Belgian Grand Prix: Aussie Aussie Aussie

Daniel Ricciardo took out his third win of the season at Spa-Francorchamps after a faultless drive allowed him to pick up the pieces of Mercedes disastrous race. Nico Rosberg somewhat controversially took the second step of the podium, while the quiet achiever at Williams; Valtteri Bottas came home to finish third. From lights out, Hamilton got the jump on Rosberg on the run down into La Source, but so too did Vettel. Starting from P3, the Red Bull was quick off the line to challenge the two Mercedes down into turn 1. Rosberg reluctantly conceded two positions, until a too-eager Vettel ran wide, letting Rosberg back through to challenge Hamilton. The rest of the field made it through La Source relatively unscathed, with the exception of Bianchi, who ran wide down to Eau Rouge and was clipped by Romain Grosjean as he re-entered the track. The tone for the rest of the race however, was set on the second lap after a very clumsy tussle between the two Mercedes. As Lewis Hamilton led his team-mate* into Les Combes, Rosberg went off the racing line to have a look around the outside of Hamilton. Hamilton continued on the racing line to make the apex of the corner, only to find Rosberg still there… Rosberg’s front wing clipped Hamilton’s left rear, causing a puncture (and soon a full blow-out) and a considerable loss of downforce to Rosberg’s car. All of this, and only on lap two.

Daniel Ricciardo was there to pick up the pieces of the scrapping Mercedes. Ricciardo was calm and calculated, not to say he wasn’t pushing. Making it somewhat of a habit, Ricciardo took Alonso into Les Combes on lap 4 to hunt down Vettel. He didn’t have long to stalk behind his team-mate before another mistake on Vettel’s behalf forced him wide, allowing Ricciardo to pounce past, and scamper away. The young Australian led for most of the 44 lap race, defending his top step finish right down to the last lap. Ricciardo finished the race on 17 lap old medium compound tyres, just 3.3s ahead of a fully recovered Rosberg on 10 lap old soft compound. A brilliant drive, and a well deserved win for Ricciardo and his “big homies” (his words, not mine). Vettel, though somewhat outshined by the young-gun, put in an impressive drive (though clumsy in areas) to finish P5. Vettel’s race came to a climatic finish following his final pit stop for soft compound tyres with just 10 laps remaining. The strategy put Vettel right amongst the battle in the midfield between Magnussen, Button, and Alonso. The wheel-to-wheel action saw Vettel capiltalise on mistakes made by Button and Alonso, moving himself up to P5 on the final lap. Despite a solid finish, Vettel’s race was a little shabby, exceeding track limits at the Curve Paul Frere, and running wide through Les Combes on the opening lap.

Valtteri Bottas completed the podium line-up, making up three positions to finish third. The Williams, clearly much more competitive in the dry conditions made progress early on in the race, making an easy pass on Rosberg before remaining steadily on the gearbox of Vettel. Following the Finn’s pit on lap 38 for the harder compound, Bottas breezed past Vettel on the run into La Source, and never looked back. Having no such luck, Felipe Massa picked up damage from Hamilton’s tyre debris, spoiling his race from early on. Massa spent most of the afternoon well outside the points, though finished his race in the 1:54s in P13.

Kimi Raikkonen looked in strong podium contention at Spa, though in the end, the F14 T didn’t have the pace to challenge the Williams. Still running the smaller wing, Kimi was lapping within the 1:54s compared to Alonso’s 1:56s, showing that hopefully the Finn is becoming more comfortable in the Ferrari. Alonso’s race got off on the wrong foot, with team personnel still on the grid at the start of the formation lap. Alonso was awarded a 5 second stop-go penalty, which he served on lap 13. Though the penalty could have been worse for Alonso, it did bring him out behind Magnussen, who proved not as easy to pass as Alonso would have expected. The F14 T looked very scrappy, lacking considerable grip and even speed against the MP4-29 (which is slightly embarrassing). In the final laps, the Ferrari was in the midst of the battle for P5, 6, and 7. Though spoiled his chances by running wide, allowing Vettel through. Eventually Alonso finished P8.

