Good afternoon, Sebastian?

By on Monday, August 29, 2011

To say that Sebastian Vettel’s afternoon was a good one could be interpreted as an understatement. After 44 high octane laps around the Spa Francorchamps circuit, Vettel saw his lead over team mate Mark Webber increased to 92 points. The gap to Webber will not bother Vettel at all; what’s more important to him is that Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton are all over 100 points behind with just seven rounds remaining. That is a gap that, even if Vettel were to break a leg, is unlikely to be closed down, for Vettel now has three more points than the 256 that enabled him to leave Abu Dhabi as world champion in November last year.

Vettel’s detractors had tried to imply that the reigning champion has been stuttering since his previous victory at the European Grand Prix in June. However, pole and the win silenced those critics as he took his seventh win of the season - a feat that hasn’t been achieved since 2006 - and added his name to the list of Spa greats. It’s not inconceivable that Vettel could end the season in double figures, such has been the way he has swept aside his opposition. Contrast this year’s event with the corresponding fixture last season.

After taking out Jenson Button and also colliding with Vitantonio Liuzzi, Martin Whitmarsh nicknamed Vettel ‘the crash kid’ as the German left Spa under pressure and losing touch with championship leader Lewis Hamilton. 12 months later, that mantra has passed onto Whitmarsh’s own driver as he crashed out of a race for the fourth time since Vettel’s error on Lap 16 of last season’s Belgian Grand Prix. Vettel has made just one significant error – a spin at the Nurburgring – since that low point last season and the differing fortunes of Vettel and Hamilton could not be more striking.

The build up to the race centred on the top three qualifiers and the problems they were having with severe blistering on their tyres. Red Bull and McLaren had ignored Pirelli’s advice regarding camber, went fastest and then asked to be permitted to change their front tyres for the start of the race. Unsurprisingly, they faced opposition – notably from Ferrari – and took to the grid on blistered tyres. Adrian Newey, - paranoid about safety after the death of Ayrton Senna in one of his machines – told his drivers after the race that he was relieved to see them, with the fact they finished in the top two positions a mere bonus. Team principal Christian Horner commented how "I don't think any of us felt truly comfortable, but we had to believe in the information that we had and the feedback we had from the specialists," Horner said. "We had great support in that respect. Adrian [Newey, technical chief] was pretty stressed about the tyre, and he takes that responsibility incredibly seriously. None of us wanted to be putting our drivers in any way at any risk." Pirelli informed Red Bull on Saturday evening that there was a chance that the tyres could cause structural failure on both cars, with insufficient warnings. Pirelli was justifiably unhappy with being put in such a position and recommended that changing the set-up of the car and therefore starting from the pit lane would have been a preferable move.

The race start saw Nico Rosberg burst through the front, as despite his Mercedes smoking on the grid, he was up to second after La Source and took advantage of Vettel’s caution through Eau Rouge to pass his countryman on the Kemmel Straight. Felipe Massa ran third, ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, who gained three positions from a lowly eighth on the grid. Mark Webber again made a slow start, dropping to the lower reaches of the top ten and fending off optimistic midfield runners. La Source has typically been a hotspot for accidents in previous seasons and this time around it was little different. Bruno Senna, possibly race rusty, was overly confident on the brakes and clattered into Jaime Alguersuari. The Toro Rosso was pushed into the path of Alonso’s Ferrari, breaking the front suspension on Alguersuari’s car. Senna’s front wing was broken and his afternoon was made worse through receiving a drive through penalty for his actions. Senna’s day was over before it begun, although his pace following the incident was good in comparison to team mate Vitaly Petrov. Senna triggered further contact throughout the field, as Timo Glock hit Paul di Resta, which caused damage to Jenson Button’s McLaren. Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli also found enough space to hit each other.

With the DRS activated on Lap three, Vettel eased past Rosberg and Alonso got through on Hamilton. Rosberg was holding up the two Ferrari’s and when Massa attempted a move at Les Combes, this provided Alonso with the opportunity to jump into the podium places. Alonso took an incredible amount of kerb at Malmedy – the corner where his race ended in 2010 – and slipped up the inside of Massa at Rivage, running slightly wide. The duelling Ferrari’s enabled Lewis Hamilton to get a superior exit from Turn 9 and overtook Massa on the run to Pouhon.

