Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
Although it looked like business as usual for Red Bull Racing during the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa last weekend, for the team is was certainly not business as usual. Although the Austrian outfit took yet another one-two victory at the famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit, especially championship leader Sebastian Vettel needed a certain dose of luck to emerge as the winner of the race. Several teams including Red Bull had huge problems with the soft compound tyres, but Vettel nevertheless won the race and Webber fought his way back to second place after yet again one of his infamous ‘anti-stall’ hampered starts.
Team principal Christian Horner was satisfied with the result, “A fantastic team result - a one-two in Spa and our first ever victory here, it's phenomenal for the team.” About the tyre problems he said, “Having damaged our tyres in qualifying, we had some concerns about them going into the race based on a lack of knowledge after all the wet running this weekend. More than anything we wanted to see how the tyres were behaving.”
Belgian Grand Prix - all about tyres
Italian tyre manufacturer Pirelli again did all Formula One fans a big favor with the allocation of the Medium (prime) and Soft (option) rubber compounds. Due to the rain on Friday and Saturday most teams had no clue as to the behavior of the slicks on the Ardennes circuit, which added to the suspension, in this case literally.
Red Bull had encountered problems during the last qualifying stint Q3, and found the soft tyres had developed blisters on the inside, the team suspected the camber of the front wheels was the culprit as the blistering solely appeared on the inside. “There was concern at that stage that it could be a genuine safety concern for all the teams, so there was talk of all of the front tyres being removed from whoever ran in Q3, and perhaps a new maximum camber being allowed for the race,” Horner explained.
Unfortunately the rules of the parc fermé say suspension configurations may not be altered ahead of the race and the top ten in qualifying has to start on the tyres they qualified on during Q3, and this meant Red Bull had to sit out the race with the wrong front suspension configuration. After lengthy discussions with Pirelli and FIA race director Charlie Whiting it was decided the condition of the soft tyres was acceptable and within the safety limits, and thus Red Bull started the race on the damaged tyres.
But Red Bull and especially designer Adrian Newey were still concerned about the safety and Horner later admitted they had even thought of breaking the parc fermé rules and alter the camber, take the penalty and start on the medium tyres from the back of the grid -- or even from the pit lane. Horner about the problems, “We even thought about starting with hard tyres from the pit lane. It wouldn't have been good for the championship but the risk was quite big. The blisters were clearly visible, not only on our cars but also all of the fast cars seemed to have problems as well.”
Another one-two for Red Bull
Vettel’s start was flawless but the German had never expected it would be Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg who flew past him to take the lead. It took Vettel until lap three, when the DRS (Drag Reduction System) was officially enabled, to take back his leading position again. Meanwhile Webber had a bad start and fell back to eighth position before he even entered the La Source hairpin. “The start was shocking,” said the Australian, “I dropped the lever and had anti-stall immediately… that was a very disappointing way to start the Grand Prix.”
I dropped the lever and had anti-stall immediately
To ensure the safety of their drivers Red Bull decided to call in both Vettel and Webber very early for new tyres, Webber pitted after just three laps and rejoined the race in 15th position, while Vettel pitted on lap five and he rejoined the race in seventh position. And indeed as predicted, the tyres had huge blisters and would not have lasted much longer. In fact, the new set of softs didn’t last very long either, but the safety car that came on track after Hamilton’s crash was just what Red Bull needed. They quickly called in Vettel again for the second set of softs while the safety car was on track.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso stayed out and inherited the lead, while Webber took second place as he also stayed out, but Vettel had made his pit stop only losing two places, which turned out to be the key to grab the victory. “After the safety car, it was crucial to get back into the lead, jump Fernando, pass him and build a gap that made it more comfortable towards the end of the race,” Vettel explained. The race was restarted on lap 16 and Webber immediately tried to catch Alonso, while Vettel tried to pass Webber but had to back off and wait for a better opportunity. That opportunity came one lap later and Vettel was now chasing Alonso for the lead.
The Ferrari was no match for Vettel’s Red Bull who used his DRS and KERS on the Kemmel straight and passed the Spaniard with ease on lap 17. From then on it became relatively easy for the 2010 champion who then started to pull away from the numbers two and three, Webber and Alonso. Vettel only lost the lead again when he pitted for the last time to switch to the medium tyres, on which he would finish the race in leading position.
