As the Formula 1 2014 season headed for a restart in Belgium following the month-long summer break, the question on everyone’s lips was: will Mercedes’ domination continue into the second half of the year? But as the rainy and troublesome weekend is historic Spa progressed, emotions in the paddock escalated, culminating in an unexpected turn of events during the Belgian Grand Prix that left a crack in a seemingly perfect team set-up.
Early into the race weekend in Spa it became clear that the ever-changing atmospheric conditions could do little to nothing to take the edge off Mercedes’ superiority over the rest of the grid. It was no surprise then that it would be two Silver Arrows starting from the front on Sunday, and it was Nico Rosberg who added to his streak of four consecutive pole positions this year, as Lewis Hamilton struggled to keep his emotions in check and his car firmly on track during qualifying.
The Brit’s heated pursuit of victory to recover the championship lead he had been chasing for a number of grands prix now was evident right before the start of the race as he overshot his starting spot following the formation lap and had to reverse back into it before the lights could go off. That didn’t faze Hamilton, however, as he quickly took advantage of a slow moving Rosberg to claim the lead before the first corner. The German dropped even further behind his country-man Sebastian Vettel, whose Red Bull looked like a strong contender for a race win, as he shot out ahead to level with Hamilton on Kemmel Straight. But the four-time champion ran out of speed and track to perform an overtake and was forced to use the escape road to eventually end up back behind Rosberg.
As the pack moved along the track in a fairly orderly fashion (other than Jules Bianchi earning a puncture on his Marussia), the two Mercedes were already building up a gap at the front – but not for long, as the two collided as early as lap two, overturning the course of a seemingly foreseeable afternoon.
The contact happened as Rosberg tried to regain the lead on the run to Les Combes, and was caught out by his team-mate defending position, resulting in a damage to his front wing and a puncture to Hamilton’s left rear tyre. As much as the German was able to stay on track for a number of laps thereafter before going in for a nose change on lap 8, the Brit had a long distance to go that same lap before he managed to limp back to the pits for service. Although he had previously proven to be able to battle for podium from the back of the grid, the feat was unachievable for him in Spa, as the puncture caused considerable damage to the car’s floor affecting its overall performance.
Despite numerous calls to call it a day, to preserve the engine in an afternoon that was visibly not going to bring any points to his name, the team kept Hamilton out until lap 39 out of 44.
In the meantime, Rosberg managed to retain the lead in a car lacking in downforce before his first pit stop, which is when he made way for the two Red Bulls behind him to take the lead, plus the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, who has outperformed his best result to day this season by running at the front of the grid for a number of laps and finishing in 4.
In line with predictions, the Spa Francorchamps circuit did not, in the end, favour Ferrari, as demonstrated by the champion Finn or his team-mate Fernando Alonso, who looked poised for starting the race from the pit lane when his car failed to start for the parade lap until the very last second, and then struggled to defend position from the likes of Williams and McLaren despite some brilliant overtaking manoeuvres on his part in the course of the afternoon (the battle between the Spaniard, Jenson Button, Kevin Magnussen and Vettel on lap 42 is bound to become one of the most memorable moments of this season as a show of true racing excellence).
Indeed, the Mercedes-powered cars were tipped for greatness at the Belgian circuit which favours top straight-line speeds – but it was, in fact, a Renault engine that scooped the top prize at Spa. And although Vettel held the advantage early in the race with a 3. place grid start, his junior team-mate stole the show once more by claiming his third win of the year.
Despite a late challenge from Rosberg in second, who made his third and final tyre change with ten laps to go, allowing him to close the gap to the leader at a rapid pace, Daniel Ricciardo held his ground to tie a link between the two halves of the season, following from his stunning race win in Hungary a month earlier. The Australian continues to be the only man on the grid able to snatch the chequered flag from Mercedes – and putting his four-time champion team-mate to shame.
“To have three [wins] in twelve races I think has exceeded a few expectations,” the Ricciardo said in the post-race conference.
“Let’s say the in-team battle has gone really well. I’ve demonstrated good racecraft and good consistency so I think let’s say the team has been really pleased and I’ve been pleased so we’re in a good place.
“I’m enjoying it more than ever. Each race that goes on I’m having more and more fun so yeah, just having a good time.”
But Ricciardo wasn’t the only “junior” driver to have proven his place in a top Formula 1 team this season, as to his left on the Spa podium appeared once more a quiet Finn that has been going from strength to strength this year. Valtteri Bottas was once again the only source of points-joy for Williams, having crossed the line in Belgium ten places ahead of his experienced team-mate Felipe Massa – but he is a joy that keeps on giving, as this was the Finn’s fourth podium finish in five most recent races.
“Yeah, why not?” Bottas said about making a habit of landing on the podium as he received his Spa trophy.
“The team has done such a good job, we are definitely on the right way.
“We are still chasing for the highest step but for now, for this season, if we keep like this, it’s OK because it’s the future that matters.”
Both Ricciardo and Bottas were welcomed on the Belgian podium by cheers from the crowds below – but Rosberg was exposed to a completely different treatment. The boos he received standing on his second step, avoiding comment on the second-lap incident, were just a prelude to the conversations we would be having in the team garage later that afternoon, as indicated by comments from his Mercedes superiors.
“You don’t try to overtake with the knife between your teeth on lap number two and damage both cars,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told BBC Sport soon after the race ended.
“Lap number two of a long race, a crash between two team-mates. It is absolutely unacceptable.
“It’s a decisive moment for the battle between two of them and for the team. Lewis is very upset, but there is nothing we can say to him.”
“It is unacceptable for me that, in the second lap, Nico hits Lewis,” added non-executive chairman Niki Lauda.
“If these things happen at the end of the race when they are fighting, we can talk about it. But on the second lap, it is ridiculous.
“I thought they were clever enough to know that but obviously they aren’t.”
Following a team meeting later that day, Hamilton claimed Rosberg had admitted to causing the incident deliberately.
“He said he could have avoided it, but he didn’t want to. He basically said, ‘I did it to prove a point’,” the Brit was reported saying.
Although following his retirement resigned Hamilton’s response to the whole affair suggested there would be no repercussions of the incident, Wolff was adamant to put the matter straight:
“If Lewis has said that it’s going to be a slap on the wrist and that there’s going to be no consequence, then he’s not aware of what consequences we can implement,” Wolff said.
This is the first time a crisis in the Silver Arrows ranks has become apparent to the outside world in a case that has divided the racing world’s opinion on who was to blame – and which can serve to demonstrate how the pursuit of victory can crack the reputation of even the most liked title-poised team.