McLaren had one of their best results of the season of a double points finish, with Magnussen P6 ahead of Button in P7. Magnussen had already shown he could hold his own against Alonso, though managing a two stop strategy finishing on 20 lap old medium compound tyres is rather something in your rookie year. Jensen Button waited until the final stages of the race to do something exciting, keeping himself ahead of the Ferrari, and for a time the Red Bull as well. Alonso had eventually made it past Button, though running wide on the final lap allowed the McLaren through for P7.

Force India had a better race than qualifying, though only managed to get one car into the points. Perez made up four positions in the race to finish P9 on a two-stop strategy. Hulkenberg, on the same strategy, made up a full nine positions to finish just outside the points in P11.

Danill Kvyat took out the final point of the race, finishing P10. Kvyat had a quiet, but positive race. Vergne was unlucky to score a point at Spa, lapping in the 1:53s, albeit in clean air and with no one behind him. Perhaps the pressure of losing his Toro Rosso seat will push Vergne the same way it pushed Massa last season?

Sauber had a somewhat anonymous race, with neither driver picking up a point. Sutil finished ahead of his team-mate in P14. Gutierrez at least had a better race than he did qualifying, though he did only manage P15.

Max Chilton was involved in a rare occurrence of racing in challenging Ericsson for P16. Hats off to Max though, who after having stalked down the Caterham once, lost considerable ground in the final few laps due to blue flags as the scrap between Magnussen, Button, Vettel, and Alonso moved through. The Marrusia managed to let everyone past, and close the gap back to Ericsson in less than a lap, to eventually overtake the Caterham. Jules Bianchi was forced to retire on lap 41, though his race was ruined from the opening lap. Following his contact with the Lotus, Bianchi never managed to make up his lost grid positions.

It was not the best day at the office for Lotus, with neither driver reaching the chequered flag. Maldonado retired on lap 2, due to exhaust issues on his E22 calling it quits. Grosjean made it to the final ten laps before damage from debris forced him to retire.

With the number of cars that picked up damage from debris during the race, it is a wonder why at no point the Stewards thought it might be a good idea to deploy the safety car and clear the track. That being said, if the track had of been cleared, Nico Rosberg wouldn’t have picked up with very snazzy decal around his antenna (a piece of Lewis’ tyre). The safety car would have however, brought the grid back together, saving a few races. All in all, I don’t think anyone will be complaining about the top step result, as Ricciardo remains the only driver able to win a race against the Mercedes this season. It’s the Tifosi’s turn to host Formula 1, as the championship moves to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix in two weeks time, so until then, bonsoir.

– Alex

* That term is used very loosely now

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

Belgian Grand Prix: Track Analysis

Bonjour, et bienvenue à le Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps! After the seemingly endless Summer Shutdown, the championship resumes for Round 12 at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix. The track runs clockwise for 44 laps, the fewer number of laps given that Spa is the longest circuit on the calendar, at an immense 7.004km. Comprised of a mix of highs-peed corners, slow(er) corners, and dramatic elevation changes, Spa is a very challenging track.

Turn 1, La Source, marks the slowest corner on the track before (if you make it out unscathed) opening up to Eau Rouge. There is a risk of cars bottoming out* at the bottom of Eau Rouge, the long sweeping corner should therefore dictate drivers’ ride-height for the rest of the circuit.

With DRS assistance along the Kemmel Straight into sector two, Les Combes offers a lovely opportunity to overtake. The second sector is made up of slow corners (that’s a relative term there…) where mechanical grip is important. A good exit at Turn 15 for the Curve Paul Frère is needed to take Blanchimont at full speed, and into the Bus Stop Chicane for another opportunity to overtake.

Spa is a low drag, lower downforce circuit. So an aerodynamically efficient setup is favoured to assist in straight-line speed for sectors one and three. Teams opting for more rear wing are typically going for a stronger sector two. Despite having 19 corners, brake wear is considered light, giving an indication of just how little braking is needed.

The Belgian Grand Prix is a favourite among drivers and spectators; it’s not hard to see why.

– Alex

* Lol, bottom.

