The Belgian Grand Prix didn’t deliver on the anticipation which developed in the days leading up to it.
On Saturday the Spa climate ran true to form and vexed drivers with a series of showers which led to a thrilling hour of qualifying. The day before the paddock had been unnerved by punctures suffered by two of the championship contenders, and for a while it seemed a repeat of the Silverstone failures had reared its head.
In the end neither of these scenarios unfolded in a race which failed to live up to the majesty of the circuit which hosted it. The most remarkable event of the day turned out to be the surprising ease with which a group of environmental protesters were able to hijack the race for their own ends.
Vettel takes control at the start
Lewis Hamilton started from his fourth consecutive pole position but knew he faced a severe challenge from the two Red Bull drivers behind him on the grid.
The two-kilometre sprint from La Source to Les Combes – which takes drivers through the impressive but somewhat neutered Eau Rouge – presents a superb opportunity for slipstreaming at the start. When the lights went out Sebastian Vettel latched on to Hamilton’s tail at the hairpin and was visibly more committed as they plunged into Eau Rouge for the first time.
As they crested Raidillon both drivers pressed their KERS buttons, having saved a blast for the Kemmel straight. But Vettel’s momentum carried him alongside the Mercedes so quickly Hamilton conceded, disengaging his KERS, saving it from the rest of the lap.
“It worked very well, what I was trying to, let?óÔé¼Ôäós say, plan at the exit of turn two,” said Vettel of his start tactics. Hamilton admitted: “there was no defending really. I could only move once, so I moved once and just had to watch him glide by.”
The battle for the lead ended there and then. By the end of the second lap Vettel’s lead was already close to three seconds, and race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin was advising him to start thinking about tyre life.
Alonso gets into contention
As early as lap six Fernando Alonso appeared in third place behind Hamilton. The Ferrari driver had got off the line superbly, making light work of the Lotus pair and the wheelspinning Di Resta.
With DRS available in two zones instead of one this year Alonso was swiftly past Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg with a few flaps of his rear wing. He blasted past both on the Kemmel straight as if they were missing a gear.
Not for the first time this year Mark Webber had made a poor start: “The two practice starts before the race weren?óÔé¼Ôäót great,” he said, “so we were a bit worried about the clutch going to the start, which put us onto the back foot.”
“We tried our best, but lost a couple of rows off the line which is not good.” He fell from third to sixth, but on lap five he demoted Button for fifth place. Next up was Di Resta, who following a dreadful start from fifth had done an impressive job to recover seventh place.
Nico Hulkenberg was ninth but already concerned about his tyre wear. Both Lotus drivers made sluggish getaways and Kimi Raikkonen, ninth after passing his team mate, was beginning to struggle with his brakes.
Perez penalised for Grosjean move
On lap eight the other Lotus of Romain Grosjean came under attack from Sergio Perez. The McLaren driver was clean down the inside of him on the approach to Les Combes but Perez needlessly squeezed Grosjean, forcing him wide. Felipe Massa took advantage, demoting the Lotus a further place.
A furious Grosjean made his feelings plain on the radio and the stewards were quick to hand Perez a penalty. “I had the corner,” Perez protested, “I did nothing wrong”.
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh agreed, claiming his driver has unfairly been targeted by his peers in recent races. But sporting director Sam Michael had a more pragmatic view: “Obviously Checo had made the overtake, was past. He didn’t leave enough room for Grosjean so he got a penalty.”
“It’s quite a straightforward regulation. Grosjean did the same thing to Jenson at the last race and got penalised for it.”
Hamilton – Vettel’s closest pursuer – pitted as early as lap 11, while the Red Bull driver was able to stay out for another three tours. His pit stop briefly promoted Button into the lead, but Vettel passed the McLaren at the chicane on his out-lap.
Alonso emerged on Hamilton’s tail after his pit stop. He pounced at the hairpin and took the Mercedes, though by now Vettel was six-and-a-half seconds up the road and edging further away.
