30 Aug 2020
Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale gives us the skinny on the Belgian GP...
Ambient 18.3° Track 30.3° Humidity 56.6% Wind 0.8 m/s
A disappointingly blue sky dotted with puffball clouds vaulted high over the paddock as the pre-race solemnities got themselves well underway. Early drama for Carlos Sainz as he suffered an exhaust failure that damaged his engine, putting him out of the race before it even began, and doing McLaren no favours at all in their chase of best of the rest in the WCC. Though one might argue this could be good preparation for his move to Ferrari next year.
Also a source of drama, as ever, is Turn 1 and the subsequent run down the Kemmel straight. Mercedes, and in particular Hamilton, will very much be wanting enough clear air to avoid slingshotting anyone behind him ahead into Les Combes, and most certainly will want to be well clear of DRS before it gets activated. Not helping in the slightest is the fact that reportedly they are running a fairly highly level of downforce relative to their competitors, as evidenced by their ridiculous sector 2 pace.
Both Verstappen and Ricciardo are running skinnier setups, so they will want to maximise their chances on the first lap by taking all the chances, and thanks to his brake issues in qualifying Danny Ric will have an extra set of Soft tyres to play with. Racing Point feel they, too, have the pace to take the fight to Renault ahead, and the absence of Sainz will surely make that task much easier.
Leclerc on Softs, Gasly on Hards, and the rest of the P11 and below on Mediums at the start, along with the top 3. This could yield Ricciardo and those behind on the Softs a wee bit of an extra advantage through the chaos of the first few turns, at least now that the weather seems to have removed itself a factor....
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Hamilton, not so much from Bottas, but he gained it back through Turn 1 and as they roared down the Kemmel straight it was a train of 4 at the front, Verstappen edging out to have a look on Bottas but it was Ricciardo getting the advantage into Les Combes, going wheel to wheel with the Red Bull. Not done by any means, Verstappen kept it parked next to Danny Ric and forced him to yield as the outside on the way in became the inside on the exit and he retained P3. Behind, Ocon had more luck with Max's teammate, and was up one spot to P5 as Leclerc was the big mover at the start, up 5 places and now running P8, making maximum use of his softs.
Lap 2 and it it was Gasly, with a move on the outside of Eau Rouge, taking P9 away from Perez. And he was not done, as lap 3 the Ferrari's woeful lack of straight line speed became apparent as Pierre blew past Leclerc halfway down the Kemmel straight. On replay of the start, and some highlights, Perez squeezing Gasly up against the pitwall on the run to Eau Rouge definitely looked on the edge of naughty.
Lap 5 and it was Mercedes, establishing it's standard advantage, Bottas 2 seconds back of Lewis and then Verstappen yet another 2.5 seconds back. Ricciardo was doing a good job of not entirely losing track of Verstappen but the gap was 5 seconds and it was going away and Leclerc had sunk all the way back down to more or less where he started. Of the top 10, Stroll was busy defending from Gasly, for P7, and a reminder that on the Hard tyre, the farther up the order Gasly got the better it was going to be for his strategy.
Bottas, asking about using his push lap, was told that it had been agreed that the two Mercedes drivers would not use that against each other, apparently without the Finn's knowledge as he seemed less than pleased over the radio when told of the arrangement. It was academic, however, as he remained out of DRS range. By lap 10 it was clear that Verstappen was running slower than the Mercs, but faster than Ricciardo, Ocon and Albon, who all seemed to be about the same pace, though whether that was down to a Ricciardo train or parity in performance remained to be seen.
Safety Car!!! Well that will change things up as it looked as if Giovinazzi went off in Fagnes and collected Russell, a massive crash that will take some time to clear, but with both drivers were out of the car and seemingly OK. Pitstopapalooza then as the hard tyre looked to be everyone's new best friend. The double stack did Ocon no favours, letting Albon ahead and as the dust settled it was the leading trio with places unchanged, then Gasly and Perez who chose not to stop, Perez on the Softs seems like someone left their brain behind, frankly, and he was definitely going to become the stopper in the bottle pretty rapidly on 12 lap old Soft tyres. Replay on the crash showed Giovinazzi losing it and then Russell collecting a loose tyre causing his crash.
Albon was put on Mediums, which seemed also an interesting choice as every other driver left in the race, save Perez, was on the Hard tyre. Lap 14 and the Safety Car was coming in, and on the restart it was Verstappen with a good shot on Bottas and although it looked exciting down the Kemmel straight, no one managed to make it stick and off they went, status quo. Lap 15 and there was a loss of power message from Hamilton, although that came on the back of the fastest lap of the race so, perhaps a grain of salt. OR harvesting some energy, totes normal according to Bono.
Raikkonen passed Vettel for P12....the jokes just write themselves at this point and the real fight was from Perez back as they were all lingering in DRS. Lap 17 and Ricciardo got the job done on Perez followed quite quickly by Albon with a nice move through the Bus Stop. Ricciardo was fast into the 1:49s as they looped around for the 18th time and Ocon was next up to have a crack at the Racing Point. A message to Bottas said it would be a long stint as Perez was in at the end of the lap, freeing Ocon up to have a go at Albon ahead and regain the spot he took at the beginning of the race.