Belgian Grand Prix: Unpredictably Predictable

The race that has a reputation of being unpredictable was true to it’s word Sunday, but probably not in the way that we were all hoping. The championship resumed on with what could be described as a bit of an anti-climax. We’re still awaiting to hear confirmation as to who’s filling the Red Bull seat next year, and still waiting to hear where Kimi will be taking his seat. Without these announcements, we were still expecting a thrilling race, with a high chance of rain changing track conditions, and a scramble to choose the right tyre strategy. Alas, as unpredictable as ever, the entire race was dry, and took place with a noticeable lack of thrill.

The run down to the first corner was intense to watch as memories of last years pile-up came to mind. The close together pack were more cautious this time, though about three quarters of the pack locked their brakes. Hamilton and Vettel were the first to make it to La Source, followed closely by Rosberg, who had already gained a place on Webber. Hamilton had a superb start, and managed to defend his position through Eau Rouge. Although Vettel, following closely in the Mercedes slipstream, made his move down the Kemmel Straight and lead the race by the time he reached Les Combes. Vettel wasn’t challenged for the lead for the entirety of the race, and therefore won with ease. Despite a quiet qualifying from McLaren, Jensen Button was pressurising Rosberg for third. Alonso (who had qualified in ninth), had made his way up to fifth by the end of the first lap, while Kimi was cruising back in tenth.

On lap 4, Alonso made his move into fourth by taking Button using DRS on the Kemmel Straight, and pulled the same move again two laps later on Rosberg to put himself into third. While Alonso was carving his way through the front runners, his team mate was having no such luck. Massa, who was stuck in traffic towards the back of the grid, didn’t feel right with his car, fearing wing damage and a loss of KERs.

Hulkenburg initially had a good race, holding up both the Lotus’ of Kimi and Grosjean. It was initially odd that Kimi hadn’t made a move on the Sauber, though it soon became apparent that the Lotus was suffering from brake issues. With every application of the brakes, black brake dust would shoot off. Troubling signs of what was to come for Kimi. Slightly further back in the pack, Perez was trying to make a move on Grosjean, resulting in the Lotus being forced off the track. A move which saw Perez receive a drive through penalty, possibly a bit harsh of the stewards in this instance. On lap 9, Kimi did make his move on Hulkenburg, moving up into eighth.

Caterham’s Charles Pic became the first retirement of the race on lap 9 due to a reported oil leak. After the first round of pit stops, Button briefly led the race (having been yet to pit), unfortunately for the McLaren his worn tyres were easy prey for the Red Bull’s fresh ones, as he made his way through at the Blanchimont Chichane on Lap 15 to retake the lead. Raikkonen’s race was looking better (with his brake seemingly having calmed down) as he made a very tight move on di Resta at the same chichane on the same lap. Webber was on his usual fight back up the grid after a less than ideal start, showing just what will be missed about him next season has he followed Grosjean waiting for the perfect opportunity to overtake the Lotus, a moment he found coming out of Eau Rouge on lap 17 to move himself up into sixth, and then fifth when Button came into pit.

One of the most famous corners in the championship, Eau Rouge, requires a tremendous amount of skill for the drivers at the best of times let alone when you’re heading down three-a-breast. This is exactly what di Resta, Perez, and Sutil did on lap 18, looking like some kind of bizarre entrant in a three-legged race. Incredibly, all three cars emerged unscathed with Sutil leading the three. Vettel continued to extend his lead on Alonso and Hamilton as the Mercedes was visibly struggling to get the performance out of his tyres.

On lap 24 and 25 Kimi was chasing Massa, though he was losing speed throughout the lap. It looked like he was about to make his move coming into the Blanchimont Chicane, but he went straight off. Despite the team’s best efforts, Kimi’s brakes had given up forcing him to skulk back into the pits. The retirement ended his record of most consecutive points finishes. However, in true Kimi style, he soon disappeared to what can only be assumed was the bar. On the next lap, Maldonado missed the first apex coming into the Blanchimont Chichane and made contact with Sutil, pushing the Williams car straight into the path of di Resta. Once again for the unluckiest man in F1, he was immediately a retirement from the race as his left rear tyre was now sitting atop the right rear. The contact didn’t seem to harm the remaining Force India, as Sutil initially droppping back four places to twelfth, managed to work his way back into the points finishing ninth. Maldonado was not so lucky, immediately pushing him back to sixteenth after receiving a 10 second stop-go penalty.

