Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, Spa-Francorchamps, 2016

Rosberg wins as Mercedes’ rivals blow another chance

2016 Belgian Grand Prix reviewPosted on | Author Will Wood

The traditional calm of the long summer break ended was shattered by one of the most frantic and eventful Formula One races of the season so far.

Maybe it was the unusually high temperatures. Maybe it was the party atmosphere created by an influx of orange-clad Max Verstappen at Spa-Francorchamps.

Whatever the reason, a circuit which is famed for wet weather drama managed to provide one of the most enthralling race weekends of the 2016 season without a single drop of rain falling.

Mercedes rivals tangle

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Spa-Francorchamps, 2016
Three into one wouldn’t go at the start
Long before the lights went out, the biggest story of the weekend had already unfolded with Mercedes opting to deliberately incur a 55-place grid penalty for championship leader Lewis Hamilton. This turned the negative of Hamilton’s shortage of power units parts into a useful surplus for the remaining races, one which could give him a useful advantage over his team mate.

Not only did this highlight the impossible logistics of such a penalty and re-stoke debate over whether the current power unit regulations are fit for purpose, it also meant that the sizeable Spa crowd knew they were in for a cracking race.

With Hamilton doomed to a last-row start there was a unique sense of anticipation before the race. Nico Rosberg shared the front row with Max Verstappen alongside and the two rapid Ferraris poised to pounce. And with tyre degradation high thanks to the distinctly un-Spa like temperatures everything suggested that this could be the most open race of the season.

Unfortunately hopes of such a tight contest were dashed seconds after the lights went out. Despite his best-ever grid position and a super-soft tyre advantage over his immediate rivals, Verstappen failed to get a strong getaway and was soon engulfed by both Ferraris.

Verstappen tried to redeem his poor start by placing his Red Bull to the extreme inside of Raikkonen’s Ferrari on the run to La Source. At the same time Sebastian Vettel was trying to sweep around his team mate on the outside. The result was a three-car tangle which all but ended the question of whether Rosberg would face any serious opposition.

Vettel blamed Verstappen. Verstappen blamed the Ferraris. The stewards didn’t get involved. Vettel was now facing the wrong way and rapidly dropping positions as Raikkonen and Verstappen had taken bites out of each other’s front wing.

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With both Verstappen and Raikkonen now nursing damaged cars, it was inevitable they would be swallowed up by the chasing pack. In the melee that followed, Nico Hulkenberg inherited second place as Verstappen struggled to stay on circuit. Further back, Jenson Button was rammed by Pascal Wehrlein’s Manor, putting an early end to both their races.

At the end of lap one, a bemused Rosberg found himself minding his own business out front as his three strongest challengers pitted for repairs having successfully orchestrated their own downfall in the most convenient way possible for the Mercedes driver.

Having struggled all weekend with a significant power-deficit to their rivals, Toro Rosso’s difficult weekend went from bad to worse on the second lap when Carlos Sainz Jnr’s right-rear wheel erupted along the Kemmel Straight. Despite spinning off the circuit at Les Combes, Sainz inexplicably opted to attempt the five kilometre journey back to the pits on three wheels, but managed only to tear apart his rear wing before pulling off for good the following corner.

The Virtual Safety Car was deployed so the debris could be cleared. Soon after the race resumed with the two Nicos out front, with Daniel Ricciardo, Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean’s Haas in a surprise sixth. But when the race restarted on lap five it wasn’t long before the chaos of the opening laps also resumed.

Magnussen wrecks his Renault

Kevin Magnussen, Renault, Spa-Francorchamps, 2016
A huge crash lay in store for Magnussen
At around 300kph, Kevin Magnussen suddenly lost control at the top of Raidillon, spinning his Renault around and sending the Dane backwards into the barriers at sickening speeds, destroying his car and even knocking his headrest clean off the chassis in the impact.

It was one of the most frightening high-speed accidents of recent seasons and a stark reminder of just how difficult it can still be to finely balance a modern Formula One car on the limit. Magnussen was thankfully able to climb from the car unaided and alert, but was later taken to a nearby hospital for precautionary checks on a cut to his left ankle.

The Safety Car was instantly summoned, causing many through the field to react immediately and pit for fresh tyres. Hulkenberg, Massa, Perez, Grosjean, Vettel and Verstappen were just some who took advantage of the safety car to pit, while Rosberg, Ricciardo, Valtteri Bottas, Fernando Alonso and Hamilton opted to stay out and keep track position.

They profited when the race had to be red-flagged so the damage caused by the Renault could be repaired. With drivers still allowed to change tyres during the stoppage – a rule which may change next year – those who stayed out won a free pit stop.

Alonso and Hamilton now found themselves in legitimate – albeit incredibly fortuitous – top five positions, with Vettel just outside the points in 11th despite the drama of the opening lap.

Verstappen and Raikkonen clash again

Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen, Spa-Francorchamps, 2016
There’s no keeping Verstappen and Raikkonen apart
Once the barrier was repaired the race restarted at the beginning of lap 11. Rosberg led from Ricciardo, Hulkenberg, Alonso and Hamilton, although it did not take long for the championship leader to dispatch his former team mate with a significant top speed advantage.

Further back, Verstappen and Raikkonen had not had enough of each other for one day and found themselves squabbling, quite literally, over 14th place.

With Raikkonen within DRS range of the Red Bull down the Kemmel Straight, the Ferrari driver tried to take the outside line into Les Combes but found the little space that existed there disappear entirely after Verstappen slipped wide, pushing him into the escape road.

The next time by and the Ferrari moved to take the inside line instead, but was forced to back off after a late defensive move by Verstappen which almost saw the two collide for the second time in the race.

