BELGIAN GP DEBRIEF CONTROVERSIAL POLE WIN
Ricciardo’s against-the-odds win almost went unnoticed amid the fallout from warring Merc drivers
A grudge. A nudge. A fudge. From Nico Rosberg’s harboured discontent, to his and Lewis Hamilton’s lap-two contact, to on-the-hoof policy pronouncements from senior management, this was a Belgian Grand Prix Mercedes won’t forget in a hurry – even though they’d probably like to. It started with the usual script: a front-row lockout for the Silver Arrows (Nico ahead of Lewis); talk of optimism for the race ahead; confidence from the pole-sitter that of course P1 is the best place to start a race – and from his team-mate that P2 represented a “blessing in disguise”. Mind games. Subtle self-assertion. Jockeying for position both on- and off-track.
And, equally familiar, was the sub-text of trouble at t’mill. As is inevitable when two gifted race drivers are placed in equally competitive, dominant machinery, each will sense the
opportunity to win a world title and, as we have so regularly seen since Melbourne, neither Lewis nor Nico are prepared to let it slip through their ngers. For Lewis there is the chance to end the drudgery of spending ve years watching rivals cruise to titles in far superior machinery. For Nico, the prize not only of winning a rst title, but of being the rst German to win the world championship for the Silver Arrows.
The stakes could scarcely be higher and it’s against this backdrop that their ever-more intense rivalry must be viewed. Is it a surprise
that cracks in their relationship are beginning to show? Or that Merc’s triumvirate of Toto Wolff, Paddy Lowe and Niki Lauda are struggling to contain the spikes of energy generated by the friction of intra-team competition? Hardly. More remarkable is that it has taken until round 12 of the 2014 F1 world championship for one W05 Hybrid to touch another.
But touch they did, on the crest of the majestic Spa-Francorchamps circuit, second time down the Kemmel Straight, as a speed-carrying, combative Rosberg attempted to round Hamilton on the outside of the Les Combes right-hander, trying to force his way sufficiently far alongside Lewis to stop Hamilton turning in for the immediate left. His attempt was short by a metre or so, and as Hamilton took his line for the fastest exit, his left-rear Pirelli was sliced by the outer extremity of Rosberg’s right-front wing.
The puncture was immediate; the two-thirds-of-a-lap-with-flailing-tyre return to the pits agonisingly slow. And the consequences? Both immediate and long-term…
Lewis’s race was shot, even though he grumped on at the team’s behest to a lap40 retirement, his third ‘zero’ of the season. Rosberg, meanwhile, delayed after a front-nose change and a strategy revision, charged through to second, revelling in a performance advantage of almost two seconds per lap over smash-and- grab victor Daniel Ricciardo. Nico’s satisfaction at having extended his championship lead over Hamilton to 29 points will, however, have been tempered (should that be ill-tempered?) by the fall-out from his clumsy-at-best shot for the lead. Co-team boss Toto Wolff’s ire at the loss of what should have been a team one-two was such that he struggled to articulate his anger in post-flagfall interviews. A little later, and a degree cooler, he was forced to concede that team orders would now be inevitable for the remainder of the season. He stopped short of specifying their nature, but was explicit in the need for a change in Silver Arrows’ racing philosophy. Lauda, too, was overheard by F1 Racing barking into his mobile phone: “Wir mussen ein team order machen” [We’ll have to do team orders]. Rosberg left Spa looking like the naughty schoolboy who’d got off lightly with a detention after tripping over a fellow prefect on sportsday. But Hamilton seemed bereft, confused. Though he spoke calmly of the heated exchanges that had taken place post-race between him, Rosberg, Wolff and Lowe in the cloistered privacy of a motorhome meeting room, quickly came the realisation: “We’ve only got seven races to go and those 29 points are going to be hard to get back.” “Can you trust Nico now?” he was asked. “How might you feel going into the rst chicane at Monza, one-two ahead of Nico?” A pause. A surprising smile. “I’ll just have to make sure I’m far enough ahead.” There are echoes of 1986 here as a dominant team (Williams) with two combative aces (Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell) manage to blow a drivers’ title as a gifted, though unfancied rival powers through to seize the crown in an underpowered, brilliantly operated car. For 1986 champ Alain Prost we might, of course, read shiny new superstar Ricciardo, who pulled off an against-the-odds win to rival any in memory. Unsullied by intra-team friction (he’s too far out of Seb’s reach), confident, gracious and breathtakingly fast, Dan has emerged as the feel-good sleeper hit of 2014. There is no way Red Bull should have been on the podium at Spa, with an engine still an estimated 70bhp down on the Merc power units plumbed into the works team chassis and the customer FW36. Yet fully trimmed out and looking sketchy as hell up the hill out of Eau Rouge, the RB10 was absolutely competitive. Rosberg headed the race speed sheet on 195.17mph; Ricciardo came next on 194.12mph, then Seb on 194.05mph. “We won at Canada and Spa, two tracks we’d identified as non-possibilities,” grinned Christian Horner afterwards. “Let’s see what we can manage at Singapore and Suzuka – which should suit us much better.” The fat lady has barely cleared her throat.
Belgian Grand Prix
24.08.2014 / Spa-Francorchamps