Button, who was racing in third for a possible podium finish, came in for his final pit on lap 34 coming back out in sixth but failed to make up any grid places to finish the race in that position.  Daniel Ricciardo’s pace quickened towards the end of the race as he pushed his final pit-stop back to lap 33 while running in eighth. Coming back into the field, he made light work overtaking Hulkenburg, team mate Vergne, and Perez to finish in the points in tenth.  After initially a very difficult race, Massa steadied himself and finished seventh.

Hamilton fought hard throughout the race, coming home to finish third after, though the real drive of the day would have to go to Alonso. The Spaniard drove to absolute perfection after a poor qualifying. By the end of the first lap, he’d made up four places to fifth (most of which he managed at the tricky La Source Hairpin), and by lap 11 he was running in second where (after a brief work back from fourth following his pit stop) he finished the race in. It was a real shame that Vettel had such a lead on the rest of the field as Alonso was on such form on Sunday, I would have loved to have seen him have a go at taking Vettel. The weekend’s results pushes Red Bull 77 points clear of Mercedes, and 94 points clear of Ferrari. At this stage it looks set that Red Bull and Vettel will take out both the Constructor’s and Driver’s Championships, but here’s hoping that the gap in the points closes up over the next few races.

– Alex

Qualifying Pole Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
Podium Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing-Renault)
Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
Fastest Lap 1:50.756 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing-Renault)

Belgian Grand Prix: Qualifying Thoughts

Round 11 of the championship resumes at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps, home of Eau Rouge, one of the favourite and most famous corners of any track. This is a high-speed circuit, where the team must make the most of the 7.004km track. The weather couldn’t make up it’s mind during all three qualifying sessions on Saturday, which made for some very interesting lap times. DRS was deactivated numerous times during the sessions as the track was too wet and slippy. The changing weather meant that every car was eager to get out and post a time before track conditions potentially got worse. Despite a wet track, qualifying went largely without incident and the drivers mostly managed to stay on track. The drivers of the day were Force India’s Paul di Resta and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

Neither of the Lotus cars were fans of the wet in Q1, but not as much as Toro Rosso and the Willams teams. Both teams got their tyre strategy wrong choosing to stay out on old inters. Van der Garde was the first to go out on slicks in the final minutes of Q1 which proved to be the right decision, easily securing himself to Q2. Out after Q1 were Maldonado, Vergne, Ricciardo, Bottas, Gutierrez, and Pic. It was unfortunate for Ricciardo and Gutierrez especially, as both drivers posted fast laps too early in the session and just didn’t have the grip in the tyres when the track began to dry.

With the track continuing to dry at the, most of the drivers went out on slicks at the beginning of Q2.  Alonso’s Ferrari was surprisingly quick during the second qualifying session Hamilton made it through to Q3 by the skin of his posting a 1:49.067s. Van der Garde, who got it so right in Q1, failed to make it through to the final qualifying session. Out after Q2 were Hulkenburg, Sutil, Perez, van der Garde, Bianchi, and Chilton.

The rain returned for Q3, and every driver was eager to get back out on track with the notable exception of Paul di Resta. The Force India sat in his garage for the first few minutes of the wet session. His strategy was pure genius, the remaining nine cars in the session went out on slicks to try and post a dry time. The sneaky Scot had the rest of the pack to make a little dry line for him while he waited for everyone to come back in to pit, and then went out on inters with absolutely no traffic. For most of the session it looked as though di Resta had managed to secure provisional pole. That is, until the final minute of qualifying when the Mercedes’ and Red Bull’s knocked him down to provisional P5. Di Resta could not have been unluckier, having come back into the pits with half a minute left of the session, immediately Rosberg knocked him off P1, then Webber and Vettel. Having only just made it through to Q3, Hamilton posted the fastest time of the session as the last driver over the line.

In the end the top ten on the provisional grid shaped up as Hamilton, Vettel, Webber, Rosberg, di Resta, Button, Grosjean, Raikkonen, Alonso, Massa.

The wet-dry qualifying demonstrated just how quickly track conditions can change, and with that, the drivers who can dominate. The race is forecast to be wet making for a very slippy track. Hamilton feels confident driving in changing conditions, but who else will?

– Alex