eventually collected a drive through for the stylistic mismatch, once the stewards realized his fashion faux pas.
Meanwhile, Vettel advanced to P3 and chose to stay out with big boys, which would prove fateful indeed down the road.
Lap 10 saw most everyone but the top 3 in as Hamilton lounged 8 seconds in front of his teammate, mostly the result of his early lap efforts. Not for long though as Ricciardo’s efforts had put Rosberg into danger so Mercedes called Nico in ahead of Hamilton on the next lap. Predictably that closed up the distance between the two, but there was no sign that Hamilton was under any sort of pressure from his teammate as he boxed on lap 12. Vettel waited a lap before following Hamilton in thus giving Ferrari at least some time at the front of the race to celebrate their raceversary. Once the pit stops were cycled through, it was Grosjean who reaped the most benefit, leveraging his early stop and soft tyres into P5, ahead of Vettel when he emerged on Mediums.
While that drama was playing out Perez neatly retook the position he lost to Ricciardo by leveraging his faster car and softer tyres to maximum advantage. AS the laps ticked by it was Grosjean closing in on the Red Bull for the kill, as he was the only other of the top 5 to choose Soft tyres for his 2nd stint.
The deed was done by lap 18, Romain boldly going round the outside at Les Combes with Vettel queuing up on his old bestie less than 4 seconds ahead. Further back, Ricciardo’s teammate continued to storm ahead by leaps and bounds, 5 places up on his start and 5.5 seconds back of Vettel.
Not satisfied with 4th, Grosjean continued his advance on Perez with brutal pace and newer tyres. Perez yielded down the Kemmel straight on lap 20 as the halfway point of the race approached. Clearly a sign that his tyres were toast, Perez boxed at the end of the lap to try and undercut Grosjean, whose tyres were 4 laps newer. As Sergio flicked into the pits Ricciardo rolled to a stop just at the exit to the chicane, his day done with faulty engine electrics.
The stranded Red Bull immediately brought out the Virtual Safety Car, just as Perez rejoined in P10, right behind Bottas. Taking advantage, Grosjean rolled into the pits at the end of the first VSC lap, to ditch his older options completely killing Force India’s strategy. Kvyat, Massa and Raikkonen also chose to lose their slightly older tyres under the VSC, a reasonable option for them as they had pitted early than anticipated.
Just as they completed their stops the VSC was lifted and the revised order was Hamilton, Rosberg, Vettel, Grosjean and Kvyat in the top 5 and Perez, Massa, Raikkonen, Verstappen and Ericsson filling out the rest of the top 10. The most important detail, though, was that due to the VSC none of the top 10 trailing Sebastian were out of his pit window, unlike the Mercedes pair who were already more than a pit stop ahead of Vettel.
Perez was not the only loser under the VSC, somehow Hamilton also managed to lose a second of his already dwindling lead to Rosberg, leaving him barely 2s to the good and prompting a few probing radio calls to his team. Nevertheless he got on with it and laid down a series of fast laps that pushed his lead back out to 5.5s over Rosberg by time Mercedes got to their planned pit stops.
But it was actually Kvyat who was first to box on lap 28, a few laps before the Mercedes after a brutally long stint. Assured he would be competitive at the end by his team, he hit the track on new Softs and began the tough task of carving his way through the field.
As the rest of the top 10 sorted themselves out Vettel radioed the team to prompt them about his next stop. However, having missed the chance to pit under the VSC, Ferrari were now hemmed in. Given the dropping track temps, the decision was made to stay out in an effort to maintain Seb’s podium as at best he would emerge behind Raikkonen and Massa and with Verstappen and Kvyat directly behind him were he to pit. With that die cast, Lewis was next in line and the call came on lap 31 to box.
Hamilton, apparently feeling cheeky, said his tyres felt fine however when told the stop would go to Rosberg instead should he not take it, it turned out he wasn’t feeling that much better and aimed his car at the pit entry. Nico followed him on lap 32 and the pair were out on fresh Options and good to go to the end of the race.
AS the laps ticked away it was Massa first up to have a crack at Perez, with Raikkonen just behind him. But try as he might, the Williams was just no match for the Force India. By lap 37, Raikkonen was caught in a vice between the approaching Kvyat and the stalled Massa. The Ferrari on Primes was no match for the Red Bull on Options half their age and Kvyat blew the doors off the Ferrari down the Kemmel straight. Well, would’ve at any rate if F1 cars actually had doors.
Meanwhile, the inexorable Grosjean had crept within DRS of Vettel in P3 and was beginning to show the lines of his Lotus large in Vettel’s mirrors. As he continued to pressure the Ferrari, Kvyat finally managed to make it round Massa going through Les Combes on lap 40 and chased downhill after the Force India of Perez. Less than a lap later Kvyat stuck the knife in down the Kemmel straight taking P5 off the Mexican and remarkably 7 places higher than where he started.
Happily enough Grosjean wasn’t yet finished with Vettel and with 2 laps to go and a podium position in play the battle was shaping up to be epic in nature. At least, until Vettel’s right rear tyre exploded at the top of Raidillon putting him out of both the points and contention and handing the place to RoGro. That’s how they came home, with Lewis leading the Mercs followed by Grosjean in the Lotus to round out the podium. A delighted Kvyat followed in 4th and it was left to Perez to cap the top 5.
The end of the race was not without controversy, however, as Pirelli and Ferrari immediately started a blamefest extraordinaire, which promises to yield a vast amount of entertainment between now and the next GP. Ferrari and Williams both endured woeful races and without consulting the history books it’s starting very much to feel like Williams have wandered down a cul de sac on the development front. Ferrari too, will be happy to blame Pirelli for a torrid weekend, but the fact of the matter is they missed their opportunity when they didn’t pit him under the Virtual Safety Car. That is, if you don’t count qualifying.
Pirelli look to be very under the gun for their tyre failures this weekend (including GP3) but as ever reality is more nuanced than we’d like it to be. A lack of testing and the need for magical tyres to keep the show rolling all played their part in the debacle as well. Enjoy fighting that one out in the comments, but do keep it above the belt.
Best wishes to Nico Rosberg on the impending birth of his child and we’ll see you in a couple of weeks, once I’ve cleaned the rest of the sand out of my keyboard…