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1 Sep 2019

Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale
Ambient 17° Track 28° Humidity 61% Wind 0.8 m/s

Prelude

The day was cool, with large grey clouds hanging over the paddock, much like the pall cast by yesterday's F2 incident which took the life of young talent Anthoine Hubert and has already set off a vast self examination amongst fans, media and teams alike.

Once the latest grid penalties were assessed it was Kubica from the pitlane, than Kvyat, Giovinazzi, Albon, Stroll and Sainz at the back, in that order. Obviously the progress of Albon will be of great interest, particularly when/if he catches up to Gasly in the race.

Pirelli has called for a one stopper (I know, real surprise that) but more germane is the fact that Mercedes were decidedly quicker than Ferrari in Friday's long run pace, to the tune of nearly 0.7 seconds a lap on the Soft tyres with heavy fuel. Of course, the run down the Kemmel is where Ferrari will be most vulnerable during the first lap, assuming no incidents into T1 for the frontrunners.

The curveball is that there was rain overnight and of course, it's fully 10°C colder and naturally Pirelli raised rear tyre pressures to 21 psi from 20 psi. Kvyat, Giovinazzi, Albon, Russell, and Kubica all chose to start on Medium tyres with a reverse strategy as engine failures from both Perez and Kubica saw Mercedes limiting their top power in qualifying and the rare flicker of doubt in Brixworth....

Summary

Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Hamilton who was up the inside on Vettel and by as they rocked towards Eau Rouge. Vettel obligingly fell in line and then, down the Kemmel straight the might of the Ferrari power plant made itself knows and he easily glided past Hamilton, but at the expense of seeing his teammate unchallenged at the front.
Not so great by Verstappen, who seemed almost to sit still and this let Kimi blow by him as they approached the first turn on the outside. He made up the distance easily in the braking zone but Raikkonen turned in fully to grab the apex unaware that Max had pulled alongside and collected Verstappen into T1. This ended Verstappen's race as whilst trying to limp around to the pits his suspension failed and into the wall he went. Stroll clouted Ricciardo as well from behind and as the Safety Car emerged it was the two Ferraris, Leclerc leading from Vettel followed by Hamilton and Bottas and Norris, inheriting P5 as Raikkonen was forced to pit with fairly severe floor damage, the collision effectively ruining his race as well. 

Ricciardo was forced into the pits by the Stroll incident and Sainz, who hadn't been able to get off the grid and was stuck in limp mode after pitting, failed to catch the back of the tail as the SC came in, and then pulled off into a run off area. As it became apparent that they were not going to be able to get him safely off as his car was stuck in gear, right back out came the Safety Car. This was a shame for Leclerc, who'd had an excellent restart as he immediately was forced to call it off.

Again a decent restart for Leclerc on lap 4 as both Ferraris dropped HAmilton, but this time around Vettel was much closer. Then it was a big lockup by Vettel into T1, his rear tyre visible deforming which dropped him into Hamilton's clutches although he wasn't able to keep pace up the hill. Down the straight then, it was Bottas, with a slipstream and that forced Lewis to go defensive letting Vettel slip the trap.

It was a 2 second gap then that Leclerc had as the front settled down and due to their good start, it was a HAAS train behind Norris. The bad news for Perez, who was first behind them was it was Kmag he had to get round and the robust defensive manuevering of the Dane was a well known commodity in the paddock.

Further back it was Kvyat who was the biggest mover, up to P11 from 19th at the start but Albon, up 3 spots to P14, was starting to set purple sectors and was in DRS of Hulkenberg. Lap 9 and Perez continued to struggle to find a way past and the line of cars behind him was growing ever more impatient. Leclerc missed the chicane with a small lockup and wound up cutting the corner, losing but a tenth in his little adventure.

As Hamilton again inched his way towards the Ferrari it was Perez, into the first turn of lap 10 who was able to finally get by Magnussen. Throughout the lap he stayed on Vettel's gearbox and though he was close enough for DRS, he was losing time through the Bus Stop and despite being closer, he was able to make no time at all down the Kemmel straight.

Magnussen continued to struggle with his tyres, and Gasly was next to get by him on lap 11, but his teammate was making much better time as the pit window loomed into view, raising the question of whether he was more valuable to HAAS holding up the chasers or optimising his own strategy......

Stroll was next to get by as Hulkenberg pitted for a set of Mediums and it was lap 13 when Kvyat rocked past Magnussen down the Kemmel straight, as did the previous runners to get by. The following lap and it was Gasly in for his set of Medium tyres and back out in P16. Stroll bailed for his new tyres on lap 15 as his teammate was finally up to the back of Grosjean and looking at P6.

Lap 16 and as Hamilton again closed in Ferrari obviated the undercut and brought Vettel in and Mercedes went the opposite way, leaving Hamilton out with a 5 second gap to Leclerc whilst Vettel had only Norris to get round by way of traffic as he emerged P5. Leclerc was told to push but it was Vettel purpling Sector 3 that drew the attention. Grosjean ducked into the pits and was back out in P10 with his set of Mediums, chasing down Ricciardo.