Webber pitted one lap later, but as he had already used the medium tyres, he could now finish the race on the faster soft tyres, although he had to be careful not to overload and damage them in his efforts to catch up with Alonso. Webber chased Alonso down and then made what was without a doubt the overtaking maneuver of the race, he caught up with the Ferrari in the La Source hairpin, and both went through Eau Rouge side by side with just a few inches to spare.
Webber about his daring move, “I think most of the race I was still charged with frustration from the start, so when I came out behind Fernando, obviously we were very, very close going down into Eau Rouge and I knew Fernando would have been using some KERS so I was using some KERS as well.” He then overtook the Ferrari on the Kemmel straight, “I got a tow, obviously, and then I thought if I can get to the inside then I might have the line. Obviously both of us are very experienced, we don’t give much too easily, so it was a good battle and very, very rewarding that it worked out OK, but it takes two guys doing a good job to get all that right.”
I think most of the race I was still charged with frustration from the start
The rest of the race was relatively simple for both Red Bull drivers, although Webber was faster on his soft tyres than Vettel on the medium tyres, Webber simply ran out of time to catch up with his team mate and thus Red Bull scored another one-two victory. “We got a good result in what was one of the team's best ever one-two finishes. It was a great weekend for the team and they deserve this result,” Webber stated after the race.
Mixed fortunes for McLaren
The Woking-based McLaren team had certainly hoped to get closer to their main rival Red Bull last weekend, but after qualifying Jenson Button’s hopes had quickly faded as he due to a miscommunication with his team on the pit wall missed out on Q3 and had to start the race from 13th spot on the start grid. But the Briton’s victory during his 200th Grand Prix in Hungary apparently had given him wings, and although he had hoped for wet weather during the race, he proved he is also fast in the dry once again thanks to his tyre preserving driving style.
After the start his car was hit from behind and a huge chunk of his rear wing end plate was missing, and as if that wasn’t enough, his car was also hit by debris from the collisions ahead of him, and one piece of sharp carbon fiber cut right through his front wing and then took his right rearview mirror out as well, which reminded all of the mishap of Felipe Massa in Hungary 2009. Button about the events that easily could have turned sour, “At the exit of Turn One, there was debris everywhere, and somebody else's front wing went through my front wing and sliced my right-side mirror off. I also had to make an early pit stop, so it was hardly perfect!”
”The team had a look at the data and saw that the damage was manageable, so I held on for a few more laps in order to make the strategy work,” Button explained. He pitted on lap four for new tyres and also picked up a new front wing and rejoined the race in 19th position, but he never gave up and from then on started an impressive race in which he eventually crossed the finish line in third position. “I think everybody had an issue with the front-left tyres, so it was tricky to know when to push. But my pace was pretty good considering the damage we had, and I really enjoyed attacking and passing people,” he commented.
Button also quickly pitted during the safety car deployment, did not lose too much time and rejoined the neutralized race in 11th position. After the restart he overtook Sergio Perez, Vitaly Petrov, Adrian Sutil, Felipe Massa and Rosberg before he got stuck behind Webber who was flying on his soft tyres. The last round of pit stops was crucial again, Button pitted from second place and rejoined in fourth, again behind the Red Bull of Webber who had also made his final stop of the race. The Australian then passed Alonso for second place and Button started to hunt down Alonso who was struggling on his last set of tyres. Button was about one second a lap faster and with three laps to go he finally overtook the scarlet red Ferrari.
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh was impressed, “In particular, to hunt down and pass Fernando like that… again, I thought that was very, very, very impressive. But for our unfortunate misunderstanding in qualifying yesterday I feel sure that he would have been able to mount a truly formidable challenge for outright victory here this afternoon.”
Not so lucky was Lewis Hamilton, who got involved in a crash with Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi at the end of the Kemmel straight, just ahead of Les Combes. Hamilton never made it into Les Combes, he had neatly and according the book just overtaken the Japanese with some extra power of his DRS and KERS, but went back to his racing line without checking his left rearview mirror to see where the Sauber was. True, Kobayashi didn’t really move out of the way, but on the other hand the result would have been equally disastrous if he had moved out of the way onto the wet grass.
Kobayashi tagged Hamilton’s right rear wheel and the McLaren was pushed off the track, went almost head on into the barrier and slid helplessly along that same barrier until a strategically positioned tyre stack stopped the damaged McLaren. His team collectively held its breath as the Briton initially stayed in the car, but Hamilton without a doubt held his breath as well while he checked if he could still move his arms and legs. He could and came out of the car, perhaps still wondering what had happened, but unharmed.
