Spa Review

 

Well what a weekend that was! It had pretty much everything a Formula 1 weekend could have. A complete wash out on Friday, an exciting qualifying on Saturday that resulted in a different looking grid and an incident packed race on Sunday afternoon. Here's my review and thoughts on all things Spa. Enjoy.

Practice and Qualifying

As stated, Friday was a wash out. Very few drivers took to the track to try and set any kind of competitive lap time as conditions were simply awful. The rain was relentless, probably even worse than it had been at Silverstone, and as a result neither teams nor drivers will have learnt anything significant from the day. Credit to the fans that attended though; some people's dedication is truly remarkable. Thankfully for everyone involved the weather was much better on the Saturday, allowing teams to work on race setup in an action packed hour of practice. The session proved invaluable to all the teams as it was the only time prior to qualifying that most of them had even been out on track for a flying lap.

Now on to qualifying itself. What a session it was for Jenson Button; the Brit taking his first pole since 2009 and consequently his first for McLaren in a dominant display. Not only did he set the fastest lap; he actually set the three fastest laps of the entire hour as no other driver could even get close to the 2009 World Champion. Qualifying has been a weakness for Jenson in recent times, often leaving him in the mid pack heading in to the first couple of corners. This time though there was no such problems as he completely blew every other driver off the circuit.

Lewis Hamilton, in the other McLaren, was one driver that seemed to struggle. With more downforce on the car Lewis would have expected to be slower through the first sector in particular, which he duly was, but didn't seem capable of making up the time during the twisty middle sector where the extra downforce is needed. Lewis ended up nearly a whole second down on Jenson at the end of Q3.

It was a brilliant day for Swiss team Sauber. Both cars in the top 5 (later top 4) with Kamui Kobayashi qualifying on the front row and Sergio Perez lining up 5th (soon to be 4th). Kobayashi's drive is rumoured to be under threat; something which I think is extremely harsh. This stunning qualifying lap though can only have helped the likeable and exciting Japanese driver in his pursuit of remaining in Formula 1 for 2013. Perez's lap to put him in the top 5 confirmed that the pace was most definitely in the car and that they'd be ones to watch come race day.

Oh Pastor Maldonado, why must you keep doing this? Again the Venezuelan driver showed just what a brilliant qualifier he has become by putting the Williams 3rd on the grid in a lap that surprised many. Unfortunately old habits seemed to reappear, with Maldonado later being given a 3-place grid drop for blocking the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg in Q1. This penalty demoted the Williams driver down to 6th; splitting Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.

Despite having incredible top speed Mercedes struggled during qualifying with Nico Rosberg being eliminated in the first part of qualifying and Michael Schumacher only being able to line up in the 13th. To compound what was a miserable day for the all German outfit, Rosberg took a five place grid drop for changing his gear box. Another team strangely off the pace were Red Bull. Mark Webber battled his way into Q3 having already known he too would take a five place grid drop for changing his gear box. Unfortunately for Mark he couldn't get too far up the top 10, ending up 7th before being demoted to 12th for race day. Sebastian Vettel though failed to even get in the top 10 shootout, finishing 11th after being unable to turn in a quick lap late in the session. He was later promoted to 10th after his team mates penalty.

The final grid

So here was the final grid heading into Sunday's race: BUT, KOB, RAI, PER, ALO, MAL, HAM, GRO, DIR, VET, HUL, WEB, MSC, MAS, VER, RIC, SEN, KOV, PET, GLO, DLR, PIC, ROS, KAR.

Race day

Let's start at the start (may seem obvious, but there's plenty to discuss before we've seen got to the very first corner!). So the first thing to happen was a second big error of the weekend from Pastor Maldonado. Now I'm a fan of Pastor, which probably puts me in an ever dwindling minority, but such an obvious mistake like that is not good. My reaction was exactly the same as Charlie Whiting's; one of head shaking and tutting.

