Sunday 28 August 2016

Belgian GP Report - Bittersweet Symphony

It was difficult to ask for more from Nico Rosberg in today's Belgian Grand Prix.

Nico Rosberg took a fine win, but it was bittersweet
Photo: Octane Photography
His was an imperious race right from the copybook. His identity as victor never seemed in doubt, despite a fair helping of chaos happening behind him as well as a mid-race red flag stoppage. He scampered off pronto at each start, then his consistent pace to add incrementally to his already healthy advantage was superb. This included even when on a slower tyre compound as everyone got going again after the stoppage. Most thought he may be put under pressure, at least initially. Not a bit of it.

There wasn't the tiniest mistake that I saw from him. He proceeded as if on rails, and won with about as much inevitability as one on a railroad. It also was his first triumph at this ultimate driver's track. And he did it all too on that day we'd anticipated for months as a vital opportunity for him, on which his Mercedes stable mate and chief title rival Lewis Hamilton started at the back thanks to his myriad of engine-related grid penalties.

And yet. Even with all of this it likely ends up feeling like a slightly bittersweet day for him, as with it all Nico only got ten points back on his team mate.

Yep, from starting a stone cold 22nd Lewis came through to finish third. His championship lead remains healthy at nine, and as he pointed out on the podium he now has an advantage on available power units for the rest of the season. The momentum yet more is his.

Lewis Hamilton after bagging third beamed
Photo: Octane Photography
It was clear he recognised this too. Afterwards, leaving little to the imagination, Lewis positively beamed. "I would definitely [have taken this result in advance], absolutely" he gushed. "I'm so happy and proud of everyone today, I really was not expecting that...[It was a] Steep mountain to climb, that's for sure...the car was great today."

He didn't miss the big picture either. "Now the fight's really on from the next race" he concluded.

Nico though looked on the bright side. "It's cool to win here in Spa, it's a legendary track" he said. "It's been a great weekend, of course Lewis wasn't there to fight it out so that made it a lot less difficult. And everything went to plan for me today, a comfortable win but it feels great of course."

When asked whether he'd have expected more of a points swing given everything, Nico played it with a straight bat. "I'm just happy about the win...and looking forward to Monza as we can have the usual battle there".

And while we might associate such a scenario of Lewis starting low and finishing high with him indulging in spectacular wheel-to-wheel battle, there actually was almost none of that today. Instead the race rather came to him. Lewis recognised this part too. "All this commotion that happened along the way, and I was very grateful to capitalise on that" he conceded.

Nico Rosberg was in a race of his own
Photo: Octane Photography
Jack Charlton once said of Kevin Keegan that if he were to ever fall into the River Tyne he'd probably come to air with a salmon in his mouth. Lewis appears in recent weeks and months to be experiencing a similarly charmed existence. And yes, today it continued. Nico not only would be forgiven for expecting rather more from today. He'd also, perhaps not for the first time, be forgiven for wondering what exactly he has to do.

Lewis's charmed day started at turn one when we had a prang. Nico scampered off into the lead from pole, but Max Verstappen with wheelspin had a poor launch from alongside him. Still, given he's the racer that he is, he tried to sneak up the inside of Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari at the sharp La Source turn. It probably would have been OK but Sebastian Vettel in the other Ferrari was on the outside, creating a three-into-two doesn't go situation. Seb was tipped into a spin by Kimi and resumed last, Max and Kimi's machines were both damaged and they had to pit for repairs (Max's and Seb's damage apparently impeded them for the rest of the day).

There was the inevitable finger-pointing but really in the view of this author is was a racing incident, the sort we've seen plenty at La Source at the start before. Perhaps you can argue that Max's move was asking for trouble, and/or that Seb might have given more space (indeed he seemed to acknowledge the point at least in part afterwards, while Martin Brundle wondered if the Ferraris might have collided even without Max being there). But neither deserves particular opprobrium.

Well, in Max's case he doesn't deserve opprobrium for that, as he then seemed to spend the rest of his day hitting people, and indeed most of the time it was Kimi, which didn't improve the Finn's mood. One particularly late move in defence on the Kemmel straight was the worst of the lot. "I'm all up for fair battles and close racing but when I have to back off on the straight when I'm making my move, that's not correct" said Kimi later with justification. "I had to brake from full speed. I haven't had that with any other driver".

