Restarting the chase

Photo by LAT

Photo by LAT

The end of summer for most means return to normal working routine – that much applies also to the world of Formula 1. But while drivers would generally have enjoyed some mid-term time off with friends and family, their team engineers worked relentlessly throughout the four weeks in August on implementing “major” upgrades to the cars. Were they successful – and were their efforts enough to turn around their fates for the second half of the season? Only Spa would tell.

And the historic Belgian track did not disappoint, with plenty of action and surprise twists in the longer-than-expected 44 lap race. Here’s how the teams fared, starting from the top finishers, and their team-mates…

In Spa Rosberg was well in control of the race - but these were special circumstances. Photo by LAT

In Spa Rosberg was well in control of the race – but these were special circumstances.
Photo by LAT

MERCEDES Nico Rosberg (WINNER); Lewis Hamilton (3.)

After early domination in the season, granting him a string of seven victories, unbroken since Mexico last year, Nico Rosberg’s winning form quickly dissipated after the circus moved to the European stage. Since the controversial first-lap crash between him and his team-mate Lewis Hamilton in Spain – which seemed to turn the tables at Mercedes – the German only managed one win until Spa: on the brand new Baku circuit for the reinstated European Grand Prix. Some poor decisions in the meantime – such as the fabled late turn on the last lap in Austria, which virtually handed the win to Hamilton – and lack of luck, quickly sent the championship point difference between him and his closest rival tumbling down. Despite securing the pole position in the last two pre-summer races – including his home turf, Hockenheim – Rosberg was simply unable to make it stick on the Sundays; and so, Hamilton claimed the leader’s cap and extended the points lead in the run up to the summer break.

However, it was the Brit who would be starting on a back foot in the Belgian race – the very back foot, in fact. A new power unit swap, following previous two early in the season, demoted the reigning champion 30 places down the grid – just ahead of McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who was handed a similar penalty. With this foresight, Hamilton did not waste rubber on Saturday – after one run in the first qualifying session he had packed up, setting himself for a tough battle the following afternoon.

Without his main rival in place, it was bound to be plain sailing for Rosberg to the pole; albeit Mercedes did not feel the strongest on the Spa circuit, they ended up lapping faster times than anyone while on the harder tyre compound – promising superior force unleashed in softer boots.

But Rosberg didn’t need the softer tyres to set off to a comfortable lead when the lights went off on Sunday morning, while all hell broke loose behind him. After just one lap he built up a 4sec gap ahead of second-placed Daniel Ricciardo; however, the early commotion and the precarious nature of the Francorchamps circuit threw a spanner in the works with a huge crash on Eau Rouge. Although the driver – Kevin Magnussen – limped away from the wreck of his Renault with what looked like just a swollen ankle, the damage to the barriers forced the marshals to red flag the race for 15 minutes for repairs.

The early race happenings eliminated a few cars on the grid (five, in fact) clearing the way for Hamilton to charge to the front – so much so that by the time the race was restarted, he was already in 5. place. The forced stop allowed those drivers who had not yet made a pit stop to change the tyres for the remaining 34 laps; but despite the balancing out of the field, Rosberg still made a clear getaway at the race restart, and stayed in the lead to claim the Rosberg family’s first ever Belgian GP trophy, with 14sec adrift of Ricciardo.

To the German’s displeasure, however, his team-mate continued his charge up the field for a historic back-of-grid-to-podium finish. If the Brit had finished further down the order, his Championship lead over his team-mate would have been dramatically slashed – quite likely to a one-race victory decider; but the 10-point difference between first and third podium spots in Spa meant Hamilton remains the defending champion, with still 9 points to spare.

This is that more of a blow to Rosberg, that in a race win where (some would claim) the win was handed over to him on a silver plate, his title rival gained a brand new power unit that might last him even until the next season (albeit Mercedes are considering an engine upgrade for Japan) – while the German might need to take a penalty later this year if he’s forced to make an excess upgrade. And to add to that, the next race is in Monza: a track that has never been kind to Rosberg – but a favourite of Hamilton’s.

Rosberg would be happy with his first win since the European GP - not so much with being joined on the podium by his title rival. Photo by LAT

Rosberg would be happy with his first win since the European GP – not so much with being joined on the podium by his title rival.
Photo by LAT

RED BULL RACING Daniel Ricciardo (2.); Max Verstappen (11.)