We'd still not reached the first corner by the time the second big mistake of the race had been committed. Romain Grosjean, who started just behind Maldonado on the grid, got a great start and instantly moved alongside Lewis Hamilton. Now if he'd stayed alongside the McLaren driver then things should have been fine; but sadly the young Frenchman had what can only be described as a moment of extremely poor judgement. Thinking there was room to move across, when there clearly wasn't, forced the two drivers to come together. The results were utterly terrifying.

Lewis was pushed out on to the grass and as a result saw the Brit clip the back of Grosjean's Lotus. Grosjean then couldn't slow down; smashing straight into and riding over the back of Sergio Perez's Sauber in front of him. Hitting the Sauber caused the Lotus to go flying through the air and straight into the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso. The horrendous replays (of which far too many were shown for anyone's liking) showed just how close the Lotus came to Alonso's head. It's something no one enjoys seeing and reminds us of the serious danger involved in motor racing.

An equally terrifying on board shot came from that of Kamui Kobayashi in the second Sauber. We saw both the Ferrari of Alonso and the Lotus of Grosjean come flying through the air, both uncomfortably close to us. Kamui had actually got a very poor start, whether that was anything to do with the alarming amount of smoke coming from his brakes whilst sat on the grid I don't know. Now whether that, combined with Maldonado's jump start, put any of the other drivers off their game remains unknown. You'd think it wouldn't do given that they are (or supposed to be) the best drivers in the world, but with so much going on around you on a short run down to a tight first corner, an accident was almost inevitable. Grosjean was later given a one race ban by the stewards; something which I shall talk about more later on.

Thankfully everyone involved in the crash walked away unscathed; going to the show the incredible job that the FiA and teams have done in ensuring that the sport is extremely safe. This incident has though re-brought to life the argument of closed cockpits. I for one do not think that's the way to go. Formula 1 is open wheel racing; we like to see the drivers hustling and bustling the cars around the circuit and by introducing closed cockpits to the sport we would lose some of that attraction. Of course we always need to look at ways of improving safety. There's been a string of incidents like this over recent seasons; Liuzzi and Schumacher in Abu Dhabi and Coulthard and Wurz in Australia spring to mind. The head area remains the only exposed part of a driver, but closing it with a jet-style cockpit is not the way to go; a view shared by others I've seen on TV and through social media. Johnny Herbert raised a very good point in regards to this. If a car is turned upside down and a driver needs to get out quickly, is a closed cockpit going to help or hinder? It certainly isn't going to make it any quicker for a driver to get out. So what else can they look at? That's something I'm not sure on myself; but the FiA and their safety people will surely be (and have been) looking into various ways of improving driver safety, particularly around the head area.

Now I'm not going to do a full race report, but instead focus on the drivers that impressed and didn't impress me throughout the course of the race. First of all, Jenson Button. What a fantastic drive by the McLaren man. He didn't put a foot wrong all race and managed to comfortably race to original strategy of a one stop race. Yes he was helped by so many of the front runners retiring at the start of the race, but after the restart was able to build up a nice little gap to the battling pair of Nico Hulkenberg and Kimi Raikkonen behind, ensuring that he could conserve his tyres in clear air. As we've seen on numerous occasions this season, if you can get out front and in some clear air then tyre management and preservation seems much more of a simpler and 'easier' task. Jenson, a notoriously smooth and careful driver, was able to take full advantage of this and ensure that the one stop strategy could and would work.

Fighting through from 10th on the grid to eventually finish 2nd was the impressive Sebastian Vettel. He appeared to lose out after the first corner collision and dropped back to 12th behind a whole host of cars that was clearly quicker than. The Red Bull's lack of straight line speed certainly made overtaking hard at times for both drivers; but Vettel in particular found ways round this by pulling off some brave moves under braking, specifically down in to the bus stop chicane. With Alonso out of the race, it was important for Vettel to score as many points as he could. A haul of 18 points is certainly a decent total to take and closes the gap to the Spaniard to just 24 points; as well as moving him ahead of team mate Webber.

