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Rencken: Surviving Rambo Romain

2012-09-03 09:24


Midway through one of the most unpredictable Formula 1 seasons on record, on one of the most majestic circuits of all, September 2 44-lap 2012 Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps situated deep within the country’s hilly Ardennes forest turned into little more than a damp squib for all save Jenson Button and McLaren, who became the first combination in 2012 to lead a GP from lights to flag.

The 2009 champion cantered to an 11-second win over reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, who qualified but 11th for Red Bull with Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) a further 14 seconds behind. In this day and age a 25-second blanket covering the podium is, well, a day and an age…

It could, should, all have been so different because incessant rain on Friday delivered a thoroughly jumbled grid after teams had been unable to gather meaningful data on the few laps their charges risked through the heavy mist hanging over the historic area.


Teams blamed Pirelli for the situation, stating they, the teams, did not have sufficient tyres on hand should it rain throughout the weekend (not forecast, but conceivable in that brooding region); the tyre company’s motorsport director Paul Hembery hit back, stating teams would not risk their cars in such atrocious conditions even were rubber supply unlimited.

So who was right? Probably both but the regulations in any event place restrictions on tyre supply and engine/gearbox replacements, so as is the norm in F1 nobody wins and the fans, thousands of whom paid up to R5000 for a weekend ticket, lose.

Thus September 1st one-hour third free practice (on the longest circuit of all, with an out-flyer-in time of almost six minutes, offering a maximum of 10 set-up shots) shaped the grid, with teams venturing into qualifying on vastly varying strategies and mainly experimental set-ups with little idea of tyre degradation.

It showed: Button was supreme, taking his first pole since his title year in a car set up for ultra-low drag, while team mate Lewis Hamilton, running a different rear wing, eighth despite generally being the faster of the two.


Between the two silver cars lay such men as the Sauber duo of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez; Williams’s mercurial driver Pastor Maldonado; Räikkönen; championship leader Fernando Alonso (Ferrari’s ace having posted fastest time in FP3) and Red Bull’s Mark Webber, then second in the hunt, 40 points off Alonso. Sporting penalties for various infringements in both this and previous race weekends would further shuffle the grid.

Thus the scene was set for a fascinating grand prix…then came Romain ‘Rambo’ Grosjean for the seventh time in the first 12 races of the Frenchman’s comeback year, horrible misjudging the gap to Hamilton’s front wheel as the field funnelled into La Source hairpin on the opening lap and triggering an aerobatic display of stupendous proportions.

Four cars aviated at some point and, after the dust (and carbon-fibre shards) had settled, the two main suspects plus Alonso and Perez were well and truly out, with Kobayashi, who made a poor start from the front row after suffering overheating brakes, limping around as the pace car was deployed. However, after a stop to check his Sauber, the Japanese continued on his way, finishing an unlucky 13th in a race which promised so much for his Swiss team.

Mercifully there were no major injuries – through a mixture of both (car) design and extremely good fortune, with only Alonso taking a both a physical and points pummelling  – but four full laps, equating to 10% of the race, were thus lost, with a chastened Grosjean subsequently receiving a one-race ban (from September 9’s Italian GP). Grosjean may not have been solely responsible for all seven incidents to date, but he was there in each instance…


At the restart Button, on medium rubber before switching to hard during his single stop, again sped into the distance with the field shuffling and reshuffling behind him as differing strategies/set-ups came into play.

“I'm sorry to all the fans if it wasn't very exciting at the front!” the winner apologised with his trademark toothy grin. “However, winning a GP is never easy; you've always got to look after the tyres and keep an eye on the gap behind.

“Today's race was particularly tricky to read, in fact, because lots of cars were on different strategies so you never knew exactly where you stood.”
Nico Hulkenberg at one point took his Force India into a fine second (unable to exploit his unique H, M, H choice), as did Räikkönen (M, H, H) and Michael Schumacher (M, H, M; on the 21st anniversary of his first GP as an innocent-looking youngster).

MS had hoped to run to one stop but his Mercedes chewed its Pirellis faster than the Red Bull of Vettel (M,H), and thus the give-no-quarter duel between Germany’s stars came to nought, with Vettel the only driver other than Button able to make a one-stopper stick, elevating him from 10th on the grid to second, and, crucially, enabling him to leap-frog team mate Webber to second overall in the title hunt.

Räikkönen, pre-race widely touted to win, consoled himself with third (“better than not finishing”, the Silent One said later), with Hulkenberg, whose manager Timo Gans was cleaned out on Saturday evening when thieves broke into his car in nearby Cologne, taking fourth three seconds off the black/gold Lotus.

Fifth at a critical point in his career, what with Monza traditionally being the race at which Ferrari confirms its line-ups, was Felipe Massa (M, H, H), followed by Webber, who seemed strangely unconvincing throughout the race despite having been granted by Grosjean the chance of closing to within 16 points of Alonso. Yes, the Australian started 12th thanks to a gearbox but Vettel started 10th and finished second in an identical car.

Schumacher, who started here seventh (but retired) in that 1991 GP, proved he’d learned something from his 299 starts by finishing seventh ahead of Toro Rosso’s duo Jean-Eric Vergne / Daniel Ricciardo, with Paul di Resta (Force India) dropping from fourth in the aftermath of the start chaos to 10th after his kers unit, which delivers 60kW for six seconds every lap, packed in on a swooping, sweeping circuit where every kW is crucial.

No sooner had the lights extinguished at 2pm than crews began dismantling their teams’ kit ahead of the 1200km drive to Monza, when it all kicks off again.

Alonso has only eight races remaining – after Italy the circus takes in Singapore, Japan, Korea, India, Abu Dhabi, Texas and Brazil all in a space of eight weeks - to defend his 24-point lead over Vettel; conversely, he needs to make up the deficit at the rate of three points per race as the two battle it out for the title of youngest triple champion.

With Vettel having broken all Alonso’s "youngest" records to date, Alonso has only one shot remaining at that one… Webber and Hamilton? They remain in the title mix.


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