Belgian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Mercedes lock out the front row of the grid ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix, though it was Nico Rosberg who could hold his own in the tricky track conditions, to out qualify his team-mate for pole position. Lewis Hamilton, therefore settles to start alongside in P2, with Sebastian Vettel still two seconds behind for P3. The Spa circuit lived up to its reputation of varying track conditions during qualifying. A massive downpour in the hour before the first session ensured that the already challenging track was, shall we say; moist. The slippy track resulted in many an off-moment for most of the grid.

Mercedes still clearly have the lead on the rest of the grid, qualifying a full two seconds ahead of Vettel’s Red Bull. Nico Rosberg kept a level head during all three sessions. While playing the usual game of cat and mouse between his team-mate for provisional pole, it was a more calculated racing line that saved Rosberg time, securing him pole position. Hamilton suffered several off-moments during qualifying, mostly around the Bus Stop Chicane, though he could be seen twitching through Eau Rouge in Q2. With no mechanical issues for the F1 W05* , Hamilton has nothing to fall back on, he just wasn’t quick enough for Rosberg today.

Red Bull appear to be closing the gap to the Mercedes, albeit, not by much. Vettel stayed on the intermediate tyres for all three sessions, a risky choice as rain continued to spatter the track, but a risk that paid off nonetheless. In the final session, Vettel ran wide after swapping to fresh intermediates and not having his tyres up to temperature. It took three laps on the new tyres for Vettel to set a time of 2:07.717 for P3.

Ricciardo continues to challenge his team-mate, briefly pushing him into the drop zone in during Q2. Also choosing the stick with the intermediate tyres, Ricciardo recovered from a rather thrilling twitch through Blanchimont to sit just behind Vettel with 2:07.911. The Australian sat in P4 until Alonso crossed the line, settling him to start P5 on the grid.

Alonso had a few moments throughout the day, suffering a right front lock up in Q2, and a few twitches at Eau Rouge in Q3, though overall had quite a positive qualifying. The Ferrari driver put his F14 T through its paces; with slightly better straight-line speed for P4. Raikkonen ran a different wing to Alonso during qualifying, choosing a higher downforce setup to give advantage in sector two. Kimi was rather slow to get going in the first session, venturing out first for two laps on wets, then diving back for inters. When he eventually set a lap time it was more than enough to see him through. Not wanting a repeat of qualifying in Hungary, the team kept Raikkonen out to ensure his passage to the next sessions. In the second session, Kimi catapulted himself from P14 to P5 on the inters, finally coming to rest in P8 in the final session with 2:08.780, 0.994s behind Alonso.

Williams had an interesting qualifying, with the FW36 almost running out of steam towards the end of Q3. Starting strong in the early session, Bottas and Massa challenged for the top end of the time sheets behind the Mercedes and Red Bulls. Though as the day progressed, the Williams didn’t appear to cope as well with the varying conditions. In the wet, Bottas coped well compared to the rest of the grid, though as the track began to dry and the team swapped to the intermediate tyres his advantage diminished slightly. Still very comfortably making it through to the final qualifying session, Bottas steadily found his way back to manage a lap of 2:08.049, for P6. It was a similar story for Massa, finishing the day still 1.7s behind his team-mate, in P9.

McLaren will no doubt be hoping for another dampening of the track during tomorrows race, with the MP4-29 clearly preferring the wet weather. Magnussen did manage to out-qualify his team-mate once again for P7, pushing Raikkonen down to P8 in the final moments of Q3. Jensen Button was under pressure at the end of Q2 after falling into the drop zone (with a lap set by Magnussen), Button pulled it out of the bag and managed to safely make it through to the final session. However, his pace didn’t continue in Q3, failing to improve on his Q2 time, Button will round out the top ten with 2:09.776.

Kvyat was unlucky not to make it to the top ten shoot out, though had a positive qualifying all the same. On his first out lap, the Russian went off at turn 9, with the Spa circuit biting back at the rookie. This was Kvyat’s only real moment, and he went on to set 2:09.377 for P11. Vergne’s pace started off stronger than his team-mate’s, lapping faster in the first session. In the second session however, Vergne couldn’t find the extra 0.5s that Kvyat could, making 2:09.805 on intermediate tyres his best effort for P12.

Force India had a very bipolar qualifying as Nico Hulkenberg didn’t make it out of the first session. Sergio Perez was luckier, lapping a second faster to make it through to Q2. Only improving his Q1 time by half a second, Perez eventually qualified P13 with 2:10.084. It appeared to be a strategic error that cost Hulkenberg his qualifying, with the VJM07 sitting in the garage for the first half of the session. Hoping for a dry line to have emerged, Hulkenberg ventured out on intermediates, though lost time in sector two on cold tyres (and no dry line). The result was 2:11.267 and P18.

Adrian Sutil managed to make it through to Q2, improving over the afternoon to set a lap time of 2:10.238 for P14. However, Sauber suffered from a lack of luck for Esteban. His C33 crawled to a stop during the first qualifying session. Despite only getting in four laps before losing drive, Gutierrez still out-qualified the Caterhams, so you know, small victories.

There were more small victories for Lotus, as Romain Grosjean made it through to the second session. Maldonado didn’t quite make the cut, being pushed out by Magnussen in the final moments of Q1. Pastor was one of the first to feel Spa’s sting, losing the back of his E22 into the Bus Stop Chicane, (you’re not actually meant to park there). The Enstone team therefore starts a little further back than they would have hoped for with Grosjean in P15, and Maldonado P17.

Bianchi continues to impress Marussia (and myself) after another strong performance in qualifying. On the intermediate tyres, Bianchi ended the first session in P14 on the time sheets, ahead of Magnussen and equal with Sutil. In Q2 the MR03 couldn’t keep up, with Bianchi failing to improve on his earlier time to qualify P16. Still, a Marussia in Q2 is a rather impressive achievement. Max Chilton has resolved his contractual issues, though I would have rather seen Alexander Rossi take the MR03 for a spin. Chilton delivered his usual qualifying performance, no real incidents, no real pace for P19.

Caterham have changed their driver line up for the Belgian Grand Prix. Standing in for Kobayashi, Andre Lotterer made his qualifying debut in Formula 1. Lotterer had a slow start to the session. Taking his time to lap within the 107% rule, though managed 2:13.469 after nine laps, out-qualifying Ericsson for P21. Marcus Ericsson therefore rounds out the grid in P22.

It’s difficult to know what to expect at Spa. There has been many a first lap incident on the run down to La Source, with the safety car making an appearance at eight of the last twelve Belgian Grand Prix. Whether tomorrow will deliver such carnage of the past is unknown. However, at a circuit like Spa-Francorchamps, it will undoubtedly be a beautiful race to watch.

– Alex

* And nothing in his eye

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