After the excitement of what was the extremely eventful Hungarian Grand Prix, there was a lot of expectation in the air in Spa as Formula 1 restarted after its summer break. Could anyone rise to the challenge to try and throw Mercedes of the favourites’ seat and snatch a surprise champion’s trophy at the end of the season? If so, the Belgian Grand Prix gave no indication of that.
It was evident from the early hours of the race weekend that the Silver Arrows were still on top of their game – on top of everyone’s game, in fact. Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton shared the lead on the time sheets in practice sessions and qualifying, even despite a dramatic tyre blowout on behalf of the former at the end of P2 and some bright sparks challenging for the pole on Saturday afternoon.
It could be argued that the qualifying was more exciting than the race itself, as at least it brought some new names into the spotlight. Sergio Perez raised everyone’s hopes for a new pole sitter when he jumped his Force India ahead of the Mercedes by clocking the fastest time in Q2 – a revelation that was short lived as the championship leaders regained their spot on the following timed lap, and, eventually, the Mexican was to start 5. on the grid. Another inspiring qualifying was delivered by Romain Grosjean – his 4. quickest time was that more notable as talk of Lotus’ financial woes is becoming a hot off-track topic. But, likewise, the Frenchman’s Saturday victory was a bitter-sweet one as a gearbox change penalty dropped him five spots down the grid.
And yet, it was Grosjean who smiled the most when job was done the following day – he was the only answer to the crowd’s hopes for seeing a new face on the podium. Sadly though, it was its lowest step.
The race lights went off a lap later than usual over the Spa-Francorchamps circuit due to the first retiree of the afternoon: Nico Hulkenberg was not to demonstrate whether his Force India was as good as his team-mate’s after experiencing power issues on the formation lap which could not be overcome in a flick of a switch – other than switching off. Once the curtailed event was underway, the pole-sitter Hamilton shot out to the lead, leaving his team-mate swamped by other front-runners, including Perez and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel who started from 8. Sure enough though, in a matter of laps Rosberg regained his starting position to complete all-too-familiar picture of a Mercedes 1-2 at the end of the 43 laps.
There were a few attention-grabbing moments in the otherwise uneventful afternoon, however. Punted as Kimi Raikkonen’s replacement at Ferrari – until it had been revealed the 2007 champion had his contract extended for another year – Valtteri Bottas was on his way to deliver yet another great performance in his not-quite-there-yet Williams… before his team dressed his wheels in three soft tyres and one medium. This unexplainable error not only affected the car’s performance but also forced the Finn to take a drive-through penalty, robbing him of his podium aspirations.
As for Ferrari, their 900. grand prix was not an occasion to celebrate; firstly, Raikkonen’s car powered off in qualifying which primed him for a mid-field start, and saw him cross the line in 7. His team-mate Vettel also underperformed on Saturday, if compared to his Hungarian weekend, but looked set for a podium against all odds: he was the only driver taking his chances on a one-stop strategy and nearly made it stick – until the penultimate lap when the worn compound on his tyres eventually gave way and blew up, demoting the four-time champion to an insignificant 12. place in final race classification. For the German, the tyre manufacturer was fully to blame for his missed opportunity, seeing this was a second major failure in the course of three days.
“Things like that are not allowed to happen,” Vettel told the BBC shortly after. “If it happened 200 metres earlier, I’m not standing here now, I’d be stuck in Eau Rouge. I don’t know what else needs to happen…
“I tell you what’s upsetting. What’s upsetting for one thing is the result. We deserved to finish on the podium.
“The other thing, like I said, if this happens earlier…
“[Tyres are] a theme that keeps coming around, that nobody is mentioning, but is unacceptable.”
Commenting on Vettel’s reaction, Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery said:
“We thought the strategy was going to be based on two, three stops as you saw the majority do. They [Ferrari] felt clearly they could make it work on the one-stop…
“If the race had been one lap less he’d be on the podium and you would have said ‘What a genius move’. So that’s tough.”
Whether the risky strategy could have worked for the German, had he not run his tired tyres over the kerbs too many times, we will never know; but it paid off for Grosjean to keep on Vettel’s tail until the end as the Ferrari’s misfortune virtually handed the podium to the Frenchman.
“I drove with my heart today and pushed 100 % throughout the race,” Grosjean said after the race.
“We were really trying to go for the podium this afternoon and I felt very emotional during the last lap of the race! It’s a great feeling today.”
His team-mate wasn’t so lucky, but this time it was not a crash that eliminated Pastor Maldonado out of the race (that box was ticked earlier that weekend in a practice session) but a mechanical problem early into the afternoon.
He was later joined by last year’s winner at Spa, Daniel Ricciardo, who was in contention for the podium in the early stages of the event but then pulled off the track on lap 21 after a system shutdown on his Red Bull. The team finished the race with a few good points in the bag in the way of Daniil Kvyat’s 4. place finish, which also bumped the Russian ahead of his Aussie team-mate in the championship standings.
And last – and possibly least: the Honda-McLaren outfit had not found a cure to their woes over the summer break. A record combined 105-place grid penalty handed to both drivers for another change of power systems above the allowed yearly quota made it a difficult start to the second half of the season for the struggling outfit; and although both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button had a good getaway on lap one, they had no way of carrying the momentum, and after an “embarrassing race” (in Button’s own words) eventually finished in 13. and 14. respectively.
So, despite a lengthy summer break, some signs of greatness and even a change in regulations limiting the amount of information the team can communicate to their driver over the team-radio, the F1 postcard from Spa 2015 looked much the same as its predecessors that year – and the excitement-hungry fans are growing impatient.