Vettel pitted at the end of Lap five, handing the lead to Rosberg once more. However, that didn’t last long as Alonso then Hamilton used DRS to pass Rosberg on the Kemmel Straight. Alonso and Hamilton preserved their soft tyres although by the time they both pitted on Lap 8 and 10 respectively, the Red Bull duo had been flying on fresh rubber. Vettel had long gone by the time Alonso emerged from the pits, although the recovering Mark Webber was close behind. Approaching Eau Rouge, Webber and Alonso ran side-by-side, with the Australian ever so slightly behind. Webber though was a man on a mission and passed Alonso in an astonishingly brave move that could have resulted in a huge accident, had Webber not placed an enormous amount of trust in Alonso’s driving standards.

A pass into Eau Rouge is never recommended, for it was a similar move that took the life of Stefan Bellof in 1985. Webber commented "Both of us are very experienced, we both don't give much too easily, so it was a good battle and very, very rewarding that it worked out okay, "But it takes two guys doing a good job to get all that right obviously, so it's more rewarding when you can do it with someone like Fernando because he's a world-class driver and he knows when enough is enough. Obviously my attitude might have been a bit different with someone else, let's say, but in the end, it worked out for me today."

Whilst pundits applauded Webber, his position ahead of Alonso was not to last, for the Spaniard overtook his rival on the run to Les Combes on the next lap. Meanwhile, the yet to pit Rosberg found himself in the lead once more and again it didn’t last. Vettel, not to be outdone in the spectacular overtaking department, went around the outside of Rosberg into Blanchimont and increased his lead.

Lap 13 saw the battle at the front lose one of its combatants as a relatively simple move for Hamilton curtailed his race. The McLaren driver had passed Kamui Kobayashi at Kemmel using the DRS. Unexpectedly, Kobayashi – without the use of DRS – came back at Hamilton and when the 2008 champion went to resume his normal racing line just prior to the braking point, he turned in too much on Kobayashi and was sent spearing into the barriers. Hamilton was perhaps fortunate to escape uninjured and fared better than the polystyrene board and probably better than nearby photographers who may have needed a change of underwear. Hamilton later took to Twitter to apologise for his error and said that his McLaren team deserved better from him.

The safety car was deployed and Vettel pitted, dropping to third. A radio problem meant that Webber stayed out, behind new race leader Alonso. On fresh tyres, Vettel soon dispensed with Webber and then also took Alonso, diminishing the Spaniard’s chances of a maiden Spa victory.

However, Alonso’s day was about to get worse as the Ferrari’s poor pace on the harder compound tyre was clear for all to see. Rather than set about hunting down Vettel, Alonso had to defend from Webber which was futile; the Australian made it a Red Bull 1-2 for only the second time this season and Alonso slipped back into the clutches of Button. The McLaren driver spent most of the race on soft tyres and lamented a poor qualifying and damage at the start, which hindered his progress. With a few laps to go, Button robbed Alonso of the final podium place to salvage what had been a slightly disappointing afternoon for McLaren as Red Bull took a giant step towards a second consecutive Constructor’s championship, a title that has eluded McLaren since 1998.

Vettel was understandably delighted with an unexpected win, which surely handed him his second title, something which is likely to be a mathematical certainty sooner rather than later. Speaking after the race, Vettel said “I’m very happy; today was a very good race for us, although it was not easy with the tyres. The beginning of the race was more research and science than racing and we sacrificed a lot by stopping very early. We had a good feeling though and I came in again when the safety car came out, just to see how they were. I can judge a bit from looking at the inside, but when you’re doing 300 km/h or more and the tyres are always spinning rather than stopped, you can’t really take the time to see, so it was crucial to come in and have a closer look. I’m very happy with the result. It’s a big relief after all the discussions we had going into the race.”

Further down the field there were a number of good results for some drivers under pressure. Michael Schumacher saw his qualifying session end before it had started as he extracted himself from his three wheeled Mercedes in what was left of the predominantly tarmac Rivage run-off. For the second consecutive Belgian Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher started at the back and worked his way up the field, eventually finishing 5th just ahead of erstwhile race leader and team mate Nico Rosberg, who was told to save fuel in the final stint. Schumacher was pleased with his showing, claiming it was “a wonderful ending to a wonderful weekend” as he celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his F1 debut with Eddie Jordan’s team in 1991.