Hamilton initially blamed the Japanese driver, “I was in a good position and I'd already got past one of the Ferraris, but then I was hit by Kamui. I don't really know what happened, but I hit the wall pretty hard and my race was immediately over. I was ahead, so I don't know why I got hit.” No angry Hamilton this time, but he simply agreed it was a race incident, so did the FIA Stewarts and neither of the drivers were penalized.
After the race the opinions were divided, but Kobayashi was adamant Hamilton was to blame, “After he overtook me it was not my intention to get my position back, so I stayed on my line and didn't expect him to move over.” And after watching the footage of the accident it is clear Kobayashi stayed on his line, and did not move to the right nor to the left, it was Hamilton who swerved to the left and sealed his own fate. On Sunday evening he acknowledged it was his fault and wrote on Twitter, “After watching the replay, I realize it was my fault today 100%. I didn't give Kobayashi enough room though I thought I was past. Apologies to Kamui and to my team. The team deserves better from me.”
Bitter disappointment for Toro Rosso
Jaime Alguersuari had high hopes ahead of the race, but was robbed of any chance of cashing in on his excellent sixth qualifying spot after Bruno Senna in his Lotus Renault plunged down the start-finish straight, hit the brakes too late and dived straight into the Toro Rosso of the Spaniard at the very first corner. Alguersuari then waved his hand in despair to the Brazilian, as he knew his race had ended after just 10 seconds. He tried to cruise back to the pits, but had to throw in the towel halfway and parked his heavily damaged car somewhere along the circuit and begun the long walk back to the pits.
Needless to say, Alguersuari was utterly disappointed. “Going into the hairpin after the start, I was in the middle with Senna on my inside and Fernando on my outside and Senna completely missed his braking point and hit me which pushed me into the path of the Ferrari,” Alguersuari said after the race.
Equal disappointment for his team colleague Sebastien Buemi who initially managed to avoid the crashes at the La Source hairpin, but fate later caught up with the Swiss driver when Perez decided to take a very close look at the back of his Toro Rosso. His race initially started well, “I got a great start, moving up from eleventh on the grid to sixth after the first corner, which was fantastic. I was able to follow the pace of Alonso and Hamilton.”
But he was very unhappy with the move of the Mexican rookie, “Then Perez tried to pass me and simply drove into the back of me, which completed destroyed my rear wing and I had no option but to bring the car back to the pits to retire. I really can't understand what he was doing, as I was clearly ahead of him: it was as though he forgot to brake.”
Of course Perez had a quite different opinion, “On lap five I was in seventh when Buemi changed his line in front of me under braking, I tried to avoid hitting him but couldn't as I had lost downforce.” Nevertheless Perez got a drive-through penalty for his action, and once again got in trouble when he hit the Lotus Renault of Senna; he then seriously damaged his Sauber and was forced into retirement.
Team principal Franz Tost was also disappointed, “Both our drivers had very short races, before being knocked out in incidents that were not their fault, a view supported by the race officials, who penalized Senna and Perez for the collisions with Jaime and Sebastien respectively. Of course, this is very disappointing given our strong showing in qualifying, which meant we were hoping to score a good number of points today.”
Ferrari not even competing for the win
Ferrari have like McLaren desperately been trying to keep up with Red Bull or at least tried to limit the damage, but even the ever determined Alonso must by now know he is on an impossible mission. Alonso was on his way to a fifth consecutive podium finish until three laps shy of the finish Button took over his third place and the 15 points that come with it. The problem for Ferrari are the medium tyres, which do not suit the F150° Italia. Alonso’s strategy meant he would do the last stint on the medium tyres but these are already slower than the soft ones, and to make things worse for him, tyre specialist Button hunted him down on his soft tyres without ruining them, and it was therefore relatively easy for the Briton to get past the Ferrari.
Alonso did encounter some luck on Sunday as he got a nudge from Alguersuari at the La Source hairpin and was lucky his car didn’t sustain any damage. “I braked on the outside and I felt someone hit me on the rear tyre. I thought I damaged the car at that point, but I kept going with no problems.” Alonso was however happy with the first part of the race, “I had fun in the first stint: the start was good and then I had some nice duels. The strategy saw me lead in the early stages, but then, we knew that in the final part, we would have struggled more.” And admitted, “Honestly, I didn't think I had a real chance of winning, but a podium was within our grasp.”
He also thinks Vettel was very lucky with the safety car, but when the safety car was out, he didn’t think his team made the wrong decision to not call him in for tyres like Vettel. “The tyres were in very good shape, so we decided to stay out. I think the choice was good for us.”