It was more or less status quo and it was Lap 21 then as Leclerc was in as Mercedes elected to keep Hamilton out and it was out BEHIND Vettel but with a 6 lap tyre advantage for the Monegasque. Hamilton followed him in lap 22 and was out as Bottas stayed out into lap 23 and momentarily had the lead as the pitstop dominoes continued to fall. Bottas was told to push as Vettel chased him down and it was the following lap that he came in for his fresh set. But the Ferrari undercut on Hamilton had been powerful and even as he unleashed the full might of his Mercedes the gap that had been under 5 seconds had ballooned to nearly 8 seconds.

Albon was in lap 25 and was onto a set of Softs and with an 8.5 second gap between himself and Vettel, Lewis was questioning Mercedes' strategy and was met with the rather unusual, "we will be reviewing it" which kinda sorta implies things didn't work out the way they had thought.

Despite his questioning, Hamilton set a fast lap well into the 1:46s as ahead Leclerc had closed Vettel down to DRS range. HAving dropped to last on the track, Magnussen was finally in on lap 26 as Ferrari was on the radio to tell Charles he was going to be let by.....

And it was repayment for protecting Vettel from the undercut as the message made clear and by he went, granting Vettel DRS in the bargain. Although Norris was in his own little bubble, the rest of the midfield was stacked up behind Ricciardo as his 25 lap old tyres were beginning to lose place rapidly.

And then Vettel calmly informed his team that his tyres were not going to make it to the end as Hamilton continued to close down the gap, chunking seconds per lap out of the Ferrari driver. Albon had closed it up to Stroll as Hamilton was now just 2 seconds back of Vettel and the Ferrari was visibly loose at the back as it exited the first turn.

Lap 31 and Hamilton had the best shot yet but again, down the Kemmel straight he just wasn't able to get much closer. Mistake by Vettel and side by side into the Bus Stop they went, but Vettel was able to maintain his position but this time it left him inside the slipstream down the straight and by he went in the braking zone, sweeping the outside clean and looking up the road 6.5 seconds to Leclerc.

Albon, working hard had moved himself up to P10 as Stroll had shifted to a 2 stop and looking at the data, apparently Ferrari had come to the same conclusion as Vettel was brought in lap 34 for a new set of Softs as his tyres were done.

Whilst that drama was being played out, both Kvyat and Albon were by Grosjean and it was Ricciardo who was next up for mugging as his tyres were not only Mediums, but 32 laps old. Kvyat was by without an issue but it was Albon, rocking round the outside after setting up a beautiful inside outside pass through 2 turns and up to P8 he went with Gasly next up.

Taking his time getting his tyres settled, and with a lockup and chicane cutting to boot it was nonetheless Vettel, setting fast lap two laps in a row, but only a half second or so faster than Bottas, 18 seconds up the road. Albon took it to Kvyat and with 6 laps left, Perez was 9 seconds up the road. The first clean lap told the story, with Albon 1.5 seconds faster and an exciting finish in the cards. At the front, Lewis was 5.5 seconds off as lap 39 was halfway done but with 4 laps left it was too little too late for the Mercedes driver.

Giovinazzi was having a quite good race meanwhile, through Gasly now and with several clean overtakes in his palmares, running P9 as the end of the race approached. Lap 40 and Albon had nearly halved his deficit as at the front, Hamilton had closed it down to 3 seconds as Leclerc encountered the vast train of midfield traffic to be lapped.....

Lap 42 and both battles were down to sub 3 seconds on lap 42 and counting down the last lap was looking to be epic indeed. Albon 1.2 seconds, Hamilton 2.2 seconds as lap 43 ticked over and it was all to play for. Albon was well into DRS coming into his lap 43 as behind Hamilton continued to chase, just 1.2 seconds back as they headed into the final lap of the race...
Gasly missed T5 and brought out the yellows and then the double yellows and the fun was done, Giovinazzi into the wall as Norris in P5, stopped just short of the first turn. Under a second as they approached the last turns, Leclerc maintained his advantage and took the checquers, on his first F1 win immediately dedicating his race to Hubert, his friend and junior competitor. Behind, with the loss of Norris due to an engine failure, Albon executed a bold pass on Perez, well onto the grass as the Racing Point driver narrowed the track considerably for the overtake down the Kemmel straight, and it was P5 for the newly promoted, and now looking likely to be confirmed longer term to be honest, Red Bull driver.... and the incident under investigation to boot...

For Mercedes, it was a woulda coulda shoulda, keeping Hamilton out guaranteed they were able to get Vettel but perhaps the loss of time bottled behind Vettel counted for more than having fresher tyres at the end. Or undercutting Leclerc might've been enough... But it was perhaps as well Leclerc's stonking outlap that did the job, leaving the engineers to parse the numbers and adjust their algorithms accordingly...

Giovinazzi lost it on his own, looking at replays and the big winners amongst the midfield were mostly those running the reverse strategy. Renault managed to recover decently with Hulkenberg, who wound up P8 but it was a subdued ceremony despite the roaring crowds. First race win of the year for Ferrari, which was not what anyone expected and it was no champagne sprayed by the podium trio as they exited. Ferrari, often dinged for strategy and indecisiveness, made no mistakes in protecting Vettel from the undercut, the strategic move that won the race for them, and subsequently wasting no time moving Leclerc past Vettel.


Up next, of course, is Monza, again a track looking to favor power and thus Ferrari, and with Mercedes it will be a race against the clock to diagnose the unexpected failures suffered by their engines before they face their most severe test of the season.
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