Bad tem­per, big crashes and re­mark­able come­backs. Spa was not for the faint-hearted

Motor Sport News - - Belgian Gp Report - BY JAMES ROBERTS

This was a wild one. Through­out the Bel­gian GP week­end there was drama wher­ever you looked. Whether it was the de­bate over Jenson But­ton’s fu­ture, the on-go­ing saga of the 60-place grid penalty at­tached to Lewis Hamil­ton’s power unit changes. Or the prob­lems that both high tem­per­a­tures and pres­sures caused to the tyre strate­gies – added to the at­ten­tion on one Max Ver­stap­pen – the week­end at Spa was a mem­o­rable one.

Through it all came Nico Ros­berg, com­fort­ably tak­ing his sixth win of the year. And to his great sur­prise he was joined on the Bel­gian GP podium by his team-mate Lewis Hamil­ton, who had started on the back row of the grid…


Eight weeks be­fore this race the teams chose their tyre com­pounds for the Bel­gian GP. But they could never have pre­dicted the weather that greeted them when they de­scended in Spa af­ter the en­forced fac­tory shut­down. It was hot, very hot.

Af­ter Fri­day prac­tice, Mercedes’s tech­ni­cal boss Paddy Lowe said that track tem­per­a­tures of 40 de­grees cel­cius were “al­most un­heard of.” The heat meant the su­per­soft tyres couldn’t cope with much more than a lap be­fore they had lost their use­ful­ness – es­sen­tially ren­der­ing them as a qualifying tyre and not par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant for the race. And with pres­sures run­ning high to avoid the sorts of fail­ures that were wit­nessed at Spa last year, tyre man­age­ment was one of the key as­pects of the three days of run­ning.

For much of this sea­son Hamil­ton has had the spec­tre of an en­gine change grid penalty hang­ing over him fol­low­ing his re­peated fail­ures early in the year. In Spa, Mercedes de­cided to give Lewis a fresh power unit and made var­i­ous com­po­nent changes to take ad­van­tage of the fact that as he was start­ing on the back row, he could take all the hits at once.

In to­tal he was given a 60-place grid penalty fol­low­ing a third power unit change on Satur­day morn­ing. Hamil­ton was given his sixth in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine, his sixth MGU-K, an eighth MGU-H and an eighth tur­bocharger that meant qualifying for the Bel­gian Grand Prix was vir­tu­ally a point­less ex­er­cise.

In­deed, the Bri­tish driver com­pleted just a sin­gle lap in Q1 to set a time within 107 per cent of the fastest time in that ses­sion. That en­abled him to save tyres for the race – cru­cially three sets of brand new softs – and he sat out the rest of Satur­day af­ter­noon. He wasn’t the only world cham­pion with en­gine trou­ble. Join­ing him out of Q1 was Fer­nando Alonso. Fol­low­ing a wa­ter leak in FP1, the Honda in the back of his Mclaren needed chang­ing on Fri­day and there was more trou­ble when he stopped at Raidil­lon in the first part of qualifying.

Join­ing the two world cham­pi­ons in fail­ing to make it to Q2 were Mar­cus Eric­s­son (Sauber), Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso), new boy Este­ban Ocon (Manor) and the sec­ond Sauber of Fe­lipe Nasr. The Brazil­ian only had one chance to record a lap af­ter his first qualifying time was deleted af­ter he cut the track at the top of Eau Rouge (Turn 4).

Just scrap­ing into Q2 was West Sus­sex racer Jolyon Palmer. On his fi­nal run he went 11th quick­est with a 1m48.901s lap. But quickly his time was be­ing eclipsed and he started to slip down the timesheets. When the che­quered flag flew af­ter 18 min­utes of Q1 he was 16th and just 0.048secs clear of the drop zone, mak­ing Q2 for the sec­ond time in con­sec­u­tive races.

In Q2 there was the first split in tyre strate­gies. For those who make Q3, they must start the race on the tyre with which they set their fastest time in Q2, but the quicker run­ners gam­bled on get­ting into the top 10 shoot-out with the slower tyre. Ros­berg, both Fer­raris and Daniel Ric­cia­rdo ex­ited the pits with softs, while every­one else ran on the su­per­softs – in­clud­ing lo­cal hero Max Ver­stap­pen.

