27 Aug 2018
Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale takes us through the ins and outs of the Belgian GP in only the way he can.
Ambient 17° Track 29° Humidity 38% Wind 1.1 m/s
It was a sunny day in Belgium, which when translated means the skies were gray it was a bit chill and the weather was entirely suspicious.... Carlos Sainz and Stoffel Vandoorne both received new Power Units and other associated bits (along with associated penalties, natch) due to their entirely poor qualifying, suggesting that perhaps the teams MIGHT want to rethink those incentives. Renault did decide to start Sainz on the Medium tyre, which will no doubt be watched VERY closely in the Ferrari and Mercedes garages. Nevertheless, the supremely mixed up grid was the focal point as the extended grid walk played out in telly broadcasts around the world.
Formula 1 published a wonderful comparison of fastest laps between Hamilton and Vettel on their Q3 laps and of particular note was the fact that even in the rain, Vettel had the quicker run down to Eau Rouge, as well as most of Sector 3. This will make for some interesting racing on the first lap should both parties make the first turn unscathed, even before one considers the generally superior start that Ferrari has, or the fact that Vettel is actually starting more on the racing line, albeit with Lewis on his inside and slightly ahead...
Ferrari also seemed to have an advantage on the Medium tyre in the long run, at least in FP2 and that would seem to mean that they might be able to pull off the vaunted one stop, beloved of the teams but that F1 has been trying to banish through tyre magic the last few years. Mark Hughes, in Motorsport Magazine, did an analysis that suggested this was unlikely, but such is the pace difference between the sharp end and the rest it's entirely within the realm of possibility that they could go slow enough to one stop and still be miles ahead by time the chequers fly.
Pre-race radio from Hamilton to Mercedes discussing his set-up was particularly interesting, as they weighed the benefits of "taking out half a hole from the front wing" (Somers - it's easier for them to talk in holes on the adjuster, rather than in degrees, as then the information is also semi-coded too) along with the balance being "on the nose" and "diff settings already high" because of the headwind. All of which suggests, not surprisingly, that barring weather and accidents, this is a race that will come down to tyre and energy management, an exquisite but difficult to appreciate dance between the driver, team and track.
Mercedes look to be running more downforce relative to Ferrari, and the fact that the Silver Arrows were quickest in S2, vs Ferrari in S1 and S3 seemed to confirm that fact. A true battle of the titans approached, different designs, different set ups battling for supremacy in the Constructors, as the drivers readied themselves to lay it all on the line.
Lights Out!!!! Tremendous start by Ocon, Hamilton held the lead into La Source, and then scene stealer Alonso was airborne, flying sideways and landing directly atop Leclerc. On replay it was Hulkenberg who smashed into the back of Alonso that inititiated the aerobatic sequence, as Vettel chased Hamilton down the Kemmel straight, popped out of the slipstream and rocked by Hamilton with ease. Ocon behind had a serious go up the inside for the lead into La Source, also working the slipstream for all it was worth, but was forced to back out and wound up losing both 2nd to Hamilton and 3rd to his teammate once he was through the turn. Puncture for Raikkonen and the Safety Car was out. Ricciardo limped it into the pits with a destroyed rear wing and the running order was Vettel, Hamilton, Perez, Ocon, Verstappen, Grosjean, Magnussen, Gasly, Ericsson and Sirotkin in the points.
The Safety Car, which had been running through the pitlane as the debris was cleared, was called in end of lap 4 and of interest were Raikkonen P14, negating Ferrari's WCC advantage and Bottas P16 and apparently on a two stop strategy, based on the early radio calls. Ricciardo made it out, 2 laps down but still in it as he tagged on before the Safety Car was in.
And Vettel was in charge with Lewis directly on his gearbox, but a little lock up into the Bus Stop gave Sebastian the breathing room he needed into La Source. Lots of pressure but little passing, crucially though Bottas, who swapped onto Supers lap 3 under the Safety Car, was by Raikkonen, whose car also suffered some damage in the first lap incident.