Up until Sunday afternoon it seemed that the Red Bull finishing order should have been the other way around: after a brilliant qualifying that put Max Verstappen on the front row alongside Rosberg, the 18-year-old was in high spirits – taken there by the home crowd of his country of birth. Despite a rocky ride since his incredible Barcelona win, the Red Bull junior was oozing confidence on Spa race day; however, just like in Monaco, where most of his sessions ended up in the wall, this historic circuit also wasn’t forgiving to the youngster’s inexperience.

After a not-so-great start off the line, the Dutchman was swamped by two Ferraris attacking from either flank; when he tried to reclaim some ground by going on the outside of turn one, he faced being squeezed to the wall by Kimi Raikkonen – who, avoiding a collision with the Red Bull, was instead hit by his team-mate Sebastian Vettel from the other side. From then on the race of all three was compromised.

But the commotion opened a window for Daniel Ricciardo who, somewhat unnoticed, swooshed in front of the pack and right behind Nico Hulkenberg (with a slightly damaged nose from the first lap debris), to shortly after overtake the Force India for second place – and that’s where he remained.

Obviously, the summer holidays in LA with his gang driving pimped cars paid off – the Aussie’s huge smile was beaming when he took the same podium spot as just before the summer break, in Germany. Then the celebration was the shoey (drinking champagne out of the driver’s shoe) – this time, he shared this pleasure with his countryman Mark Webber, who was conducting the podium interviews.

“Firstly, thank you for doing that. I think we just made our country even more proud,” Ricciardo said.

“It was cool, you know. Obviously it was pretty messed up at the start, a lot of virtual safety cars and then the red flag. We knew we had a bit of damage actually from the first corner but we fixed the front wing and got back out.

“I mean, it was a bit of a race by myself but obviously I enjoyed the pace and to keep Lewis behind was a good achievement today.”

It was a completely different story for Verstappen, who didn’t even finish within the points – but he did provide plenty of entertainment throughout the race with some brave (and somewhat crazy, one could argue) overtaking attempts, most notably on Raikkonen, with whom, in fact, he had sparred on a number of occasions this season. Whether through sheer brilliance or fearlessness, “Mad Max” is still believed to be the champion of tomorrow – albeit not this year.

Getting a fellow Aussie to join in the celebrations made Ricciardo's second consecutive 2. finish that much sweeter. Photo source: ESPN

Getting fellow Aussie Webber to join in the celebrations made Ricciardo’s second consecutive 2. finish that much sweeter.
Photo source: ESPN

FORCE INDIA Nico Hulkenberg (4.); Sergio Perez (5.)

Quietly up there but still not quite in the winners’ seats in Spa were the two Force Indias – awaiting their moment behind the Red Bulls and Ferrari… just as they are today in the constructor’s championship, in fact. And the moment did, indeed, come in the form of the first-turn clash between Vettel, Raikkonen and Verstappen – promoting Niko Hulkenberg right up to second place. Before the red flag it seemed a possibility that the Le Mans 2015 winner would finally scoop his first ever Formula 1 podium; but with the charge of the defending Champion from behind, the German had to concede to 4.; yet, his best position this season so far – and, in fact, his best finish since Korea 2013.

His team-mate, who’s had a better shot at the podiums this year, having crossed the line 3. in Monaco and Baku (but less luck in Austria and Hungary where he finished outside the points), had a tougher day in Belgium. The first lap chaos demoted him to 9., from where he had to fight throughout the afternoon to reclaim his position; it might have been a surprise to him to have to fend off a McLaren to get there (!), but sparring with Williams’ Felipe Massa was nothing new; despite the somewhat tainted track record between the two drivers (see: Canada 2014), they were relentlessly at each other’s heals – often at the cost of some skin-close manoeuvres. This time both finished the race unscathed, and Perez did one better than his qualifying position, crossing the line just behind his team-mate.

This made Force India that much more victorious, as thanks to the high double-point finish they made the all-important move up the constructors’ championship, to come up two points clear of Williams – but, rest assured, that battle is not over yet.