As already mentioned Mercedes struggled greatly in qualifying, with both cars failing to make the top 10. One of the big gainers from the first corner chaos was Michael Schumacher, as the 7-time World Champion moved up from a lowly 13th after qualifying to 5th by the time the race resumed. The straight line speed of the Mercedes allowed Michael to overtake the likes of Paul Di Resta and Kimi Raikkonen, making use of a good run through Eau Rouge and having the DRS at his disposal. As good as his overtakes were, it was his defending that impressed me more. The battles with Vettel and Raikkonen, both for position, were a joy to watch. Since his return to the sport in 2010, Michael has been known to be a bit rough and contact happy when it comes to close racing. This season though has been a lot better (barring the Senna incident at Barcelona) and on Sunday at Spa Michael showed just what a racer he is. The battle with Vettel through the bus stop chicane was a joy to behold, as both drivers demonstrated tremendous skill and bravery to keep the racing clean, but fair. As stated, the straight line speed helped Michael throughout the race, particularly when it came to battling Kimi Raikkonen. The Lotus driver simply had no answer to Michael down the long straights, something which certainly provided excellent entertainment, only added to by the addition of Nico Hulkenberg.

Let's talk about Nico. He started the season a bit slowly and fell some way behind Paul Di Resta both in the races and in the standings. These past few races however, Hulkenberg has really showed just what he is capable of. He's qualified frequently in the top 10 and converted that into several points scoring finishes. The 4th place he took on Sunday was a career best, seeing him jump three spots in the standings and most importantly ahead of team mate Di Resta. This upturn in speed and performance is coming exactly at the right time for Nico; and exactly the wrong time for Di Resta. The two appear to be very evenly matched, and with seats at Ferrari and Mercedes possibly up for grabs in 2013, one of these two needs to start stepping up to show that they're capable of driving for one of the really big teams. Nico drove superbly on Sunday. He caught Kimi napping at the restart, jumping up to second and looking good for a podium spot for the majority of the race. Di Resta had a KERS issue throughout the race; but that doesn't fully explain the difference in speed between the two on the day. Personally I think Nico Hulkenberg is the better all round driver; and if I was looking for a new driver in the one of the big teams, I'd plump for him.

You really have to feel sorry for Sauber. Both cars qualifying in the top 4 on Saturday, both cars effectively out of the race by the first corner on Sunday. Despite Kobayashi being able to continue after taking a huge whack to the side of his car, the damage was clearly hampering the cars performance. He pitted several times throughout the race, eventually crossing the line down in 13th. Despite the lack of finishing, Sauber can only be happy with what transpired at Spa, in terms of performance at least. The car is clearly quick, something they've shown on several occasions this season, and they should head to Spa in confident mood that they can once again be up the sharp end, challenging for poles and podiums.

Other things to note now. Despite again finishing on the podium, Lotus and Kimi will undoubtedly be unhappy with how the weekend panned out. It seems every weekend we arrive thinking that this will finally be Lotus' time to shine, but are then left disappointed and wondering why it hasn't happened. Still, it's another solid haul of points for Kimi and given that two of his championship rivals failed to score, the weekend has to be considered an overall success for the Finn. Toro Rosso finally scored some points, their first since Malaysia, as both Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo finished in the points; 8th and 9th respectively. It was important for the team to make the most of the opportunity to score given that so many of the front runners were out so early on in the race. The team have doubled their tally for the season and appear to have taken steps forward, so things are looking good as they head to their home race in Italy this coming weekend.

The race though really belonged to Jenson Button. In fact not just the race, but the whole weekend. His first pole for 3 years, his first pole for McLaren and his first win since the opening round of the season in Australia. The Brit has closed the gap to Alonso to 63 points which admittedly is still rather large, but given the car's clear improvement in speed and performance, he may well fancy a crack at this. As well as the points gap though, he also has 5 other drivers (4 of which are former or current World Champions) battling for the title; and all 5 are ahead of him. Well done Jenson on a truly fantastic performance on both Saturday and Sunday.

