Monday 25 August 2014

Belgian GP Report: Ricciardo rises above the rancour

There seemed something almost of the logical conclusion about it. It had been anticipated for months. And yesterday was the day.

Despite appearances Spa's race was a lot like the previous one from before the break in Hungary. Of course, there were differences in weather (Spa inaptly being the one without the precipitation), and the Hungaroring and Spa track layouts could barely be more distinct. But the similarities were there.

Just like in Hungary, Daniel Ricciardo triumphed in fine style
Photo: Octane Photography
Just like then it looked from the off that the battle for the win would be a matter for Mercedes only. But it went wrong. And just like then it was one Daniel Ricciardo who smoothly ghosted into prime position to seize the bone dropped from the Merc mouths.

'It went wrong' of course is only the beginning of it. Another parallel with Hungary was that Spa's race provided us with the latest thing to fervently debate over regarding this F1 season's chief theme of the Mercedes pilots. And this time it most definitely surpassed what had come before. That thing that had been anticipated, the major plot of territory in the Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg battle for the title that had yet to be encroached, suddenly was invaded. They collided.

Lewis was confident of seizing the lead from pole man Nico from second on the grid on lap one. It happened, though not in the way he predicted, as he got the better launch. But then on the long run to Les Combes second time around Nico had the run on him. Lewis covered the inside, appeared to have things under control and took his line for the next turn, but Nico's machine lingered rather lazily in - as Martin Brundle might have said - in a wedge that was always going to disappear. His front wing clipped Lewis's left rear tyre, carbon fibre flew and Lewis's immediate tell tale twitch told us everything; his tyre was punctured consigning him to a lengthy and devastating tour back to the pits on three wheels.

From then on he was never a factor, as damage had been sustained on the way and subsequently seemed rather minded to quit long before he actually did, six laps before the end. Nil points for him.

Lewis Hamilton led off the line, but things looked
 different very quickly
Photo: Octane Photography
And as seems to be 2014's way it was Nico that came out of the contretemps better in terms of results, however convoluted the path might be. But he wasn't entirely unscathed. He was hobbled clearly by the resultant front wing damage, and while he retained his lead for the first stint the rest all of a sudden rather than being specks in his rear view were right on him. Then the additional time in changing the wing at his first stop put him into the pack. Wherein lay another couple of parallels with Hungary - that after fate had given him cars around his to think about Nico seemed to lose something, and at the same time the Merc strategy developed a curious bent.

He spent several laps in the wake of the likes of Sebastian Vettel, he even lost a place to Valtteri Bottas, and all the while he had the odd approach of having two stints on the clearly-slower medium tyre mid-race.

As noted while all of this was going on it was the brilliant Ricciardo who moved smoothly into prime position. Almost like he got an immediate sniff of the opportunity presented up ahead by the intra-Merc spat he moved past Fernando Alonso, then next time around jumped his team mate Vettel too after the latter got a tank slapper on in the middle of Pouhon. With just the lame Rosberg now ahead, and due a wing change, Ricciardo suddenly was in the box seat, and once again he converted this opportunity to victory with another consistently quick and utterly flawless drive. Which gave us yet another parallel with the Hungarian race.

His win for a long time didn't look under serious threat. Nico did free himself from the traffic eventually and got up to second place within about three seconds or so of Ricciardo after the Australian had done all of his wheel changes, but with tyres much older Nico wasn't making much or any progress. So with ten tours to go he rolled the dice and bolted on fresh soft tyres. It got exciting, as once he had cleared the cars that separated him from the leader he tore chunks - to the tune of two or three seconds every time around - from Ricciardo's advantage which extrapolated to the end pretty much equalled a dead heat. And Rosberg certainly was hanging it all out in pursuit of victory. But in the final few laps, as often is the case, the finer edge from Nico's newer and softer rubber seemed to fade, and indeed when the chequered flag dropped Ricciardo was still a positively balmy three seconds up the road.

It was yet another astonishingly fast and accomplished performance from the Australian, that seems to be making up his 2014 canvas pretty much exclusively. And yet again on the day that the silver cars were compromised he was the one to take full advantage. Only he has done this in 2014 still.

