Formula One made its comeback after the summer break but the summer weather, unusually warm at scenic Spa Francorchamps, continued and was as hot as the on-track action in yesterday’s race, which included an explosive opening lap, a massive shunt at Eau Rouge that brought out a red flag, and the championship leader starting out of position on the grid. After a relatively uninspiring run of races before the break, this one had feisty moments.
The narrative of the Belgian Grand Prix began even before the actual race started, the top story being championship leader Lewis Hamilton strategically taking engine penalties for this race, forcing him to start at the very back of the grid. Hamilton officially incurred a 60-place grid penalty for taking extra power unit components. By piling up his engine penalties within one weekend, it is now unlikely that he will take any further penalties this season but as Andrew Benson writes, there are a variety of other implications surrounding this issue. Hamilton started the race 21st, ahead of McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who also incurred a similar penalty. It would later turn out that both drivers picked the correct race to start from the back.
Competing for pole became futile, so Hamilton only ran a slow lap during Qualifying, eliminating himself at Q1. His teammate Nico Rosberg took full advantage and continued Mercedes’ pole position streak this season but since that was predictable, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen turned heads when he finished Qualifying as the “best of the rest” with a rapid lap only one tenths of a second off Rosberg’s pole time. He became the youngest ever front-row-starter in F1 history. The Belgian Grand Prix effectively became the Dutch teenager’s home race, as many fans from neighboring Netherlands made the trip to The Ardennes, propping up Dutch flags throughout the seven kilometer circuit, mostly orange-clad spectators raucously cheering whenever Verstappen’s No. 33 Red Bull passed by.
Drama in the Opening Act
Unfortunately for the Dutch fans, their driver turned in a disappointing performance that unraveled as early as the first corner when, after a poor getaway, Verstappen found himself mugged by the two Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel. Just like in previous races this season, both Ferraris made explosive starts, even better than polesitter Rosberg’s, who still maintained the lead as cars tangled behind him.
Approaching the Turn 1 La Source hairpin, Vettel kept to the outside with Raikkonen on his inside line, while Verstappen attempted to sneak to Raikkonen’s inside line, almost brushing the wall at the apex of the corner. Personally, I found Verstappen’s move surprising but Raikkonen left enough room for him to allow a fair challenge. However, Vettel seemed to have cut across Raikkonen, who then clattered into Verstappen’s front wing. Vettel was turned around and dropped to the very back as the rest of the field avoided him, while Raikkonen and Verstappen both sustained front wing damage that warranted trips to the pit lane. Seeing that the stewards chose to leave the incident alone, I don’t think anyone deserves blame for it but maybe Vettel did turn in too sharply, squeezing two drivers in the inside, as a result. Regardless, it was a racing incident.
Other casualties during the first lap included Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein, who drove into the rear of Jenson Button’s McLaren, sending both drivers to an early exit. On the second lap, Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz suffered a high speed puncture at the Kemmel Straight, which also damaged his car’s bodywork and forcing him out. The biggest incident came a few laps later when Renault’s Kevin Magnussen crashed heavily at the top of Eau Rouge, losing control of his car as he crested the uphill corner. Magnussen’s car spun around at high speed, hitting a tire wall with a massive impact that even knocked the car’s headrest off. Thankfully, Magnussen immediately clambered out of the wreck, only suffered a minor ankle injury but was sent to a hospital for a precautionary check. It remains to be seen if he can race at Monza next week although the Dane insists that he will. I would imagine that it was a high-G impact considering the tremendous deceleration the car underwent as it hit the tire barrier.
The incident brought out the safety car but the extent of the damage to the tire barrier warranted a red flag period of about twenty minutes. This bunched up the field and allowed drivers a “free pit stop” crucially including Hamilton and Alonso, who started on medium compound tires and did not make an early pit stop. During the red flag, Alonso and Hamilton were up to fourth and fifth respectively. On the other hand, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was promoted to second while Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg dropped to third, losing the position when he decided to pit while under the safety car. With the red flag wasting Hulkenberg’s pit stop, I could only wonder if he could’ve finished on the podium.
When the race restarted, the chaos stopped but fiery battles continued on the track and even in the pit lane. Making pit stops simultaneously on Lap 24, Hulkenberg and Alonso exited the pits side by side and touched wheels. Both cars sustained no damage and incurred no punishment for the dicey pit lane incident.
Prancing Horse vs. Red Bull, Continued
Meanwhile, Verstappen and Raikkonen continued their fight later in the race, which featured some clumsy driving by the Red Bull driver. First, Raikkonen attempted to complete a pass at the Les Combes chicane only to be ushered off the track by Verstappen (A similar incident would later happen between the Dutchman and Sergio Perez). On the following lap, Raikkonen tried passing at the Kemmel Straight but had to slam on the brakes while at full throttle as he was balked by the Red Bull. Arguably, a nasty accident would have happened if not for Raikkonen’s wise decision-making. The Iceman was understandably furious, accusing Verstappen of a dangerous blocking maneuver, which the teenager has become quite notorious of doing lately.
As impressed as I have been about his driving since last year and the early part of this season, Verstappen has turned out to be somewhat of a liability as his weaknesses are becoming clear: Dangerous defensive driving and being a tad arrogant as he merely dismissed both Ferrari drivers’ accusations. He has blocked Raikkonen twice in Hungary, Rosberg in Germany, and Raikkonen again at Spa. It’s perplexing how the stewards have let these incidents slide and I just hope that it need not take a huge crash to teach the young driver a lesson. Verstappen needs a stern reprimand or a penalty, otherwise he’d continue doing what he’s doing, and think that he’s not dangerous.
Rosberg led every lap of the race to score an easy win, finishing comfortably ahead of Ricciardo. But the German’s victory probably had a bitter aftertaste as his rival Hamilton finished third despite starting from the very back row of the grid. The Brit maintains a nine-point championship lead over his teammate. Hulkenberg and Force India teammate Sergio Perez finished fourth and fifth respectively, a performance that propelled their team to overtake the underwhelming Williams squad for fourth in the Constructors’ standings. Vettel fought back to sixth while Raikkonen settled for ninth and their common enemy Verstappen scored no points, finishing eleventh.
Arguably the best performance of the day belonged to Alonso, who finished a remarkable seventh after starting dead last and holding off the two Williams drivers and the Iceman late in the race. The Spaniard ran his McLaren confidently while spending most of the race battling among superior cars. Truly, a stellar performance.
The next race will be at “The Cathedral of Speed” in Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. There’s bound to be lots more overtaking and slipstreaming on the long straights. Hopefully, we get more of the spectacular drama that the Belgian Grand Prix just provided (minus the crashing, of course).