De­spite Fer­rari swap­ping to the su­per­soft for their sec­ond run, they aborted their laps as no one was cir­cu­lat­ing quicker. For all the soft run­ners, their gam­ble paid off. Fail­ing to make the cut into Q3 was Pas­cal Wehrlein (Manor) and Car­los Sainz (Toro Rosso). Palmer, Este­ban Gu­tier­rez (Haas), Kevin Magnussen (Re­nault) and the sec­ond Haas of Ro­main Gros­jean.

For Palmer, 13th, it was his best qualifying of the year. “We’re def­i­nitely mak­ing progress,” he said af­ter the ses­sion. “My lap was scruffy but Este­ban ahead of me has a penalty [a drop of five po­si­tions for im­ped­ing Wehrlein in FP3] so I’ll be next to Kev on the grid. And at least we have a choice of tyres…”

His fel­low Brit But­ton was also de­lighted with his qualifying, de­scrib­ing his run in Q3 as “one of the best laps I’ve ever done.” He even thought it was bet­ter than his pole po­si­tion lap from 2012.

It was the first runs in Q3 that set the front row of the grid. Af­ter Se­bas­tian Vet­tel had set a 1m47.296s lap, Ver­stap­pen went top to the de­light of his orange-clad fans with a 1m46.893s. Then Ros­berg went even bet­ter with a 1m 46.744s. That was good enough for his sixth pole po­si­tion of the year, but the gap be­tween the top two was just 0.149s.

“I could have done a bet­ter lap,” said Ver­stap­pen, who ear­lier in the day had sat out most of FP3 with a gear­box prob­lem. “But in the end to be so close to them [Mercedes] on a track with some long straights, we can be very pleased with that.”

The 50,000 or so Dutch sup­port­ers were also very pleased with his per­for­mance, par­tic­u­larly as it broke a record – for 55 years Ricardo Ro­driguez was the youngest man to start on the front row of the grid. Max’s 18 years, 10 months and 28 days beats the record from Monza ’61 when Ro­driguez was 19 years, six months and 26 days.

Be­hind them in third place was Kimi Raikko­nen (who had to abort his first run when he ran wide at Stavelot and made a small trip across the gravel).

He’d beaten his team-mate Vet­tel and the sec­ond Red Bull of Ric­cia­rdo. They lined up on Sun­day ahead of the two im­pres­sive-look­ing Force In­dias of Ser­gio Perez and Nico Hulken­berg, the two Wil­liams ma­chines of Val­terri Bot­tas and Fe­lipe Massa, who sand­wiched But­ton.


It was an un­usual sight on the back row of the grid. There was Hamil­ton’s grid girl stand­ing next to Alonso’s. Two world cham­pi­ons a long way from the sharp end of the field. But their ap­proach to the early stages of the Bel­gian Grand Prix would pay div­i­dends (par­tic­u­larly as both driv­ers elected to start on the medium tyre).

There’s no point start­ing in the first few rows if you’re then go­ing to act as if you’re on the dodgems on Clac­ton sea front – as many did on an­other hot af­ter­noon in the Ar­dennes for­est. The wheel bang­ing be­gan as soon as the pack de­scended into the sharp La Source hair­pin for the first time.

Ros­berg was safely away from pole, but en­thu­si­asm got the bet­ter of lo­cal hero Max Ver­stap­pen and his Red Bull bogged down ini­tially as he peeled away from the line. He was im­me­di­ately mugged by the two Fer­raris – Vet­tel to his left and Raikko­nen to his right. In a bid to re­gain lost ground he braked late and deep into the right-han­der to re­claim lost po­si­tions. Raikko­nen was squeezed by Vet­tel on his out­side and Ver­stap­pen on his in­side and they all clum­sily clat­tered into each other.

Vet­tel spun, Ver­stap­pen lost part of his front wing and Raikko­nen suf­fered dam­age to his floor. With Max run­ning with sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced down­force he be­came a sit­ting duck and quickly fell like a stone through the field.

“My start wasn’t great but I dived on the in­side, I didn’t lock a wheel, so I was eas­ily mak­ing the cor­ner,” said Ver­stap­pen af­ter the race.

“But the Fer­raris just kept squeez­ing me and then Se­bas­tian just turned in on both of us. He knows he is on the out­side and he just turns into the cor­ner where there are two other cars. That dam­aged my front wing, I had a lot of dam­age and my floor got de­stroyed, so from there the race was gone…”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Vet­tel lay the blame on the door of ‘mad’ Max.

