Grand Prix Review: Belgium

After what seemed like a short summer break the F1 fraternity returned to the paddock at the Belgian Grand Prix with plenty bombshell announcements made over the summer break including that of Daniel Ricciardo’s shock move to Renault, Lawrence Stroll’s acquisition of Force India and Fernando Alonso’s retirement.

There was much doubt if the recently revived Force India team; now under new management courtesy of Lawrence Stroll’s purchase of the team would participate in the Grand Prix at all. This was because although Racing Point UK Limited had purchased Force India’s assets they hadn’t purchased it’s F1 entry. It would be that Racing Point Force India F1 Team would be granted entry mid-season but would not be able to retain the points earned by Sahara Force India F1 Team in the previous races, this would mean that they would start last in the Constructors Standings.

Attention then turned to the track action and things looked close between Ferrari and Mercedes in practice with the McLaren seeming to struggle. Lando Norris made his FP1 debut at Spa, deputising for the soon to be retired Fernando Alonso. The young brit would post the 18th fastest time and ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne who had issues during the free practise session. Ferrari topped all practice sessions and looked very much like the team to beat.

Qualifying would take place with the ever looming threat of rain looking to spoil what looked like a certain Ferrari pole. McLaren’s miserable weekend would continue with both cars failing to make it into Q2; knocked out with both Williams cars and a struggling Carlos Sainz. Issues for both Sauber’s would see them qualify 13th and 14th joining the Toro Rosso’s and Nico Hulkenberg in the knockout zone. As Q3 began it started to rain on circuit so all cars queued by the pit exit ready to set a lap time as soon as possible. It became ever apparent that the track was already too wet for slicks with drivers struggling for any grip so everyone except the two Force India’s pitted for intermediates. It was a bold move but a gamble which looked like it wouldn’t pay off with Sergio Perez having a scary moment at Raidillon, both Force India’s would opt to swap to the inters at the end of their laps. This would then leave it to the rest of field to set their lap times in tricky conditions, times were tumbling but with a few minutes remaining the two Red Bulls and Kimi Raikkonen would return to their garages; they had run out of fuel. This seemingly left it to a shootout between the two championship protagonists, times were falling even faster now and the track drying Hamilton pipped Vettel to pole. A surprise however was the two Force India who had enough fuel to complete laps at the end thanks to their necessary strategy change and Ocon and Perez qualified 3rd and 4th respectively. Perhaps a timely result for Ocon with his future in doubt with Lance Stroll set to replace him in the near future.

@Mercedes
Hamilton claimed pole position in a wet/dry qualifying session. (Copyright: Mercedes)

Ferrari looked to be the faster car all weekend but it was Mercedes who came out on top in qualifying. Grid penalties for power unit replacements would affect Hulkenberg, Bottas, Sainz and home favourite Stoffel Vandoorne.

The Belgian Grand Prix is famous for some of it’s turn 1 crashes with 1998 and 2012 being perhaps the most famous but this year was another example of how it could all go wrong at La Source. Nico Hulkenberg misjudged his braking into turn 1 and ran straight into the back of Fernando Alonso causing him to fly over Charles Leclerc’s Sauber and taking all three drivers out of the race. Charles Leclerc will no doubt be thanking his lucky stars for the introduction of the halo which no doubt saved his life with a near miss with Alonso’s wheel. Nico Hulkenberg accepted full blame for the incident. “When I hit the brakes obviously I instantly locked up the front wheel and just was sliding into Fernando. Probably misjudged a bit on my side. A bit too late on the brakes. A bit too keen.” His actions have handed him a 10-place penalty for Monza.

@f1 3.jpg
Copyright: Formula One

With all that going on there was a fight for the lead with Hamilton, Vettel, Ocon and Perez battling into turn 5, the slipstream seemed very powerful and Hamilton was a sitting duck but only Vettel made it past him. The race would stabilise from their with a safety car deployed to clear the mess at turn 1. Perhaps gone unnoticed Ricciardo and Raikkonen also suffered damage from the turn 1 incident but did manage to continue albeit for a short while before they ultimately returned to the pits to retire.

On the restart Vettel pulled away with Hamilton in quick pursuit, a large gap was building between the leaders and the chasing Force India’s,  but they would soon fall into the clutches fo Max Verstappen who passed them both in the space of few laps. Max would have a very lonely race to finish 3rd but played a key role in the outcome of the race. A pit stop would cost anyone around 18 seconds if everything went smoothly and Vettel had just under that between himself and Verstappen. Vettel did not want to pit and come out behind the Dutchman as he would lose time and risk Hamilton staying out and building a gap, so he had to wait until the gap was enough for him to come out ahead of Verstappen. Mercedes pulled the trigger however and pitted first, they came out behind the Red Bull but would close on him fast; the fresh rubber clearly making the difference and soon Vettel’s lead looked in jeopardy. Ferrari quickly reacted and boxed Vettel the following lap, he came out just ahead of the squabbling Hamilton and Verstappen. That would be Hamiltons only chance and Vettel went on to dominate the remainder of the race.

The biggest headline however would be F1’s newest entrant Racing Point Force India whose cars finished 5th and 6th, this result would put them 9th in the constructors just after 1 race. They had looked quick all weekend and the teams worries about remaining on the grid seemed a distant memory.

It perhaps wasn’t the most exciting race but an important one for Sebastian Vettel who now has the momentum heading into Ferrari’s home race.

@F1 6
Racing Point Force India claimed points on their “debut” with 5th and 6th. (Copyright: Formula One)

After 44 laps, those classified at the finish were:

  1. Sebastian Vettel
  2. Lewis Hamilton
  3. Max Verstappen
  4. Valtteri Bottas
  5. Sergio Perez
  6. Esteban Ocon
  7. Romain Grosjean
  8. Kevin Magnussen
  9. Pierre Gasly
  10. Marcus Ericsson
  11. Carlos Sainz
  12. Sergey Sirotkin
  13. Lance Stroll
  14. Brendon Hartley
  15. Stoffel Vandoorne

Driver of the Day: Sebastian Vettel

He needed to make the move on Hamilton early on in the race and did so in fine style, he then controlled the race perfectly from then on. He has reduced his deficit in the championship to Lewis Hamilton and needs to keep this momentum going if he wants to win the championship.

@F1
Copyright: Formula One

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