25 Aug 2018
Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale takes us through the action that unfolded in qualifying at Spa-Francorchamps this afternoon.
Wind 0.6 m/s
As the F1 world shook sand and saltwater out of their ears after a seemingly interminable summer break, the legal brouhaha over the team formerly known as Force India savagely swallowed all the headlines about clever engine updates (Ferrari, new MGU-H and Turbo, Mercedes new spec) expensive new fuels (Ferrari again, perhaps not every team with a PU from the Scuderia can afford it, could be a legal tactic going forward to keep the sharp end sharp given current FIA regs) and of course the flash new wheels brought by Mercedes to help them with their tyre temperatures.
Instead it's been a silly season frenzy kicked off by rumours that now Papa Stroll owned Force India, wunderkind Lance would be ditching the problematic Williams for a newer, faster team, complexified by the shock announcement of Ricciardo deciding his future lay with Enstone, not Milton Keynes. Of course, that set off a firestorm that was rather immediately complicated by the fact that Stroll had merely bought the assets of the former team, and not the company itself, necessitating a brand new entry that was negotiated at the 11th hour and stamped approved by the FIA less than 24 hours before FP1 kicked off (and notwithstanding legal rumblings about the fairness of the administration decisions from one of the rather well heeled spurned suitors).
The current facts are Ricciardo to Renault, Sainz to McLaren, Gasly to RBR, Stroll to Force India (which shall be used for continuity purposes for the remainder of the season) eventually, and of course, Alonso off to some other motorsport entirely. Beyond that we have Perez likely staying, Ocon going (maybe Macca) Kubica finishing out Stroll's contract at Williams (hype train!!!) and Vandoorne possibly at Toro Rosso, or then again not. Ah yes, and don't forget the possibility that James Key will wind up at McLaren once the Faenza team extracts the appropriate amount of blood. Whew, glad that's over....
Vandoorne, whose season has been torrid and for whom speculation has been rife, decided to demonstrate his remarkable skills (he is dead in the middle of teammates vs Alonso stats wise, so not as bad as current telly has led everyone to believe) during FP3 by keeping his car mostly out of the barrier after Bottas, for reasons mostly having to do with "ooops" put him on the grass down the Kemmel straight. Starting at the back, the likely penalty will have little effect, unless of course he is required to use a Williams instead. He will be joined there by Hulkenberg, both taking on enough new bits to put them there.
Vettel led the way for FP3, but by barely a tenth so pole position will be a knockdown dragout of epic proportions with a bit of luck, but it was Leclerc in 7th that particularly impressed, as Ferrari's latest side hustle apparently got busy over break and is rapidly looking to supplant HAAS in the Italian marque's affectations. Perez too was seriously quick, and the pair of them look to animate the midfield battle in tomorrow's race.
Once again a feature is the sensor at the top of the hill, which will potentially see times deleted, as it's an automatic call for the stewards. Less likely to feature tomorrow as the laptimes will be slower due to higher fuel, along with fuel and tyre management. On the way to the grid, it was a reprimand for Bottas (naughty, naughty Finn) for his obliviousness to Vandoorne in FP3 as the teams completed their last minute checks and prepared to hit the track
Green Light!! Gasly, Grosjean and Magnussen were off straight away, with a threat of rain hanging over the rather sunny circuit (don't ask, it's Belgium) then Leclerc and Hamilton, first of the big boys to kick off. Hartley, Raikkonen, Ericsson and Vettel followed at a fairly short interval and the sharp end all sported yellow Softs on their wheels. As the first runners approached the start/finish it was Grosjean leading the way, then Magnussen and Gasly.
Early days it was Magnussen king of the purples in the midfield trio, shortlived as it was due to Hamilton coming through. Raikkonen was faster then Vettel faster still through S1, by several tenths. At the end of the lap, Grosjean managed to be faster with a solid S2 and momentarily was top of the timing chart.
Hamilton 1:43.543 ended that, followed by Raikkonen nearly a second faster (on the same tyres) and then Vettel slotted between the two, P2 and half a second off. Lewis was sent round again for "learning" despite having set a time good enough to progress according to his engineers.
11 minutes to go and Verstappen was on it, RBR running the Supers and roughly on a pace to Vettel through the first two sectors, but wound up 0.2s off Sebastian's time, albeit with a step softer tyre compound helping out.
Hulkenberg, due to start at the back tomorrow thanks to his new equipment, cracked off a P6, and was rapidly eclipsed by Ocon, Perez and Leclerc in that order, leaving him 8th and a mere thousandth between the to Force India teammates. As that was settled, Hamilton was back on it and ran a significantly better 1:42.977, going P2 ahead of Vettel.
Mysteriously, Ricciardo managed to go just P10, his struggles not improving with the news of his departure (optional tinfoil available free of charge for subscribers /joke) and Mercedes kicked Bottas out into the lull created as the teams at risk for being dropped were in the pits getting ready for their last shot that the glories of Q2. Sirotkin, Stroll, Vandoorne, Alonso and Ericsson were all in that zone and as they took to the grid, Kmag was given a tow by his teammate which launched him up to P7 and Grosjean to P6. That forced Ricciardo back out the door for another go with less than 3 minutes to go as he had dropped to P13 as he sat in the pits.
Stroll was first off for the backmarkers, but it was Sirotkin looking racy and managed P18 after running wide. The board was lighting up green and it was Leclerc to P7, Ericsson to P10, as both Alonso and somewhat shockingly Carlos Sainz were unable to make Q2. He had one mistake in S2 that pretty much did him in, complaining on the radio of a lack of rear grip, whatever change they made having made in between his runs having apparently not improved things. Ricciardo barely made P7 but it was enough for him to live to fight another day.