“It was a very bold move [from Ver­stap­pen] try­ing to re­cover those two places in one cor­ner by div­ing down the in­side, and that ob­vi­ously was the rea­son why Kimi couldn’t turn in,” said Vet­tel.

The or­der at the end of the first lap was thus: Ros­berg led Hulken­berg and Ric­cia­rdo from Massa, Ro­main Gros­jean’s Haas (who had started 11th), Bot­tas and Sainz. The Toro Rosso driver had made seven places on the first lap, but then im­me­di­ately lost out when he suf­fered a right-rear punc­ture the sec­ond time run­ning up the Kem­mel Straight.

With Wehrlein also hit­ting the back of But­ton at Les Combes (on lap one) and with so much de­bris lit­ter­ing the track thanks to the open­ing-lap may­hem, the Vir­tual Safety Car was ini­ti­ated to slow the field down. It’s also worth point­ing out where our back of the grid friends were at this stage: Alonso had sneaked up to a re­mark­able 10th and Hamil­ton was 11th. Com­pare their for­tunes with Vet­tel who was 15th and Ver­stap­pen 16th while Kimi had lost a lap.

Two other driv­ers who had leapt through the field were the Re­naults. Palmer had leapfrogged his team-mate Magnussen and the pair were cir­cu­lat­ing in sev­enth and eighth. K-mag was push­ing hard, then – wal­lop – he lost con­trol of his RS.16 at the top

of Eau Rouge, over-cor­rected and then ca­reered back­wards at high speed into the tyres at the top of Raidil­lon. It was a fright­en­ing-look­ing shunt that de­stroyed his car, the tyre wall and caused a cut to his left an­kle. The safety car was im­me­di­ately de­ployed – great news for Raikko­nen, who got his lap back – but that was fol­lowed by a red flag when it be­came clear ex­ten­sive work was re­quired to re­pair the tyre wall.

There was a 20-minute break then for driv­ers to calm down and en­gi­neers to re­think their strate­gies. Hulken­berg even asked if his team could take fuel out of his car to en­able him to run lighter to the end. In fact he had lost out the most with the lap nine stop­page be­cause he’d switched to softs three laps ear­lier and was run­ning a com­pet­i­tive third over­all – and was de­lighted to take a wellde­served fourth at the fin­ish.

Once the race got un­der­way again, there was still room for more wheel­bang­ing action – the most no­table was a re­sump­tion of the bat­tle be­tween Ver­stap­pen and the two Fer­raris.

The pair were du­elling for 14th place, with Kimi at­tempt­ing to pass the Dutch­man into Les Combes. Ro­bust de­fend­ing forced the Finn off the road and he cut the chi­cane, found him­self ahead of the Red Bull and had to con­cede the place back.

On the next lap, he picked up a great tow up Eau Rouge and as­sisted with DRS was set to pass Ver­stap­pen on the right, when the Red Bull jinked to block the Fer­rari – forc­ing Raikko­nen to take eva­sive action and in­cur­ring his wrath on the team ra­dio: “Come on, this is f**king ridicu­lous now, he’s just f**king turn­ing when I’m at full speed.”

Af­ter­wards Kimi warned that a “big ac­ci­dent” would hap­pen if Max didn’t al­ter his driv­ing ( see Rac­ing News). And even his team boss Chris­tian Horner ad­mit­ted the move was “on the edge.”

But both con­tin­ued to make con­tact with other driv­ers as the race con­tin­ued. Raikko­nen tapped Gros­jean’s right-rear at Les Combes and Ver­stap­pen touched Perez’s Force In­dia at the same place. Their day was fraught with risk and ul­ti­mately it didn’t pay off.

Com­pare once more with Hamil­ton, grad­u­ally pick­ing off his op­po­nents to come away with a third place fin­ish (and Alonso was de­lighted with his sev­enth – de­spite a close call in the pits when he ex­ited into the path of Hulken­berg).

Up front, Ros­berg didn’t put a foot wrong. Pole, a mea­sured drive on a wild day and vic­tory. He col­lected his sixth win of the year and closed the gap to Lewis in the ti­tle race. But not by as many points as he thought he had.

“Af­ter the fin­ish I looked at the re­sults,” said Ros­berg. “I knew Ric­cia­rdo was be­hind me and then I saw ‘HAM’ in P3 and I was like, ‘What? Se­ri­ously…?!’”

Ver­stap­pen in­side, Raikko­nen centre and Vet­tel – chaos en­sued

Ros­berg: win no. 6

Hulken­berg ran sec­ond early on

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