“But”, he said, “unfortunately Vettel only lost one place with Webber and beat -- by very little -- Rosberg. And then in the restart he overtook Webber in Turn 1 so not much traffic for Vettel. So I think the decision was good, but the factors around the safety car were very good for Sebastian.”
We decided to stay out. I think the choice was good for us
His Brazilian team mate Massa had an altogether different race, but in the end had to admit his Ferrari just lacked proper speed. “In the opening phase I was absolutely in the fight for the top places, but then I started to have tyre problems and the car seemed to no longer be so well balanced. With the Mediums, the situation improved but we were not quick enough, as was clearly evident and by then it was too late,” he explained. He later got a puncture and was forced to make another stop, and finally finished in eighth position.
Ferrari’s Pat Fry is aware of the problems they have with the tyres, “It's a problem we have still not managed to fix and which is even more accentuated once the [ambient] temperature is rather low. It's disappointing for our drivers, as we have not been able to put them in a position to fight at their best in every type of condition.” Now Ferrari is heading to Monza for the Scuderia’s home race, last year Alonso won the race on home turf and Massa took third place, but with the problems Ferrari have with the tyres this year, winning the Italian Grand Prix will not be easy, but like in the past, Alonso has often shown his dogged determination can help him to overcome many problems, and perhaps can help him to win at Monza again.
Mercedes scored best result of the season
Michael Schumacher was looking forward to celebrate his 20 years of Formula One, but when he careered off the track on his first lap during qualifying after he lost a rear wheel and ended up in the barrier, it looked like game over for the German, who had to start the race from the very last place on the grid. But the seven-time world champion was together with Button, in fact the star of the show at Spa; any other driver would have been severely demoralized knowing he had to start from the back, but not Schumacher.
After the lights went out on Sunday he started his march forwards, he managed to swerve around the mayhem at La Source and after one lap had already taken 14th position, two laps later he was 12th. After his first stop he fell back, but he made good use of the safety car period, and one lap after the safety car pulled off the track he already was in seventh position. He then became involved in several fights, first with Button, later with Sutil and towards the end of the race he was behind his team colleague Rosberg. Schumacher had started the race on the medium tyres, and like Button was on a fresh set of softs at the end of the race, the strategy paid off and with three laps to go he finally overtook Rosberg and finished in fifth position.
Schumacher told the press after the race, “A wonderful ending to a wonderful weekend here in Spa. I think more than fifth place would not have been possible today but making up 19 places was a good feeling.” And said about his phenomenal race, “So all in all, for me, there was a lot of emotion and a lot of overtaking today. At the beginning I was a bit afraid that some of the flying parts might hit and damage my car, but I was lucky that nothing happened. After that, I had big fun hunting and making my way forward.”
Rosberg did a great job by jumping Vettel at the start and led the race for two laps, but knew his Mercedes did not have the pace to fight for the victory. But he was satisfied with the result, “We have made progress this weekend and today was a good result for the team. I had to push quite hard at the start and in the middle which cost me a little towards the end, which combined with Michael being on the faster soft tyres, meant that I wasn't able to keep him behind me.” Rosberg finished in sixth position and with Schumacher in fifth the team scored its best points result of the season and went back home with 19 points in the bag.
Senna out brakes himself
Bruno Senna was offered a ride in the Lotus Renault of Nick Heidfeld, and much to everyone’s surprise showed an excellent form, at least, until the first corner of the race. On Friday morning the Brazilian nephew of the late and great Ayton Senna was perhaps a bit nervous or tensed, and on a very wet circuit parked his black and gold car backwards into the tyre barrier that lines Turn 9. Senna was seen pounding his fists on the steering wheel, probably asking himself how on earth he could have been so foolish to crash during his first outing for his new employer.
In the afternoon things went smoother and on Saturday Senna was ninth quickest in the final practice session in the morning, and surprised everyone by taking the seventh fastest time during the final qualifying session Q3. Senna was therefore optimistic ahead of the race, but on Sunday he made a typical rookie error by charging down the field until he ran out of asphalt. Was Senna caught out by the melee of the start, had he just misjudged his braking point, or was he caught out by the weight of the heavy Lotus Renault with its fully topped off fuel tanks, or was he simply a bit too opportunistic? The only to answer that question is Senna himself.
“Unfortunately I made a mistake in the first corner, which cost me the chance of really causing a stir at the top end for the remainder of the race. So, firstly I would like to say sorry to Jaime Alguersuari for that,” he commented. “I didn't do the first corner with high fuel, ever, and unfortunately I misjudged the braking area,” he said to the BBC. “There was no way for me to avoid Jaime and I am really sorry about his race.”