The final result

Here is the final top 10: BUT, VET, RAI, HUL, WEB, MAS, MSC, VER, RIC, DIR

Pastor Maldonado

There doesn't seem to be a weekend that goes by where Pastor Maldonado isn't in the headlines. As said on several previous occasions I am a fan of the Venezuelan and have been since his GP2 days. Unfortunately he is getting involved in far too many incidents for anyone's liking. He received a total of three penalties across the weekend, one for blocking, one for the jump start and the third for colliding with Timo Glock upon exiting the pits.

Regarding the blocking one, I haven't seen the incident but it seems that he did. Previous events and a lack of protest seem to confirm that. Should anyone get a penalty for a jump start? In my opinion no. Clearly though he was given it because by the time the stewards had got round to making a decision, he had already retired. The retirement came from contact with Glock, something that wasn't shown on camera (to my knowledge). It appears he was quite rightly given a penalty for that, but it still leaves me thinking the one for the jump start is harsh. I guess that was the only way to punish him, other than a fine, but had he not retired he surely would have just been given a drive through. 12 penalties in 12 races is not good, nor acceptable, but there are too many people calling for him to receive a race ban like that handed out to Romain Grosjean. Yes he gets involved in too many incidents, most of which appear to be rather amateurish, but I don't feel he's done anything as dangerous as the incident caused by Grosjean on Sunday. I'm going to keep on defending Maldonado as I like him; simple as. He's undoubtedly quick and a brilliant qualifier; if only he could convert that into race performances as well. Has a driver ever caused as much uproar in the past few seasons as Pastor Maldonado? Love him or loath him; one thing you can't deny is his speed.

The Stewards

I've had concerns about the stewards for a while now, particularly over one issue. That issue is the amount of times they take the decision to review a decision after a race. It happens in virtually every race, and although sometimes it is necessary, on other occasions it could be and should be dealt with then and there. Caterham were fined 10,000 Euros for the unsafe release of Heikki Kovalainen; a decision that was taken after the race. Now for anyone who saw it, it was clearly an unsafe release. Heikki should have just been given a drive through penalty (and maybe a fine afterwards) and that would have been that.

If incidents are reviewed after the race, it often means we don't know the final result until hours later. The stewards have plenty of time throughout a race to review and come up with decisions. Unfortunately on too many occasions this is done too late, and spoils things for fans who end up leaving a circuit not knowing if what they've just seen is the correct or final result.

Grosjean's race ban

At first I was unsure on the ban, but on reflection (and having seen the replay an unnecessary amount of times on TV) I think it is the right decision. It was reckless driving from a man who's built up a bit of a reputation for first corner collisions. He reminds me (and I assume many others) of Maldonado. Extremely quick, but gets involved in too many unnecessary and avoidable incidents. Hopefully this race ban will benefit Grosjean in the long term and make not just him, but others too, realise that safety is paramount and a certain standard of driving needs to be maintained.

Replacing him for Monza is Jerome D'Ambrosio; a very wise choice. He's the Lotus reserve driver and someone who showed plenty of potential in the Marussia last season. If he adapts quickly, which I'm sure he will, then I can see the Belgian driver scoring a couple of points on Sunday. Grosjean will be better off for this; and hopefully it'll of benefit to everyone in the paddock.

So that's my review of Spa. A great weekend of racing, but one that also reminded us of the dangers involved when racing at these speeds. Thankfully everyone is ok and no damage (other than to the cars) has been done. Roll on Monza this weekend!

Top Drivers

 
Driver Points
Hamilton 252
Rosberg 211
Vettel 203
Raikkonen 107
Bottas 101
Massa 97
 

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