It was bound to happen. It just had to.
They came close in Bahrain. They battled again in Spain. Monaco was tense. Canada was mightily close. Hungary was controversial. But in Belgium they did the unthinkable. The two dominant cars touched.
Nico Rosberg hit Lewis Hamilton. The latter's race was ruined. The former went on to claim second. Mercedes lost a 1-2. Senior management could not contain their anger, while Hamilton's revelation post-debrief gave the title battle a new meaning. What has been simmering for a while has now exploded in a very public and very messy fashion.
Hamilton took the lead at the start when Rosberg bogged down, while Sebastian Vettel surged into second place and challenged Hamilton along the Kemmel Straight. Vettel tried the outside line but realised it was a fruitless pursuit and took to the run-off, allowing Rosberg back into second.
The next time around Rosberg closed up to Hamilton at La Source and got a run along the Kemmel Straight. Hamilton hugged the inside line, Rosberg went to the outside, but it was obvious that the move wasn’t quite on. But Rosberg kept his nose in as Hamilton edged him out.
Front wing hit rear left tyre. Rosberg’s front wing was damaged, but crucially, Hamilton sustained a puncture and had to trail around for repairs. It took 12 races, but the dominant Silver Arrows had come to blows. The contact was minor, but the ramifications were huge. While Rosberg had to change his front wing and lost out to Daniel Ricciardo, Hamilton drove around off the pace due to a damaged car. The points swing was 18 in Rosberg’s favour. Toto Wolff was so livid that he could barely speak after the race. Niki Lauda was similarly perturbed. But then Hamilton took the controversy to another level during his meeting with the written press, which took place following the Mercedes debrief.
“It looked quite clear to me but we just had a meeting about it and he basically said he did it on purpose,” said a ‘gobsmacked’ Hamilton.
“He said he did it on purpose, he said he could have avoided it. He said 'I did it to prove a point', he basically said 'I did it to prove a point'. And you don't have to just rely on me, go and ask [Mercedes directors] Toto [Wolff], Paddy [Lowe] and all those guys who are not happy with him as well.
"I was gobsmacked when I was listening to the meeting. You need to ask him what point he was trying to make.
“I can't imagine what the team would do now. We came in to this weekend and I came with a really positive mind thought. I really was excited … we've got eight races and we're close - there's only 11 points in it - and I thought it was going to be good for all of us. Good racing, I thought this was going to be a track that was going to be exciting.”
Hamilton said Rosberg’s attitude was a hangover from last month’s Hungarian Grand Prix, in which the German was angered by the team orders saga.
"It's interesting because we had that meeting on Thursday and Nico expressed how angry he was - I was thinking 'It's been three weeks and you've been lingering?!' He expressed how angry he was, he literally sat there and said how angry he was at Toto and Paddy. But I thought we should be good after that and then this result … it's interesting.”
What was submerged beneath the Mercedes furore was that Daniel Ricciardo scored a fine victory for Red Bull at a circuit where they expected to struggle. On three occasions Mercedes has failed and every time the Australian has been on hand to pick up the pieces to show just why he is a superb racer. With Mercedes’s implosion continuing, and Ricciardo showing this form, he surely has to be considered an outside threat for the title. He is, after all, only 64 points behind leader Rosberg. Then consider some of the circuits coming up, plus the double points’ finale…
“If I'm within fifty coming into Abu Dhabi then yeah, but there's still a few races to go,” he said of his title prospects.
“While it's still mathematically possible, yeah, we'll keep fighting. Today was a big day for that. To come and steal some points on a circuit where let's say we weren't supposed to is nice but I think what's important, looking ahead, is to capitalise on the circuits that we should be strong on and if we can take maximum points, let's say, at a couple of those then it's never over.”
Ricciardo put in yet another supreme effort to hold off Rosberg, although the German arguably should have won had he not erred while trying to pass Vettel and slipping behind Bottas. That time lost was crucial.