Of course, Ricciardo is absolutely right to not rule out a title charge in public, but Alonso's view post hoc seems closer to the mark: such is the 'ground speed' (as Niki Lauda might have phrased it were his attention not elsewhere) advantage that the W05 maintains the championship chances of anyone not in one this year remains in the realms of fantasy. It'll take many more - and more compromising - Nico/Lewis run-ins to get Ricciardo into the serious title picture. But it cannot be denied that the Australian has developed quite the knack of giving the Mercs no quarter when they do err.

And the erring now has developed a worrying frequency from the Brackley perspective. Many like to hark back to the Spanish Grand Prix in early May as the last time Lewis Hamilton out qualified Nico, but it also marks the last time the team had a nice boring weekend without any inconvenient dollops of intrigue. Pushing four months ago in other words. How most there must be wishing for the calm to return.

Afterwards Nico Rosberg was in the doghouse
Photo: Octane Photography
Whether they will get this is another matter, as even with what had gone on stretching back to Monaco's qualifying and all that yesterday felt a lot like the crossing of the Rubicon.

And what happened on track was only the half of it. It got more incendiary afterwards; Rosberg was the one in the doghouse, with team boss Toto Wolff calling his actions 'absolutely unacceptable'. And with justification as whatever fault there was for the clash was Nico's. But Hamilton stoked the fire further after the team's debrief, not only suggesting in public that he cannot trust Rosberg but also alleging that his team mate had admitted to causing the crash deliberately (something, in my view, I find impossible to believe, either that Nico would be stupid enough to do in the first place or would be even more stupid to admit it to the team).

Wolff then went into rapid rebuttal mode, denying that Rosberg had deliberately caused the collision, but confirmed that his charge admitted he had stuck it out on the outside of Lewis rather than yield as 'he needed to make a point'. Not the same thing as a deliberate crash, more it had echoes of Alain Prost after his infamous 1989 coming-together with Ayrton Senna in Suzuka. He was fed up of being the one to cede seemingly (in Nico's case in Bahrain and Hungary being the one to lift) and was determined to not be in that role this time. The trouble was (as was the case with Prost to some extent) by doing that he looked at best clumsy, as well as rather guaranteed an accident.

The key point for me in all of this is that why did Rosberg feel the need to make a point? He's leading the championship after all, as well as at that precise point (though based on the volatile base of a lap and a half) looked the quicker. In recent weeks - indeed pretty much for as long as they have been paired at Mercedes - there have been murmurings that of the two Lewis is much the more adept when wheel-to-wheel, and it was reinforced by the goings-on of the Hungary race. Did Nico feel the need to react to it? If so, it shows a weakness, as in his position why should he care what criticism he's getting from the outside, let alone alter his driving (very much for the worse it seems) in response? In so doing he abandoned apparently an approach that had been serving him so well up until that point in terms of what really matters in the championship fight. Further what his actions do to his relationship with his team remains to be seen.

As for Lewis, the points blow once again was a painful one for him; the gap to the top back up to 29 points just as it was before Silverstone. But there may have been some silver lining, as after all of the outside speculation that Mercedes favoured Nico there was little doubt after this race that Lewis was the one in the good books form the team's viewpoint. It was a slight pity therefore that he may have sullied this status a little with what amounted to telling tales publicly afterwards, and doing so with an interpretation of his team mate's words that Wolff for one felt was misleading.

Kimi Raikkonen, in an appropriate place, put in a fine drive
Photo: Octane Photography
Perhaps the biggest pity of all of this it that it conceals what was a mighty fine victory drive by Ricciardo. Indeed as is Spa's way there was thrilling dicing for position right throughout the pack adding up to a highly diverting race. There also were fine drives as well as Ricciardo's: Valtteri Bottas impressed once again with a good run to third peppered with what are rapidly becoming his trademark robust overtakes, while Kimi Raikkonen experienced what might have been the beginnings of a redemption with a strong drive to fourth, most appropriately on what has almost always been happy hunting ground for him. The other Ferrari pilot Alonso meanwhile had his day spoiled by a penalty for his mechanics not being clear of the grid 15 seconds before the warm up lap, which having been served put him behind cars quicker on the straights (the Ferraris, set up for wet qualifying it seems, were brick slow on Spa's many full throttle blasts) - usually Kevin Magnussen's McLaren - for the duration it seemed. But even without this Kimi might have beaten him anyway.

But the biggest star of the show was Ricciardo - a real good news story for F1 this year. It may be hard sometimes, but if you concentrate on the stuff that happens on the strip of tarmac then what we have is a very fine sport.

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