Belgian GP: Best race to date?
Belguim - Wet or dry, Spa-Francorchamps always delivers, and the 2011 race was no exception.
Although Pirelli’s wet and intermediate compounds stayed firmly in the Formula 1 teams’ garages as the 44-lap Belgian Grand Prix was contested under dry but cloudy skies. The race was without doubt the most scintillating in an already-classic season to date.
Teams had amassed, at most, ten laps of dry running interspersed between wet sessions, so all race strategies were devised on the fly, so to speak.
Once again reigning champion Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull team mate Mark Webber came out tops and did so absolutely convincingly, unlike some previous instances, where the team ran short of steam towards the end.
RED BULL DRAMA
Mark Webber managed to finish in second despite badly bogging down at the start in third and battled his way through to second place.
In typical Red Bull style there was an undercurrent of drama and, frankly, one must question whether the team’s management had been irresponsible on one of the trail's fastest circuits. There’s little doubt that the team went out on a limb after the two RB7s badly grained their optional (soft) front tyres during the few full-blast qualifying laps they were exposed to on Saturday.
Pirelli issues set-up recommendations to teams and trusts they run within them. For Spa the recommendation was a maximum of four degrees negative camber, and Red Bull is said to have exceeded that by some margin. The net effect was that the front tyres of both cars showed chronic blistering during qualifying. Others showed little or no damage...
The regulations governing teams making it into Q3 are clear, and the two Red Bulls qualified one/three, so the team had two choices: change the fronts and/or set-up in breach of parc ferme regulations and start from the pit-lane, or chance it. The team chose the latter path, and hence Vettel’s post-victory comments, in turn echoed by technical boss Adrian Newey.
“We had a lot of concerns going into the race after the damage to the tyres in qualifying and we took quite a lot of risk," said Vettel.
“We had reason to feel confident we should be fine, but if no one in the paddock is giving you guarantees... We didn't feel comfortable, so we both stopped early in the race,” he said in reference to his Lap 5 stop.
Newey, having attempted to turn the issue into one of safety, was more confrontational: “I have to say, it is one of the scariest races I have been involved in ever. It is heart-in-the-mouth stuff, because first and foremost our duty of care is to the drivers' safety, and you are trying to make that call or making sure the car is safe while not excessively handicapping ourselves from a performance point of view.”
“If they are so concerned, why did Red Bull not stick to our recommendations and make changes, or run Vettel for 13 laps on ‘softs’ in the middle, then?” asked bristling executives in the Italian tyre company’s motorhome after Newey’s comments had been aired.
Either way, the Pirellis on the two cars passed the test with flying colours, but motorsport boss Paul Hembery alluded to the level of trust that exists between teams and the tyre companies, and this relationship now seems severely strained...
BUTTON CHARGES AHEAD
A fine third, albeit six seconds adrift of Webber, went to Jenson Button, who, unlike McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton, manages to keep it together when the going gets tough. Button, having at one stage dropped to 21st after damaging his nose in the opening lap scrum, pulled two beautiful moves on the two Ferraris. First passing Felipe Massa, then for the final podium place managed to trounce Fernando Alonso.
Alonso took fourth place from ninth on the grid, having at one stage challenged for the lead before his tyres went off, and now faces the realisation that, given a 102 points gap to Vettel with seven races remaining, his 2011 title challenge is effectively over.
“They (Red Bull) need to make some big mistakes for us to win the championship,” he told Wheels24 afterwards.
Twenty-fourth to fifth was Michael Schumacher’s result on the event of his 20th anniversary at the circuit where he made his F1 debut for Jordan in 1991. The German seven-time champion lost a wheel in qualifying after a securing mechanism came loose, pitching him off before he could set a representative time. A fine performance, indeed, even if he moved up a spot after Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg directly ahead of him was told to ‘save fuel’, and duly obliged...
Adrian Sutil took seventh place almost a minute in arrears for Force India, while Massa was next, having suffered a puncture immediately after what he thought would be his final stop. Massa had yo-yoed up and down the field, and eighth was a poor reward for a strong drive.
The final two points-paying places went to Renault’s Vitaly Petrov and William’s Pastor Maldonado.
Once again Spa delivered, with the only dark cloud about being one directly above Bernie Ecclestone’s dark grey motorhome, where the F1 tsar conducts his Grand Prix deals.
Negotiations with Ecclestone over the future of Spa stalled after Belgian politicians refused to accept the eye-watering hosting fees charged by the former – which have seen the circuit run up losses of over R250m in five years - while a mooted race-share deal with France’s Le Castellet circuit came to nought. Thus next year could well see the last Grand Prix at this most majestic of all circuits – and that, Bernie, is about as irresponsible as Newey’s approach to the race itself.