Spa could have been Hulkenberg's break into the F1 podium - until Hamilton appeared in his mirrors. Photo by LAT

Spa could have been Hulkenberg’s break into the F1 podium – until Hamilton appeared in his mirrors.
Photo by LAT

FERRARI Sebastian Vettel (6.), Kimi Raikkonen (9.)

It was a race of high hopes for a double-Ferrari podium, if not a win; but, once more, the 2016 season has brought bitter disappointment to the Scuderia fans, and highlighted a crack in the works of the historic outfit.

The first-lap set of events came down an avalanche: straight after a fantastic start from both Ferrari drivers, instantly snatching the front-row position from young and hopeful Verstappen – Sebastian Vettel from the left, Kimi Raikkonen from the right – their afternoon turned into a nightmare when a miscalculation on track space and positioning resulted in a double collision involving the Red Bull. While Vettel continued to run from the back after spinning off, Raikkonen had to limp to the pits for a nose and tyre change – and some help from a fire extinguisher, as the burning floor of his car added further heat to the afternoon.

On their way to recovery both Ferraris had further struggles with Verstappen; while Raikkonen vented his frustrations over team radio, Vettel was quick to criticise the youngster’s driving style after the race. The defiant Red Bull driver would have none of it:

“I think they should be ashamed to cause a crash like that with their amount of experience and then complain about me,” Verstappen said in the race aftermath.

“Then they don’t have to make a drama about what happened afterwards. They have to understand I’m not happy with them screwing up my entire race.”

No wonder though that emotions are running high in the Ferrari camp, as the European leg of this year’s championship has not been delivering the results they were expecting. After Vettel’s second-place finishes in Canada and Baku, and Raikkonen’s last podium spot in that contentious Austrian GP (where his team-mate retired with an exploded tyre) the Scuderia has not recorded a podium finish – despite undoubtedly having a fast contender to Mercedes’ domination. Instead, they are making more and more room for Red Bull to cement the title of “the best of the rest” in 2016.

Now, as the team’s home race is underway, the expectations are even higher – but before the delayed celebrations can finally take place, the two Ferrari drivers need to figure out how to jointly manage the chaos that might unfold before them on track…

The first corner crash in Spa summarised Ferrari's season so far. Photo source: motor1.com

The first corner crash in Spa summarised Ferrari’s season so far. Photo source: motor1.com

McLAREN Fernando Alonso (7.), Jenson Button (DNF)

“I think seventh was very good for the team. Top 10 in qualifying with Jenson, top 10 today – on a circuit like this, that was unthinkable a couple of months ago.”

Those were Fernando Alonso’s words following the Belgian GP 2016, on a circuit that favours overtaking and high speeds. It was also a race to which McLaren were promising to bring a major engine upgrade, and therefore rendering their fans hopeful for a turn in the team’s fate – for the better.

But it didn’t seem to be going that way, when even before the race weekend was in full swing, the Spaniard was demoted 35 places for taking another ICE, MGU-H, MGU-K, turbo, control electronics and energy store set (in other words: power unit replacement), equalling the very last position on the grid, even behind Hamilton. And then, when the lights went off on Sunday, Jenson Button – who had qualified in ninth – was hit in the rear by Pascal Wehrelin on Turn Five and both the Brit and the Manor driver were out of contention.

“I had a really good start – I got ahead of a Williams, pulled in front of a Red Bull and drew alongside a Force India,” Button said after the race.

“We looked really good for points today, so it’s disappointing that we didn’t score any, but it happens. I’ve been around long enough to know these things happen.”

Indeed, both him and Alonso have been around long enough to know anything can happen on a track like Spa – but how much longer are they prepared to stick around to see the McLaren-Honda package finally challenge for the win? Rumour has it that either might call it quits on the sport next year – and, seeing that they’ve both had a taste of the championship title, you can’t really blame them.

Still, despite the challenging conditions for the Spa start, Alonso could capitalise on the first-lap crash; so much so, that he actually overtook Hamilton, and was ahead of him in 4. when the red flags were waved. In the end, the McLaren did not stand much chances over the Mercedes, or the Mercedes-powered Force Indias; but it stood its ground against the rest of the mid-field it’s been associated with for far too long now.

And if there’s need for any other proof of progress since last year, McLaren’s overtaking Toro Rosso in the constructors’ championship might just serve as one.