Not so lucky were Sainz, Alonso, Sirotkin, Stroll and Vandoorne, who were off in search of some waffles as the rest turned it around for the trials and tribulations of Q2.
The second qualifying session started with Raikkonen, Hamilton, Vettel, Ricciardo and Hartley out first, the battle of the titans not wasting much time with the long outlap required due to the length of the circuit. Hamilton complained of a tyre vibration. Through the bus stop went Raikkonen with 12:30 to go and it was on. Purples for Kimi in S1, Hamilton down slightly under 0.2s off with Vettel crushing it and taking the fastest of all, nearly 4 tenths up on the Mercedes. Hamilton answered with a purple S2 but not enough as the contest hurtled towards the last sector. Raikkonen was first up with a 1:41.627 and a new track record, Hamilton P2 0.184 seconds back of Kimi and a surprise from Vettel, with a bit of an average S3 leaving him 0.506 seconds behind and P3. Bottas and Hulkenberg didn't bother to run, as they were starting at the back and it was HAAS reclaiming best of the rest with half the session left to run, followed by Force India and then Gasly, benefitting from the lack of running by the 2 drivers starting at the back saving tyres.
Hartley, Leclerc and Ericsson, were the three with something to prove, and as they turned it around for one more go, a dark cloud was reported in S2 and the odds that rain would enliven things a bit for Q3 apparently jumped significantly higher. This pushed HAAS to get out the door a bit earlier than planned. Ericsson was out of the car, however, for reasons unknown and his day was done, leaving just Hartley and Leclerc to do battle from the dropzone. Raikkonen and Vettel were out the door and quelle surprise it was Bottas making a surprise appearance, and the possibility that they would use Bottas to slipstream Hamilton in Q3 was the immediate speculation. Bad news for Gasly, though, as he was the current possessor of P10.
Off they went on their hotlaps. Hartley had a spin in Turn 1 and that was that for him. Vettel, slipstreaming Raikkonen, went P1 as Bottas went P4. putting Gasly out. Hamilton improved, but with no slipstream he was down to P3, again with a purple S2 though. On the outside looking in were Gasly, Hartley, Leclerc, Ericsson and Hulkenberg. Off for a soul restoring Trippel they went, as on replay Hartley's spin appeared to be perhaps not entirely his fault. Along with that, reports of rain alongside the track and in the pits were numerous, but not entirely confirmed and even the fans seemed unsure of what to do.
However, from a strategy point of view, with Hamilton just 0.052 seconds off Vettel, the slipstream appeared the way forward and his only real shot at pole position would be down to teamwork, an unusual situation and raising some interesting (and speculative) questions about whether that would be a bill he'd have to repay at Monza.
As the session was about to open, the rain had stopped, but there was another shower reported to be 7 minutes away. As the queue formed, it was Bottas ahead of Hamilton, but Vettel had somehow managed to wedge himself inbetween the two. Rain in T8 and as the pits opened, Hamilton rocked by Vettel and Mercedes was on it hard. As they rolled around for the outlap, the wind picked up and the rain had officially arrived. Verstappen nearly had an off and then Bottas lost it at Blanchimont and into the pits they came for Inters.
CHAOS for everyone as Ocon and Perez carried on. Confusion at Ferrari as they weren't sure whether to wheel them into the garage or not, perhaps needing some fuel onboard. Perez had a brutally lurid moment and as they approached the pits they chose to come in for Inters rather than complete their lap. Ricciardo was first on it as RBR just swapped tyres, no fuel thank you, and he was off the track at Les Combes, and through the runoff, leaving Verstappen behind as the first runner on a hot lap.
S1 to Verstappen, and he was faster than Raikkonen behind, and the message from Ferrari was the hardest rain was done. 2:02.849 for Verstappen and Raikkonen outdid that by about 2 tenths, again gaining ground in S3. Hamilton was on a very safe lap, picking it up in S3 and going purple there and taking P3. With just over 3 minutes left he and the rest would have 2 more laps to get it done as conditions changed rapidly.
Vettel was through and P1, but still in the 2:02's. Hamilton, pushing hard was off at Fagne with too much speed, leaving himself a sole shot at pole as he had dropped to P5 as the rest of the field came through in the now improving but far from safe conditions. Vettel, meanwhile, had rocked it through in a 2:01.188. Raikkonen and both Red Bulls had pitted with time left, but it was Ocon coming through as the last seconds rolled off the clock who purpled S1. Perez up to P2 as Hamilton swept by, with a crushing 1:58.179, and Vettel still out. Ocon to P3 just a tenth faster than his teammate and Vettel, who lost 0.4 seconds through S2, was unable to makeup the difference in the last sector so it was Hamilton, Vettel and yes, OCON at the top, followed by Perez and Grosjean. Ferrari lost out massively with Raikkonen's early pit, likely due to being short fueled and it was Kimi, Verstappen, Ricciardo, Magnussen and Bottas finishing off the top 10. The Red Bulls were also in the pits when they could've done another lap in improving conditions, and that was almost certainly due to the fact they didn't refuel the cars when they switched to Inters, a fact that was confirmed after the session.
Well now, regardless of weather, tomorrow's race will be full of intrigue with a mixed up grid and not entirely slow Force India's locking out the second row of the grid. Ocon's P3 interview was decidedly a highlight for the crowd and it certainly won't hurt his value in the driver sweepstakes. Bottas and Hulkenberg from the back will make life interesting as well, and of course, it's being Spa who knows what will really happen, weatherwise. The Racing Gods have smiled on the fans once again for todays's qualifying and all indications are tomorrow's race will continue our good fortune...
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