Race Analysis: Controversy, spills and thrills in the Ardennes at Spa
It’s fair to say that the Formula One World Championship well and truly exploded back into action this weekend at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit, after a thoroughly entertaining Belgian Grand Prix weekend culminated in a race full of excitement, close racing and most notably controversy.
Too close for comfort at Mercedes
After only two laps into the race, the Mercedes of duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg found themselves nose-to-tail in what many were expecting to be an intriguing and race-long battle for supremacy between the two Championship contenders. Instead, the unthinkable happened at Les Combes when Rosberg tried to master an overtaking manoeuvre around the outside of his team-mate. Although the move looked unlikely to be completed, the two made light contact which resulted in Hamilton suffering from a puncture and Rosberg with front-wing damage.
Whilst Rosberg led for the following six laps, Hamilton began to plummet through the order as he limped back to the pits with a severe left-rear puncture. From there the Briton’s race was doomed, as he struggled with a damaged floor until he was called in on lap 38 to retire with engine preservation in mind.
With the stewards electing against an immediate investigation into the incident, Rosberg managed to finish second behind Ricciardo. However, the German was booed on the podium by disgruntled British fans, as a whole can of worms was eventually ripped open during the immediate aftermath of the race.
Did Rosberg’s lock-up behind Vettel ruin his chances of victory?
Despite being forced to pit on lap eight for a new front-wing and adopt a new strategy, Rosberg still had a chance to secure victory. However, the German rejoined the action behind fellow countryman Vettel with the Williams of Bottas close behind. With Rosberg’s race engineer encouraging him to muscle his way around the reigning Champion, he suffered a monumental lock-up on lap 17 into the Bus-Stop.
This error in turn enabled Bottas to quickly close the gap, and also ruined his relatively new medium tyres almost immediately. On the run up to Les Combes the German was easily overtaken by the Williams driver, as Rosberg soon began complaining of vibrations on his tyres despite their relatively young age. Eventually Rosberg pitted for yet another fresh set of tyres on lap 20, after only managing to complete ten laps on his set after his first stop.
There is no denying that Rosberg’s mistake behind Vettel cost him the ability to competitively fight for victory later in the race alongside Ricciardo, with the German constantly striving to fight through the points-paying positions alongside the likes of Perez and Button. Had the German kept a cool head on the run down to the Bus-Stop back on lap 17 and elected to pounce on Vettel in either of the two DRS zones, then victory could certainly have been in his grasp.
Ricciardo dominates, but where was Seb?
Whilst Mercedes’ essentially descended into disarray after the opening few laps, Daniel Ricciardo once again managed to pounce and secure his third victory of the season. This scenario is beginning to become slightly repetitive this season: Mercedes trip up either due to mechanical woes such as Canada, or in Rosberg’s case a mistimed safety car like in Hungary. Each time only one man has been waiting in the wings to grab the advantage with both hands, and that man is Ricciardo who is now only 35 points behind Hamilton in the Drivers’ Championship.
However, the major question within the paddock is where was Sebastian Vettel during the 44-lap race? The reigning Champion managed to out-qualify his team-mate, yet was seemingly unable to put a halt to his dominance during the early stages of the race. After Hamilton had dropped down the order due to his collision with Rosberg, Vettel found himself a strong second position behind his fellow countryman. However, several uncharacteristic mistakes during the race set the tone for Vettel’s afternoon, with the German running wide at turn 11 in particular on lap five and easily allowing Ricciardo through, shortly after the Australian ace had perfected an overtaking manoeuvre on the Ferrari of Alonso.
With 12 rounds already completed this season, Ricciardo has undoubtedly left his team-mate wallowing in his wake, after a year full of competitive results and three sensational victories which have all arisen after being in the right place at undoubtedly the right time. Should such a trait continue, especially on circuits where Red Bull are not expected to excel such as Spa and Monza, then Ricciardo could slowly become a serious Championship contender with double points at Abu Dhabi.
More misfortune for Massa whilst Bottas continues to impress
Another trend which continued within the paddock during the race was the ongoing misfortune of Massa, who despite his team-mate’s ability to once again finish on the podium had his race hindered by debris which was collected on his car from Hamilton’s incident. Although the Brazilian driver managed to finish ahead of his team-mate in Hungary, the three races prior all included moments of either poor luck or a lack of judgement.
