Sunday, 26 August 2018

Belgian GP Report - Defeating the Rain Gods

You know what they say about lightening striking twice - well what do they say about it striking three times? Ferrari in qualifying for this latest Belgian Grand Prix at famous Spa had reason to curse the conspicuous sense of deja vu.

Sebastian Vettel overcame yet more
rain-related misfortune to win
Photo: Octane Photography
For the third round in a row it looked the fastest thing out there. For a third round in a row rain threatened to scupper it. Rain is a Spa perennial of course and was expected all weekend. It arrived only at the last of qualifying and allowed rain master Lewis Hamilton to pip Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari for pole. Suddenly Vettel's task looked much harder, and on a weekend in which - so the consensus went - he simply had to make up points ground on his Mercedes foe.

At the start another Spa perennial made itself felt - chaos at the tight opening La Source hairpin.

A late (or non) braking Nico Hulkenberg pitched Fernando Alonso's McLaren over the top of Charles Leclerc's Sauber. The McLaren bounced off Leclerc's halo, it possibly saving his life. One wonders what the halo objectors made of it.

All three were out, while Daniel Ricciardo had his rear wing knocked off and returned to the action two laps down after repairs. Meanwhile Kimi Raikkonen with a puncture and Valtteri Bottas with a damaged front wing - both picked up in separate incidents - had to pit and resumed 14th and 15th. Raikkonen lasted only a few more laps before quitting.

But most crucial to the race's outcome at the front was a third Spa perennial that manifested moments after the fracas. The lengthy 25 second full pelt drag to Les Comes provides a clear opportunity to slipstream past whoever is ahead, particularly on the opening lap when all are bunched. And Vettel did just that to clear Hamilton and lead before the safety car was called for the turn one crash.

Much of the drama was condensed into
 a spectacular first corner shunt
Photo: Octane Photography
The Mercedes man afterwards muttered about  "trick things" on the Ferrari power unit, but the slipstreaming effect was most of it and it was so great indeed that even the Force India pair - who had started on the second row after the rain-jumbled qualifying - from a way back out of Eau Rouge almost took the lead themselves. The quartet in a brief blink were four-abreast.

When green flag racing resumed Hamilton botched his own chance of taking advantage of the very same phenomenon, losing ground beforehand from having tried to pass at the Bus Stop chicane and falling out of slipstream range.

From then on we were back where we came in, with Vettel making good on his inherent pace advantage. He was 2.2s away after just two laps of racing; before long he appeared to be managing a gap of around 3.5s. It briefly threatened to get interesting as Hamilton made his sole stop first and Vettel, pitting a lap later, had his advantage halved. But before we knew it the Ferrari had stretched 3s clear again. He was 11s up the road by the end. Hamilton clearly settled for second but equally clearly had little choice in the matter. The Spa perennial of drama and of the barely foreseen sort was one that didn't hit this time.

"We weren't good enough - our car is not the quickest today overall," admitted a sober Mercedes boss Toto Wolff afterwards. "We were swallowed up on the straight [when Vettel passed Hamilton], but it's not the only reason [for losing]. We are lacking traction, and we are really just not where we should be on the slow speed, that's not good at all - we are blistering the tyres."

Looking for trick things? Hamilton had to settle for second
Photo: Octane Photography
Vettel also focused on the early pass, and drew a contrast with 12 months ago in this race wherein he squandered a similar opportunity to clear the Mercedes for first.

"I had a great start and then I am not sure Lewis saw me," Vettel said, "he pushed me quite far to the left, but I knew my chance would be later on, up the hill. I think I timed it well.

"It seems like it was better this year because we had a little bit less wing and timing is crucial. I managed that perfectly,

"But then the safety car came and it was the other way round. I had a good restart, a very good exit off the first corner and I kept it clean. It was tricky with the tailwind, braking for the first turn, but after that, it was a very smooth race."

Max Verstappen gladdened his amassed Dutch support by clearing the Force Indias quickly, but even so he was 12s off the lead by that point and he had little to do but cruise home in that place - his lonely race contrasting dolefully with that plenty in the tribunes had eyes only for him. Given he'd never run in the top four here in an F1 race before though you'd imagine he'll take the result.

Bottas recovered from his early adventures to finish fourth, another to clear the Force India pair on track though in his case it was late on. Generally what appeared an over-powerful DRS took away a lot of what drama there might have been.

Max Verstappen had a lonely race to third in
front of vociferous support
Photo: Octane Photography
Plenty hearts nevertheless were gladdened that Force India - or rather these days Racing Point Force India F1 - got a healthy points haul for fifth and sixth, Sergio Perez ahead, after the team's recent troubles. Indeed technically it was the team's first points ever, it having lost the previous haul after its administration and subsequent buyout. After today it is already ahead of Williams in the constructors' table and just one point shy of Sauber.

The Haas duo were next home, Romain Grosjean first, with Pierre Gasly's Toro Rosso and Marcus Ericsson's Sauber completing the scorers.

Most of all today reminded us of something. That for all that Hamilton has eked clear in the title table Vettel and Ferrari have persistently been the fastest package in recent times. And ask any F1 engineer, it's pace - not points - that keeps them awake at night.

Adding to this the modern Autumn schedule stretches on long. Next up is Monza too, Ferrari's home round. And if the red car does have a straightline speed advantage - and you'll struggle to find people who think otherwise - the royal park's straights will offer it plenty of plunder.

This championship still has life in it.

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