Max Verstappen and the two Ferrari pilots are about to
discover that three-into-two doesn't go
Photo: Octane Photography
Verstappen as usual ceded as little ground in front of TV microphones afterwards as he does on track, but while we love his racer's instinct he needs to learn to rein it in a bit. For his own sake if nothing else. Weirdly though today, the stewards didn't see fit to even investigate any of his scrapes. Perhaps he shares even more with Michael Schumacher than we thought...

But anyway back to Lewis. He gained some places right away from that first corner buffeting of course, as he did later in the lap when Pascal Wehrlein drove into the back of Jenson Button, removing both of them. Felipe Nasr and Carlos Sainz got early punctures too.

But what really pulled Lewis's day out of its potential strife was a large crash for Kevin Magnussen at Eau Rouge on lap 6 - Kevin's injuries, mercifully, are light. Initially it was covered by the safety car but four laps later the red flag was thrown due to barrier damage. This caught a few out as they'd pitted under the safety car and lost places, and as we know a red flag in effect zeroes the race as they re-start in the order they happened to be in at the time and everyone can change tyres in the stoppage. Lewis didn't pit under the safety car as he'd started on durable mediums, and it meant he re-started in P5...

From then he rather easily sailed past Fernando Alonso and later Nico Hulkenberg to P3, though didn't make further progress, thanks in part to making an extra pit stop than those ahead. Lewis said later that this was due to having to strain his tyres more fighting in the pack. And as outlined he was delighted with the result, what with the context.

Daniel Ricciardo like the victor had a lonely race,
but second was his reward
Photo: Octane Photography
Daniel Ricciardo was the one who got second place to split the Mercs, after a run which like Nico's was rather a lonely one, but no less worthy for that. "I felt that was the best we can do today, happy - very pleased" he said afterwards. He added also that he was another to benefit from the red flag period, as it allowed his team to fix some front wing damage he incurred from debris from the first corner contretemps.

All at Ferrari yet again had a disappointing time however, and it was extremely ill-timed not only with Monza next but also with big chief Sergio Marchionne once again turning the heat up in public a little further. The team reckoned that beating Ricciardo was pretty easily done today given the high track temperatures, but the first corner scrape outlined rather put paid to that - Vettel, his car hobbled as mentioned, could only salvage sixth and Kimi ninth. Boss Maurizio Arrivabene reportedly was spitting feathers.

Williams underwhelmed again to get only eighth and tenth - Valtteri Bottas ahead - on a track that should have suited the Grove cars and on a day that, as outlined, many cars ahead had their races impeded.

And it gets worse for the team as Force India had another great day and in so doing leapfrogged Williams in the constructors' table. It's near impossible to suggest that the Silverstone squad doesn't deserve it, with it as ever making the very best of what it has.

Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso both had fine races
Photo: Octane Photography
Hulkenberg ran in P2 indeed after the first corner shenanigans and still was P3 at the red flag even though he was one of those who got the bum rap from choosing to pit under the safety car just before. Lewis got by of course, but Hulk equalled his best ever F1 result with fourth place. Sergio Perez fell even further back in the safety car/red flag fun but then flew up the order to follow Hulk home, about five seconds adrift, in P5.

Fernando Alonso was another to have a good day and his big points haul from ending up seventh was cut from the same cloth as his previous big points hauls in 2016 - being consistent, unflinching and most of all quick enough to bring home a maximum result.

He started last but was vaulted forward via the same route that Lewis was. Indeed he led the pair for a time and was as high as P4 at the re-start though before the day was out had to let three quicker folks by, Hamilton, Perez and Vettel. He remained imperturbable as ever though in holding off both Williams and Kimi's Ferrari. Bottas's engineer described Nando late on as a "sitting duck". Some hope...

"All the bad luck we had in the weekend concentrated in good luck in the race, with the incidents we avoided" said the double-champion later.

"We found ourselves in a good position, P4, but we could not hold Sebastian, Hamilton and Perez, they were too fast.

"P7 was good points for the team. Top 10 yesterday in qualifying with Jenson and top 10 today, on a circuit like this, was unthinkable a couple of months ago, so very good news."

Another thing that is becoming yet more unthinkable is that anyone other than Lewis Hamilton will take away this year's drivers' title. Despite the result and points swing against him, today he cleared a major hurdle that had been lingering ahead for months with little damage, and as outlined with an advantage he'll carry from now on. It seems grimly fitting to Nico Rosberg's 2016, at least that since the European season started in earnest, that even on a day of triumph it is his nemesis across the garage who emerges with most to smile about.

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