At Hockenheim poor judgement was one of the main factors in his hefty collision with the McLaren of Magnussen, who was left with nowhere to go into turn one with Massa to his left and Bottas straight ahead of him. During the British Grand Prix a whole host of issues plagued Massa, all within the space of several corners. An anti-stall issue saw him struggle off of the line, only to be collected by Raikkonen during the Finn’s monumental crash on the opening lap. At Austria he suffered from a slow pit-stop, despite securing pole position and being presented with his best opportunity of the season to finally finish on the podium.
So far Massa’s personal best result of the season remains a sole fourth place finish at Austria, whereas team-mate Bottas excelled to secure his first of three consecutive podium finishes.
Ferrari shine at the most unlikely venue, whilst the Kimi of old returns
If you had been told at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend that Ferrari would enjoy a very competitive race towards the sharp end of the order, with both Alonso and Raikkonen even producing the fastest lap at separate periods, then you may well have disregarded such predictions with Spa-Francorchamps not expected to suit the Scuderia.
However, as the weekend continued it became apparent that their car was able to competitively run alongside the likes of Williams, McLaren and Red Bull. During qualifying Alonso managed to stick his Ferrari on the second row of the grid alongside another car which was initially expected to struggle at Spa, the Red Bull of Vettel.
During the race both Alonso and Raikkonen ran as high as second, with the Finn in particular rediscovering his old form around the track he is renowned for excelling at. Whilst Raikkonen remained in the battle for the final podium position with Rosberg and fellow countryman Bottas, Alonso was unfortunately struck with a five-second stop/go penalty which he served during his first stop and saw him rejoin the action way down in tenth.
This lead to a frenetic final few laps for the Spaniard, as he became embroiled in a highly competitive skirmish with the McLaren duo and Vettel for fifth, with Magnussen in particular incurring a penalty for forcing Alonso off of the track at one stage on the run up to Les Combes. With the Scuderia struggling far less than expected at Spa, many will be eagerly looking ahead to Monza where the fanatical Tifosi will be praying their unexpected competitiveness is repeated.
Kvyat returns to the points as his impressive debut season continues
Towards the latter half of the points-paying positions reigning GP3 Champion Kvyat enjoyed a return to the points in the Toro Rosso, with his impressive debut season in the sport continuing. With the news of late centred solely around his team-mate for 2015, Verstappen, outward-bound driver Vergne once again endured a relatively quiet 44-lap race which will not bode well for his ongoing hopes of retaining a drive on the F1 grid. So far this season Kvyat has managed to progress into the all-important top ten shootout on six occasions, the same amount as his much more experienced team-mate.
With regards to the races, Kvyat is currently just ahead of Vergne with five finishes within the points in comparison to his French team-mate’s four. Although the two above stats might indicate the two are very closely matched, Kvyat has undoubtedly been one of the standout performers of the season so far alongside Bottas, with the 20-year-old completing his graduation straight from the GP3 Series to Formula One with considerable ease, therefore making him an automatic choice to partner Magnussen in 2015.
Lotterer’s debut and career lasts only one lap
Prior to the start of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend one of the major talking points besides Max Verstappen was the surprise appointment of WEC driver Andre Lotterer at Caterham in place of Kamui Kobayashi. With the German driver last driving an F1 car way back in a test session in 2002 for Jaguar Racing, many were expecting him to struggle greatly at Spa.
Contrary to these expectations, Lotterer was up to speed in no time behind the wheel of the Caterham CT05, ending the opening practice session of the weekend ahead of his much more established rookie team-mate of Marcus Ericsson. As the weekend progressed, the battle for supremacy within the Leafield-based outfit ebbed and flowed, with Lotterer eventually out-qualifying Ericsson by almost a whole second in the wet.
However, the German was unable to continue improving with Caterham, after a loss of power occurred after only one lap at turn 17. Despite such a short career and debut in F1 at Spa-Francorchamps, Lotterer can return to the WEC with his head held high after far from embarrassing himself during the weekend.
For the remainder of the season it seems the case of musical chairs will continue at Caterham, with both Carlos Sainz Jr and Roberto Mehri strongly linked to the seat alongside Ericsson. One thing that does seems likely is that Kobayashi will probably not return to the F1 grid with Caterham, if at all, after a thoroughly frustrating season.
Image(s) courtesy of Octane Photographic