Most of the following drivers had also plumped for two-stop strategies. But Lotus opted for ‘Plan B’ for Grosjean, keeping him out until half-distance on his medium compound tyres before making a single stop. McLaren chose to do the same for Perez after his enforced extra visit to the pits for his penalty.
Raikkonen drops out, Di Resta taken out
Meanwhile Raikkonen was pressing Massa for seventh place. But on lap 25 the Lotus went straight on at the chicane, its brakes finally having given up. After 38 races without a retirement, the law of averages had caught up with Raikkonen.
“We?óÔé¼Ôäóve finished a lot of races and had some good reliability,” he said. “One day your luck has to run out and today was that day.”
There was more drama at the chicane on the next lap. Pastor Maldonado and Esteban Gutierrez were disputing 12th place with the two Force Indias following the pair of them. Gutierrez went down the inside of the Williams at the chicane and Adrian Sutil pounced to take advantage.
But Maldonado, who was trying to make for the pit entrance, first clipped Sutil than skidded into the other Force India, ripping Di Resta’s left-rear wheel off.
“It was my lap to pit so I was going to do the pit,” Maldonado explained. “I didn’t see Di Resta in the outside. We cross all together the line. I braked, tried to avoid the incident, but it was too late.” The stewards took a dim view, handing Maldonado a ten-second stop-go penalty.
Ironically Gutierrez also received a drive-through penalty for going off the track at Blanchimont to get the run on Maldonado that triggered the melee. “I totally respect the FIA’s decision to penalise me for overtaking Pastor, but I don?óÔé¼Ôäót agree with the penalty,” was his diplomatic view.
One-stoppers lose places
Webber made his last pit stop after the two Mercedes drivers but wasn’t able to jump ahead of either of them. The trio briefly fell behind Button, and by now McLaren were beginning to regret not having committed Button to a one-stop strategy.
They considered switching him back, but bowed to the inevitable on lap 34, making a second stop. That gave Button ten laps to try to chase down the cars in front, but he made little impact on their lead.
Grosjean’s single stop had got him back in front of Massa but the Ferrari driver demoted him with five laps to go. Similarly the one-stopping Perez lost the final point to Daniel Ricciardo with four laps remaining.
Hulkenberg reported his tyres were gone with several laps to go but was advised a late pit stop would achieve nothing. He followed Jean-Eric Vergne home with Gutierrez behind him and Valtteri Bottas next, the last car on the lead lap.
Maldonado’s penalty dropped him behind Giedo van der Garde, whose 16th place finish was two spots lower than he started after his Q1 heroics yesterday. Team mate Charles Pic retired early with an engine problem and the two Marussias brought up the rear, Max Chilton lapped twice after collecting a drive-through penalty for failing to observe blue flags.
Vettel surprised by “incredible pace”
As in Canada – on another low-downforce track – no one had any response to Vettel. And like at Montreal it fell to Alonso to offer token resistance, the Ferrari finishing well over ten seconds behind, followed by Hamilton.
“We had incredible pace,” said Vettel after clinching his fifth win of the year. “We didn?óÔé¼Ôäót expect that.”
“We knew, probably, going in that, in the dry, we should be able to beat Mercedes on the track. But we knew other cars ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ Lotus, Ferrari ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ they looked very competitive in the dry. So in that regard we had massive pace and could control the race until the end.”
Ahead of Ferrari’s home race Alonso drew some cheer from his second place, even though he’d taken points of every driver bar the one he most needed to catch. “When they do everything better than us and they win the race, they deserve the win and we need to aim for maximum points,” he said.
“We came from two fifth places in Hockenheim [sic] and Hungary, with a little bit of a not good feeling and not good performance from the car and today I think we recovered some of the optimism that we lost.” But time is running out for Vettel’s rivals to convert optimism into hard results.
2013 Belgian Grand Prix
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Image ?é?® Red Bull/Getty, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, Lotus/LAT