Bottas eventually got the better of Kimi Räikkönen in a Finnish duel for the final podium spot, having earlier dispatched with Vettel with an exquisite move around the outside of Les Combes. It was another measured drive by the younger man, although it was easily Räikkönen’s best performance of the season at a circuit which he loves. Time will tell whether this is the start of an improved Räikkönen or an anomaly. We can only hope it’s the former.
Fifth place eventually went to Vettel, who was unable to live with the pace of the leading group and had a fairly subdued performance. He nonetheless was the victor in a frantic final stint in which he, Kevin Magnussen, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso all spent a couple of laps dicing over the same piece of tarmac.
Magnussen’s overly aggressive defending left him with a penalty plus points on his license. Magnussen ultimately overstepped the line, especially by putting Alonso onto the grass on the Kemmel Straight (although Alonso’s earlier gesticulations over Magnussen’s conduct at Rivage were misplaced). While Magnussen placed sixth at the line, he was demoted 20 seconds and that elevated Jenson Button into sixth, while Alonso inherited seventh. The Spaniard, though, could have claimed a podium had he not copped a time penalty for a grid infringement which was out of his control.
Sergio Pérez had a fairly lonely run to eighth while Daniil Kvyat held off Nico Hülkenberg for ninth, despite the Force India man having the advantage of fresh Option tyres.
Jean-Éric Vergne lamented a poor start and traffic as he finished in 11th ahead of the penalised Magnussen.
For Felipe Massa it was a case of ‘what might have been’. The Brazilian driver hit debris from Hamilton’s tyre and that became lodged in his car, costing him a bucket of time and ruining his afternoon. Williams didn’t retrieve it until his second stop (unsure why) and the team reckoned it cost him 40 seconds.
Ironically Massa held up Adrian Sutil – the Sauber being quicker through the corners but not in a straight line – but it didn’t cost the Swiss team their chance at claiming a point. Esteban Gutiérrez recovered from a disastrous practice and qualifying outing to take 15th, while Max Chilton edged out Marcus Ericsson by less than a second. Romain Grosjean hit Jules Bianchi at the start and he needed a new front wing with his victim requiring a new tyre. Neither driver made the finish due to technical problems, a fate which also befell Pastor Maldonado and Caterham debutant Andre Lotterer.
But while there was a brilliant win for Ricciardo, a podium battle and some feisty racing for fifth, the implosion at Mercedes was the talking point at Spa. Is there any way back from here?
|1||3||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull Racing-Renault||44||1:24:36.556||5||25|
|2||6||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes||44||+3.3 secs||1||18|
|3||77||Valtteri Bottas||Williams-Mercedes||44||+28.0 secs||6||15|
|4||7||Kimi Räikkönen||Ferrari||44||+36.8 secs||8||12|
|5||1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing-Renault||44||+52.1 secs||3||10|
|6||22||Jenson Button||McLaren-Mercedes||44||+54.5 secs||10||8|
|7||14||Fernando Alonso||Ferrari||44||+61.1 secs||4||6|
|8||11||Sergio Perez||Force India-Mercedes||44||+64.2 secs||13||4|
|9||26||Daniil Kvyat||STR-Renault||44||+65.3 secs||11||2|
|10||27||Nico Hulkenberg||Force India-Mercedes||44||+65.6 secs||18||1|
|11||25||Jean-Eric Vergne||STR-Renault||44||+71.9 secs||12|
|12||20||Kevin Magnussen||McLaren-Mercedes||44||+74.2 secs||7|
|13||19||Felipe Massa||Williams-Mercedes||44||+75.9 secs||9|
|14||99||Adrian Sutil||Sauber-Ferrari||44||+82.4 secs||14|
|15||21||Esteban Gutierrez||Sauber-Ferrari||44||+90.8 secs||20|
|16||4||Max Chilton||Marussia-Ferrari||43||+1 Lap||19|
|17||9||Marcus Ericsson||Caterham-Renault||43||+1 Lap||22|
|Ret||45||Andre Lotterer||Caterham-Renault||1||Power unit||21|