Determined to do something worth talking about, Leclerc had a proper go at Vettel around the outside of Les Combes and oooh my did they ever get close to calling out another Safety Car. Perez was out on the Hard tyre and in P17 and Ricciardo was by Gasly. Albon was immediately on the Alpha Tauri's gearbox and in DRS but it took him 2 laps to get the job done. Ocon was up next and into DRS as Albon was off to chase Ricciardo ahead with faster tyres.
Lap 25 and Leclerc was into the pits for a set of Mediums, because reasons, as Ferrari had no immediate explanation although they did top up what looked to be pneumatic pressure. Ocon rocked past Gasly the following lap and it was increasingly looking like they waited a bit too long to pull the trigger on the Alpha Tauri pitstop, although it did give Albon a bit of a breather from having Ocon on his back. Raikkonen bafflingly radioed in he had water on his right foot and Perez had diligently worked his way up to P12 after his stop put him at the back. Bottas was told to give it everything he had as Hamilton looked to have a bit of damage on his front wing. That still didn't stop Lewis from setting fast lap, however, as the commentariat might have been reaching a bit to liven up things at the front...
Mercedes stated there was no damage to Hamilton's wing and this left the only drama on track whether or not Vettel could talk Ferrari into a second pitstop. First reviews were not encouraging for the German. Gasly, on his Mediums meanwhile had also been making some progress and was up to P13, with Vettel his next target. Lap 32 and the job was done, with Vettel locking up and running off track at Les Combes, an illustration of his tyres going off that Ferrari failed to find convincing.
For Perez, Raikkonen and the first championship point were next as Vettel continued to press his case for another stop regardless, and Ferrari continued to resist. Ahead, Albon was beginning to lose pace as his tyres started to go off and he had dropped to nearly 6 seconds back of Ricciardo and just 2 seconds ahead of Ocon. Bottas radioed in that he was developing numbness in his left leg from the brakes and Verstappen was worried about vibrations, perhaps flashing back on the race at Silverstone.
Lap 36 and Magnussen was in for some new tyres whilst Perez had an 8 second gap to Norris after rocking by Kvyat, who then immediately let his teammate by. The following lap and Norris jumped Stroll for P7 and that left Perez a 6 second gap and 6 laps to catch his teammate. Ocon had closed to within a second of Albon and now had a racy Norris 4.6 seconds back to worry about.
Lap 40 and Ocon was into the DRS of Albon on the way into the Bus Stop and down the Kemmel Straight he was close, but not close enough. Gasly nailed Perez for P9 as Ocon maintained the pressure on Albon. Interestingly, Ricciardo was now the fastest driver on the track, circulating several tenths faster than the Mercedes and making it impossible for Verstappen, who was still worried about the increasing vibrations to have a free pitstop.
Lap 42 and Norris was now on the back of Ocon and it was clear that that's where all the fun was going to be at the finale. Again, Albon seemed to have lost the place on the way into Les Combes, but Albon, late on the brakes on the inside was able to successfully defend. The following lap and it was again no change despite both Norris and Ocon having DRS and as Hamilton rocked onto his final lap it was to be one more chance for glory for the Renault driver as his teammate had been set loose to chase Verstappen and was less than 4 seconds back. Down the Kemmel straight they roared and this time Ocon breezed past Albon with ease and it was now Norris chasing the Red Bull driver home. Into the Bus Stop Norris gave it his all, but was forced to cut the chicane and that's how they came home, with the additional surprise that it was Ricciardo walking it for fast lap as the checquers flew on Hamilton's victory at Spa.
Sigh of relief for Mercedes as they manage to get it together for a one two on the podium, which had proved fairly elusive over the last few races at least, and the unfortunate length of the second stint gave them some challenges with tyres slowly dropping out of the window as they weren't able to keep the heat in them as they wore. Red Bull, too, will be thinking they dodged a bullet, with Verstappen losing well over a second a lap to Ricciardo at the end, and the choice to put Albon on the Medium tyre not working out so well for them in the end could easily have cost them another place.
The real winners of the race had to be Renault, with Ricciardo totally spoiling the ability of the front runners to have a spare pitstop in their pocket and fast lap to boot, whilst Ocon did the job he was hired for and nicked P5 off Albon, a huge haul of championship points for both the drivers and the team. Good times too for Macca, though they certainly would've preferred Ocon to have given Norris one more lap to pick Albon off and his P7 will no doubt chill the pain of Sainz' non-start substantially. Gasly's show for Alpha Tauri a real cause for celebration for the team, who had been suffering from promising hints but a lack of substance in the races.
After their bold yet disastrous go at qualifying yesterday, Racing Point followed up with an equally catastrophic choice to keep Perez out on the Softs during the Safety Car, ruining any chance they had to fight with Norris, though it was equally clear, despite their blustering, that they did not have the pace to trouble Renault today. Or McLaren. Not exactly tears, but some fairly clear growing pains, if we are going to be polite about it.
Raikkonen was the best placed of the Ferrari powered cars, which, ok, HAAS missing Friday meant that there was significantly less competition for what, for these two weeks at least, will need to be an entirely separate category. So a small bit of solace in a cold, cruel world. Tears for the rest, though perhaps Russell might've had a good result had his race not ended unexpectedly early and Monza next week will likely provide no respite for the weary strugglers. On the bright side, the banning of party mode starting next week at least adds some uncertainty to the show, never a bad thing....