ROSBERG WINS AMID THE MADNESS
Bad temper, big crashes and remarkable comebacks. Spa was not for the faint-hearted
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…?!’”