Into the second sector, and Vettel already had 1.6 seconds over Hamilton as Mercedes entered its wheelhouse, but there was nothing in it for Hamilton who seemed primarily to be able to limit the damage. Looking mighty in P3 and P4 were the Force Indias, although Verstappen, having made it by the HAAS duo, was within DRS of Ocon.
Up to the Kemmel straight they went, Ocon covered the inside but moved outside as he saw Max coming, but it was a dummy and up the inside went Verstappen, into Les Combes and off in search of Perez. Lap 8 and Raikkonen was back in as apparently something at the back was less than optimimum. Off he went on his Mediums, EVEN more time lost due to the exigencies of circumstance.
The following lap, at the sharp end, Vettel was slowly trying to ease out of the undercut, now 2.8 seconds up as no doubt the boffins on the Mercedes pit wall scratched their head and hoped for rain. The end of the lap also saw the end of Raikkonen's race as whatever was wrong with his car proved terminal. Verstappen meanwhile had grabbed onto the DRS of Perez, and breezed by down the start finish straight.
Alonso gave an interview meanwhile in which he cast serious shade at Hulkenberg for the accident, though the possibility of a mechanical failure for the Renault had yet to be excluded, with Palmer on 5 Live saying it looked to be a brake failure (post race, Hulkenberg admitted it was a straight up mistake). Hamilton, meanwhile, had given up the ghost and was running more than a second slower than Vettel on lap 12, with Verstappen in the Red Bull now making time as Hamilton looked to be saving tyres for whatever strategy his pitwall had cooked up for him. Further back, the dynamic duo of Bottas and Ricciardo (who was 2 laps down) had progressed quietly and unobtrusively up the field and were in P10 and, confusingly, P16 even though they were running nose to tail as the Red Bull gradually unlapped itself by following the Mercedes driver through the field.
2 laps later and Hamilton turned it back up, matching Vettel's time almost to the hundredth as the pit stop window prepared to open for the two stoppers. The biggest outliers in the top 10 were Ericsson and Gasly, P10 and P9 respectively, who were being tracked down by the Bottas/Ricciardo team. Raikkonen was reported to have a DRS and broken rear diffuser from his contact with the front wing of Ricciardo in the first turn of the race and as Vettel crossed the line for lap 16 it was Hamilton seizing fast lap.
The following lap, Bottas rocked it by Ericsson down the Kemmel straight and Ericsson was told to try and use Valterri to get by Gasly. Ricciardo, meanwhile had come up against the limits of his damaged machine, and the pit wall told him if he could find a few tenths, and given the need to pit by those ahead, he might yet be able to salvage a point or two. This seemed to ignore the fact that he was 2 laps down, but clearly Red Bull had some reason they wanted him to carry on so he dutifully sallied forth and at the end of lap 19 had managed to get by Ericsson as he thrashed his wounded machine round the track.
Lap 20 and a blister line had appeared on the left rear of Hamilton's tyre, but despite that, he was beginning to eat the lead that Vettel had created, nibbling a tenth or two a lap and just about to be inside 3 seconds on the Ferrari. By contrast, the tyres on the Ferrari looked to be untroubled and lap 22 Mercedes pulled the trigger, into the pits and out on the Softs went Hamilton with a supremely swift stop. A dead push lap for Vettel and he was in as well, also onto the Softs and out as Hamilton was already 1.6 seconds quicker than the Ferrari. Out he went but Verstappen, running longer, wound up getting in the way of Hamilton's charge and that created the gap that Vettel needed. Lewis was by Max down the Kemmel straight and as they headed through Les Combes and down the hill into Mercedes' strengths he was well within DRS of Vettel. But with his tyres up to temperature, Vettel was able to easily use S3 to his advantage and as they wound through the Bus Stop, it was 1.6 seconds and clear of DRS for the Ferrari as they set off on lap 24.