Could McLaren finally be moving out of the midfield and to the front of the grid? Photo by Sutton Images

Could McLaren finally be moving out of the midfield and to the front of the grid?
Photo by Sutton Images

WILLIAMS Valtteri Bottas (8.), Felipe Massa (10.)

Another team that was expecting a break in 2016 was Williams, and they, too, struggled to make that plan stick – look only at Force India’s move ahead in the classification for confirmation.

At the start of the year it seemed that Felipe Massa got the better of his younger team-mate Valtteri Bottas, delivering better – if not ideal – results than the Finn in the first few races. However, once the Brazilian retired from Canada with an overheating issue, which ended a seven-race points-scoring run initiated in Abu Dhabi last year, the scales have seemed to tip to Bottas’ side once more.

The start of the Belgian GP looked promising for Massa – he had a great getaway off the line to move from 10. to 4. on the first lap; but what was his downfall was an early pitstop – before the safety car and red flag period – and extensive tyre wear later in the race, which meant he finished right where he started.

Although Bottas was matching his team-mate on pace most of the afternoon, he eventually edged the Brazilian – but neither he could climb up from his grid starting position.

The Finn has been scoring points for Williams all the way this year since his podium finish in Montreal (bar a poor show in the British GP); but seeing that Massa contributed only twice in this period, bringing in two points in total – from Baku and Spa – no wonder the team has dropped in the standings.

And it looks like the Brazilian has now conceded the times of greatness have passed, as in the run up to the Italian GP he’s announced he’s hanging up his cap at the end of the season – one thing for sure, however: the ex-Ferrari second driver will get a royal send off in Monza.

At the age of 27, it looks like Bottas is becoming Williams' senior driver. Photo source: Twitter/Williams Racing

At the age of 27, it looks like Bottas is becoming Williams’ senior driver.
Photo source: Twitter/Williams Racing

HAAS Esteban Gutierrez (12.); Romain Grosjean (13.)

Although still not the “Honda Take 2” story many were predicting for the F1 2016 newcomer, the season has not unfolded as overly favourable for the American outfit. After a great start to the campaign, with good points bagged by Lotus-veteran Romain Grosjean, the Frenchman only managed to score points once since the circus moved to Europe – with a 7. place finish in Austria.

In the meantime, his team-mate Esteban Gutierrez is still due to bring some meaningful results for the team; and that’s even though on track they seem pretty evenly matched – particularly a track like Spa.

The Mexican was the one who had to make up more ground un Belgium, after a qualifying incident with Manor’s Wehrlein demoted him five places for the start, back to 18.; but even despite that, the first lap calamity brought him right up to the midfield, for an uncomfortable first-row view of Magnussen’s crash on lap 9. The two Haas were running as high as 6. at one point, and, in the end, Gutierrez managed to finish ahead of Grosjean this time round – but still outside the points they were hoping for.

Evenly matched, sadly, on the slower end of the scale - it's not been a particularly successful start to Haas F1 journey. Source: HAAS F1 Team

Evenly matched; sadly, on the slower end of the scale – it’s not been a particularly successful start to Haas F1 journey.
Source: HAAS F1 Team

TORO ROSSO Daniil Kvyat (14.), Carlos Sainz (DNF)

When Daniil Kvyat proudly held his chin up climbing back into a Toro Rosso, after being demoted from Red Bull (for being in Vettel’s way too many times is the common consensus), his claims that he’d make his old-new team succeed were quite believable; unfortunately, his track record since Spain has so far failed to demonstrate that.

With a bunch of retirements along the way, and only a single point scored in the period – in Silverstone – it’s been a pretty tough ride for the young Russian. Since the switch, he’s been consistently outperformed by his team-mate Carlos Sainz, who, in turn, has already bagged eight point-scoring finishes in the same car; however, Spa was not meant to be one of them.

The Spaniard was one of the causalities of the debris on the track following the first-lap crash – a tyre blow out send him skidding and spinning around the circuit, and off onto the green, where his race promptly ended.

Kvyat, in turn, had a promising start, despite launching off 19. grid spot following a poor Saturday. This saw him run in the top 10, but only for the first chunk of the race – the pace simply wasn’t there and he could only manage 14. across the line.