Force India was once again best of the rest with Adrian Sutil finishing 7th and Paul di Resta 11th. The Scot was confident of finishing higher up the field had the safety car not ruined his strategy. Despite the misfortune, Force India now sit just three points behind Sauber in the championship and will be confident of claiming sixth place in what has been a remarkable turnaround for the Silverstone based team.

Felipe Massa’s race got steadily worse as a puncture forced him to make an additional stop. He eventually finished eighth having passed Vitaly Petrov on the final lap. The Russian had to slow on the final tour after brake problems and he parked his R31 shortly after finishing the race. Pastor Maldonado, who came under fire after his antics on Saturday, claimed his maiden F1 point in 10th, meaning that Williams now have 5 points, still a sorry statistic for one of F1’s great teams.

Kamui Kobayashi finished 12th after he lost several place under the safety car, whilst both Team Lotus cars finished ahead of Rubens Barrichello, after he pitted for repairs following contact with Kobayashi at the Bus Stop chicane. Home favourite Jerome d’Ambrosio finished ahead of his team mate, whilst Vitantonio Liuzzi was last of the classified runners. Retirements included Hamilton, Perez (damaged rear suspension), Ricciardo and both Toro Rosso drivers; neither Alguersuari nor Buemi were to blame for their inability to finish. Alguersuari was frustrated with the Turn one collision after his best ever qualifying in 6th, whilst Buemi was more aggrieved. The Swiss driver said “Perez tried to pass me and simply drove into the back of me, which completed destroyed my rear wing and I had no option but to bring the car back to the pits to retire. I really can’t understand what he was doing, as I was clearly ahead of him: it was as though he forgot to brake”

Monza is the next challenge that lies ahead for the F1 circus and it has been widely labelled as Red Bull’s weakest circuit. Still, Spa was meant to be their second weakest track and look what happened…

The Belgian Grand Prix Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium; 44 laps; 308.052km; Weather: Dry Classified: Pos Driver Team Time
 1.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           1h26.44.893
 2.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +     3.741
 3.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           +     9.669
 4.  Alonso        Ferrari                    +    13.022
 5.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +    47.464
 6.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +    48.674
 7.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +    59.713
 8.  Massa         Ferrari                    +  1m06.076
 9.  Petrov        Renault                    +  1m11.917
10.  Maldonado     Williams-Cosworth          +  1m17.615
11.  Di Resta      Force India-Mercedes       +  1m23.994
12.  Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari             +  1m31.976
13.  Senna         Renault                    +  1m32.985
14.  Trulli        Lotus-Renault              +     1 lap
15.  Kovalainen    Lotus-Renault              +     1 lap
16.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +     1 lap
17.  D'Ambrosio    Virgin-Cosworth            +     1 lap
18.  Glock         Virgin-Cosworth            +     1 lap
19.  Liuzzi        HRT-Cosworth               +     1 lap

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:49.883

Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap/reason
Perez         Sauber-Ferrari               27 - Rear suspension
Ricciardo     HRT-Cosworth                 13 - Rear problems
Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes             12 - Accident damage
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari           6 - Accident damage
Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari           1 - Accident damage
Drivers: 
 1.  Vettel       259
 2.  Webber       167
 3.  Alonso       157
 4.  Button       149
 5.  Hamilton     146
 6.  Massa         74
 7.  Rosberg       56
 8.  Schumacher    42
 9.  Petrov        34
10.  Heidfeld      34
11.  Kobayashi     27
12.  Sutil         24
13.  Buemi         12
14.  Alguersuari   10
15.  Di Resta       8
16.  Perez          8
17.  Barrichello    4
18.  Maldonado      1

The Belgian Grand Prix Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium; 44 laps; 308.052km; Weather: Dry conditions. Classified: Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h26.44.893 2. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 3.741 3. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 9.669 4. Alonso Ferrari + 13.022 5. Schumacher Mercedes + 47.464 6. Rosberg Mercedes + 48.674 7. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 59.713 8. Massa Ferrari + 1m06.076 9. Petrov Renault + 1m11.917 10. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 1m17.615 11. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1m23.994 12. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1m31.976 13. Senna Renault + 1m32.985 14. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 15. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 16. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 17. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 1 lap 18. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 1 lap 19. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 1 lap Fastest lap: Webber, 1m48.883 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Perez Sauber-Ferrari 27 Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth 13 Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 12 Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 6 Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1 

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