Further down the field the pitstops continued to roll, with Grosjean in next, the Safety Car having effectively neutered thoughts of a two stop for most of the field. Ocon was in the following lap to cover off the HAAS driver, but it wasn't really that close, as he was out in front of Ericsson with a 10 seconds of free air ahead, while Grosjean was trapped behind the Swede. Perez was told to wring the neck of the car, in for a slow stop and the concern being that he would wind up behind Ocon and there would be complaining the entire rest of the race due to the undercut.
Thankfully, that didn't come to pass and as they headed off in search of lap 27, Vettel had once again stretched his lead out to 3.2 seconds as Verstappen finally came in and was out on the Softs. Hamilton was told that tyre wear was not an issue, just the blistering. Reassuring, maybe not so much.
Thankfully, for those who don't like to watch tyres to see if they might be blistering, a rather entertaining duel was developing between the Toro Rosso of Hartley and the Sauber of Ericsson. A bit of dicing and Hartley emerged the victor, at least momentarily as Ericsson retained DRS as they flashed down the hill and towards the bus stop.
Lap 30 and Bottas was in, again with blistering on the rears and was off with a set of Softs, his mission to track down Perez and Ocon and take possession of P4, the best possible barring Verstappen's PU lunching itself. Ricciardo was called in to retire the following lap and save the mileage, and the disappointment was palpable in his reply.
2 laps later and Bottas was within striking distance of the first Force India, job done lap 33 after a decent show of resistance from the Force India driver. Perez was up next for the Mercedes driver as Sainz gradually tried to reclaim some glory for Renault, up to P11 with a pass on Sirotkin and 6 seconds to the points.
3 laps later and Bottas was under 4 seconds to Perez, who was thrashed trying to maintain P4 from the approaching behemoth. The team told him the tyres were good for 10 laps at the pace he was running, good news as there were only 7 laps left in the race. Turning into the next lap, suddenly Bottas was on equal pace, whether down to tyres or the need to restore the ERS or straight up fuel, it was looking much better for the plucky Force India driver.
It was a momentary breather, though, likely battery recharge for Bottas then as the next lap saw the gap halved and Bottas once again significantly faster. 1.7 seconds as they were halfway around lap 39 and it was right around a second as he was still far enough back that Perez didn't need to defend seriously into La Source.
Down the hill they went, and Bottas was then well into DRS as they tipped over into the following lap. Through Eau Rouge and Raidillon and then rocketing down the Kemmel straight the job was done, P4 and a significant boost for Mercedes in the Constructors with the retirement of Raikkonen putting Ferrari into difficulty early on. AS they stood, it would be 18 points for the nascent Force India team, enough to overhaul Williams straight out of the box.
But the rest of the race was just to be a slow unwinding of the remaining laps, no drama, no fuss. At its heart the race amounted to the first lap, the laps around the pitstops and a long running Verstappen that tipped the balance (more?) in favor of the Scuderia winning, but the gutting loss of Raikkonen may ultimately have turned out to be the biggest shift as instead of clawing into the lead of Mercedes in the Constructors, they actually lost ground to the Silver Arrows. A small star for Marcus Ericsson as well, as his 10th place finish kept Sauber a solitary point ahead of the newly minted Force India team as the chequers flew and the race rolled into the history books.
With Monza looming next week, a somewhat different challenge awaits the teams, and with tyres less an issue a straighter comparison between the two Power Units should be possible. A look at the tyres of the parked Mercedes showed they threw in the towel fairly soon after the pitstops, a fact confirmed by Vettel in the post race interviews. Worrying times for Mercedes, though, with Lewis flat out referring to a trick of the Ferrari being responsible for it's ferocious performance. HAAS had a good day, up 10 points and within 6 now of Renault, whose disastrous start and qualifying robbed them of any chance at points. The new engine for Sainz, however, means they will be targeting Monza to make their play as the Formula B championship hots up (credit Kmag for that terminology). Equally close is the best of the rest in the Driver's, with Magnussen a mere 3 points back of Hulkenberg and quite the scrap looming at the top of the midfield, especially with Force India (finally with some proper funding thanks to Papa Stroll) back in it to play spoiler...
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