“We pushed quite hard today and after the red flag there was some hope – at one point it even looked like we could dream of scoring some points… I think we did a great job with the tyres, but we started to struggle with straight-line speed and the deficit was more and more obvious after the second pit-stop,” Kvyat said.

“It’s a shame, but at least we can say we did our absolute best today. Unfortunately not many people will see this, as we only ended up P14 and out of the points, but it’s not that bad. We will have to take our opportunities at tracks that suit us better.”

It's changing fortunes for Sainz in 2016, who's been the main points giver to Toro Rosso this season. Photo source: F1

It’s changing fortunes for Sainz in 2016, who’s been the main points giver to Toro Rosso this season.
Photo source: F1

RENAULT Jolyon Palmer (15.); Kevin Magnussen (DNF)

The reinstating of the engine works team did little to improve ex-Lotus’ performance, as the yellow cars are still failing to deliver points – except for Kevin Magnussen’s lonely 7. place finish in Russia. But the Dane had no chances of adding to that after the rear of his Renault caught the kerb on the long, fast straight of Spa’s Eau Rouge, and launched him at high impact into the safety wall.

The damage to the circuit was bad enough that the race had to be red flagged for repairs – so no wonder the Renault was left in tethers. However, Magnussen limped away from the scene with no more than a swollen ankle; and after visits to the medical centre and additional check ups at the hospital, he is now cleared to try to turn his team’s fortunes in Monza.

As for his rookie team-mate Jolyon Palmer, his points scoring time is yet to come – hopefully before the next driver reshuffle takes place.

Magnussen's massive crash has made Renault's F1-return season even more difficult. Photo source: F1

Magnussen’s massive crash has made Renault’s F1-return season even more difficult.
Photo source: F1

MANOR Esteban Ocon (16.); Pascal Wehrlein (DNF)

We are used to seeing the former Marussia team on the bottom of the standings; and yet, the picture today is more colourful than usual; and that thanks to one of the three of the team’s rookie drivers – the one that still remains on the team.

Pascal Wehrelin’s 10. place finish in Austria was celebrated like a win by the team, and the rest of the paddock forwarded their congratulations – in the end, it only takes that one single point for Manor to remain in the top 10 of the 11 constructors, promising some much needed funding from the sport. Sadly, the German could not add to that result in Spa, as the first-lap collision with Button’s McLaren ended his race there and then.

Remaining on the track was the newcomer Esteban Ocon, who was the better-funded proposition than his predecessor, Rio Haryanto. The young Frenchman impressed in the early stages of Belgian qualifying with a good drive, but ended up starting the race from 17., and only moved up one spot on Sunday.

SAUBER Felipe Nasr (17.); Marcus Ericsson (DNF)

The last driver to cross the line in Spa was Felipe Nasr, confirming the dire season his team is experiencing this year. With no points to their name, Sauber are on the very bottom of the constructors’ classification; in which case, technical issues with the cars don’t help – such as the problem with Marcus Ericsson’s cooling system, that required some additional work just before the race, forcing the Swede to start from the pit lane; nor the subsequent gearbox failure that cut his afternoon short as early as lap four.

For Nasr it came down to some bad luck and poor judgement: after an early puncture dropped him down from his 14. starting position, he then had to serve a five-second penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage.

“A disappointing result, after we could see in the practice sessions that the aerodynamic characteristics of the car had generally improved,” said Monisha Kaltenborn, Sauber’s team principal.

“This weekend was compromised by several incidents with the power unit. Also the race was influenced by factors which did not lie in our hands – the gearbox issues on Marcus’ car, as well as the debris which caused a puncture and damages to Felipe’s car.”

These woes continue, despite a cash injection after the team’s recent takeover by a new investor, and a raft of upgrades to the chassis introduced as a result – the first major update to the car all season.

If this low trend continues, Sauber faces their first season since entering the sport in 1993 outside the constructors’ top 10 – and that rings of an uncertain future for the financially stretched outfit.

With technical issues on one hand, and unfortunate circumstances on the track, Sauber's 2016 season is going from bad to worst. Photo by: Octane Photographic Ltd

With technical issues on one hand, and unfortunate circumstances on the track on the other, Sauber’s 2016 season is going from bad to worse.
Photo by: Octane Photographic Ltd

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