“I made a mistake in the braking area, so that meant I slipped back and couldn't compete where I wanted to; this left me quite lonely at the back for a while,” he admitted. And added, “Once I'd paid the price with the drive through penalty I was able to start making some progress and my race pace was actually quite strong, so I kept pushing and was pleased with how I drove from then on.”
Team principal Eric Boullier was happy with Senna’s performance, “Bruno had a great qualifying and, given that he hadn’t run many laps in the dry prior to today’s race, his performance was a respectable one. After the mishap at the first corner, and the resulting drive through penalty, he pulled out a plucky performance to come home in 13th place.”
Senna has the weight of the legacy of his Uncle Ayrton Senna on his young shoulders, and the career of both Sennas have striking similarities, Ayrton started his career in 1984 in the slowest car of his days, the Toleman-Hart, while Bruno started his Formula One career at the slowest team of 2010, the Hispania Racing Team (HRT). Both then moved to the black and gold livered Lotus team, and Ayrton scored his maiden victory in a Lotus also powered by a Renault engine during the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix. If Bruno wants to follow his uncle’s footsteps he has another opportunity to do so at the next Grand Prix at Monza, or perhaps fate will give him some more chances if he manages to extend his contract with Lotus Renault until the end of the season, and he will perhaps indeed also score his maiden victory in a black and gold Renault powered Lotus.
The problem with DRS
If anyone can tell about the disadvantages of DRS, it must be Rosberg who became a victim of the device many times during the race. The DRS detection zone was just after the La Source hairpin and the activation zone was some 235 meters after Raidillon, which is the last part of the Eau Rouge sequence of corners. Although this seems the most logic place to deploy DRS, it certainly seemed overtaking on the following Kemmel straight was a bit too easy. Ferrari Team Principal Stefano Domenicali mentioned overtaking with DRS at Spa was ‘a forgone conclusion’.
Domenicali gave his opinion late Sunday night, “What we have seen with DRS was not expected to be honest because I saw a lot of people behind that were able to catch the tow of the front car already at Eau Rouge, so they were able to close up at Eau Rouge and arrive at the DRS zone very, very close to that, so I think they were not expecting a recovery like that in Eau Rouge, so today it seems to be quite easy to use DRS while some other times [on other circuits] it was too difficult.”
And indeed, the problem with DRS at Spa was that there was no fight for a position anymore, at least not in Eau Rouge and on the Kemmel straight where DRS could be deployed. Normally the age old phrase about overtaking was: ‘getting behind another car is one thing, but overtaking is another thing’. But with DRS the passing part of the equation is no longer a problem, which was clearly demonstrated at Spa. No fight, just push the button and a driver had a copper-bottom guarantee to overtake his opponent.
But on the other hand, as FOTA chairman Whitmarsh said, “The FOTA did the most extensive fan survey [ever] and whether I believe it or want to believe it, the fans wanted more overtaking and if you have done the survey and the fans tell you that is what they want, then I think you are fairly arrogant if you [would] ignore it.” Again about the fans he said, “We are immersed as full time professionals in Formula One and obsessed by championships, but I think the punter that watches on television wants a great show and we are doing that.”
And Whitmarsh jokingly added, “I would rather it was a great show with some silver and red cars at the front -- but we are working on that.”
Next stop: Monza
Next stop in two weeks is Monza, or the Autodromo Nazionale Monza as its official name is, another classic circuit on this year’s calendar. And there are similarities with Spa, Monza is a fast circuit with long straights and only two relatively slow chicanes, the rest of the circuit is almost flat-out.
Vettel and Red Bull have once again extended their lead in both championships, Vettel leads the Drivers’ Championship with 259 points, already more points than he had last year at the end of the season. His nearest rival Webber is 90 points behind him, number three Alonso is 102 points adrift of the German, while Button and Hamilton have swapped position in the championship, Button is now fourth with 149 points, and Hamilton fifth with 146 points.
Red Bull is also leading the Constructors’ Championship with 426 points, followed by McLaren (295), Ferrari (231), and Mercedes and Lotus Renault are fourth and fifth with 98 and 68 points respectively. With seven Grands Prix still to go there are still 175 points to be won, but the situation for Red Bull Racing is exactly as ex-Formula One driver and part-time FIA Stewart Heinz-Harald Frentzen described it last week: “At the moment they can only defeat themselves.”