Raikkonen was livid with what he called “ridiculous” driving by his rival. “He’s just turning when I’m going full speed on the right” Raikkonen fumed on the radio, but again the stewards took no interest.

Sergio Perez experienced similar difficulties in passing the 18-year-old, suffering the same fate as Raikkonen after he too tried to make an outside pass stick into Les Combes. Then Sebastian Vettel had to contend with the feisty Red Bull driver when the pair fought over eighth, with Verstappen re-passing the Ferrari almost immediately after being overtaken him to frustrate Vettel’s recovery through the field, before finally being dispatched the following lap.

But for all his elbows-out driving, Verstappen failed to convert his best starting position to date into a strong finishing position.

Hamilton makes his way to the podium

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Spa-Francorchamps, 2016
Hamilton had a successful day of damage limitation
Someone who did capitalise the opportunities available was Hamilton, who had now found himself in fourth place between the two Force Indias after pitting for mediums during the final round of pit stops.

Hamilton was not convinced of the strategy at first, questioning whether the team had made the right call over radio, but the Mercedes driver’s concerns were soon put to rest when Hamilton passed Hulkenberg to take the final place on the podium.

Although it now appeared at this stage as though he would once again miss out on a first career podium, due at least in part to pitting before the red flag came out, Hulkenberg and the Force India team emerged as one of the big winners of the weekend.

After showing strong pace throughout the weekend, the team converted their potential into points, with Hulkenberg’s fourth and Perez’s fifth moved them into fourth in the constructors’ championship ahead of a Williams team who had struggled over the course of the afternoon.

It was, of course, not the first time that Force India had enjoyed strong performance at Spa. But to have outperformed their rivals around a high power circuit that has often been Williams’ strong suit bodes well for the team’s prospects for the remainder of the season – not least of which for next weekend in Monza.

And with Monza such a crucial race for Ferrari, it appeared as though Vettel was fighting hard to save face for the team ahead of their home grand prix as he continued to battle his way through the field in Spa.

Vettel passed Verstappen (twice), Massa (twice) and Alonso on his way to holding sixth position as the chequered flag flew. After a similarly eventful race, Raikkonen split the two Williams in the closing stages to take ninth. It had been an immensely frustrating afternoon for the Scuderia, but given how dire Vettel’s prospects had looked after turn one, it could well have been worse.

Spa winners

Jolyon Palmer, Renault, Spa-Francorchamps, 2016
Spa had its biggest crowd for years
Not for the first time in his career or even this season, Rosberg cruised to take a comfortable win while all of the attention and intrigue occurred behind him. There had been no Hamilton to pressure him and no late-race mechanical scare to nurse home, but although the win had moved him to within ten points of his team mate, you could forgive Rosberg for hoping he might not have had to share the podium with his team mate at least for this weekend.

Daniel Ricciardo enjoyed a similarly invisible race to his third successive podium in what is quickly becoming a habit for the Red Bull driver. Further down the points, Fernando Alonso was also buoyed by his seventh place finish – a result he later described as having been “unthinkable” just a handful of months before.

After the pre-race anticipation Ferrari and Red Bull would take the fight to Mercedes, having both silver cars on the podium was a great reward for the champions and a squandered chance for their rivals.

But perhaps the biggest winners of the weekend were the race organisers. They had already reported the strongest ticket sales for 15 years before the race began thanks to the popularity of Verstappen. And if Belgian ace Stoffel Vandoorne gets a race seat next year, the future for one of Formula One’s greatest circuits may be very bright indeed.

13 comments on “Rosberg wins as Mercedes’ rivals blow another chance”

  1. Here’s a sum up:

    Absolutely sublime performance from Rosberg (that 01:46.999 on softs)
    Hamilton did a great job, not one of his ‘magical’ drives but a champion’s drive nonetheless.
    Similar drive from Alonso, but getting that car upto P7 in Spa means one thing – DOTW.
    Verstappen was shocking (to put it lightly, and Raikkonen’s words should not be taken lightly). So was the crowd. So disrespectful to the race winner!
    Shout-outs for the Force Indias (P4. Not bad,eh?) and Raikkonen (A lapped 18th to 9th despite some damage to his car).
    And you’ve got to love Danny Ric!

    The championship’s on fire! (Come on, being lost in all the arguments we’ve had here, we shouldn’t forget that)

  2. “… while Rosberg, Ricciardo, Valtteri Bottas, Fernando Alonso and Hamilton opted to stay out and keep track position. They profited when the race had to be red-flagged so the damage caused by the Renault could be repaired.”
    Bottas stayed out when the SC was deployed, but he pitted before the race was red flagged and thus he lost the maximum amount of positions and didn’t benefit from the red flag.

    Bottas said after the race that he strongly questioned on the radio Williams’ decision not to pit him immediately when the SC was deployed, but the team said they’d explain everything afterwards. Apparently they were waiting for the red flag, but they got cold feet before the race was red flagged.

    As a Bottas supporter, it’s really frustrating how often Williams botches the strategy. Strategy blunders in the midfield tend to go unnoticed (as in this case) and people only remember the race result. I think Bottas did amazing job finishing ahead Massa after the strategy blunder from the team.

    1. I think you are right that Bottas lost a lot due to strategy @hotbottoms – but to praise him for getting ahead of Massa is a bit of a large step, given it was a team order that got him there in the end. No doubt had Massa let him pass less reluctantly he might actually have had a shot at challenging Alonso, but there you are.

  3. What rivals?! RBR showed what they could do with Ricciardo, so there’s only one IF left… and that regards the Ferrari drivers. In my opinion their race pace was a little bit better than RBRs race pace, so they were the only drivers who could have tried to give Rosberg a serious run for the money. Unfortunately… the turn 1 incident took place.

  4. my comments in mind from the race:
    1 – the idiots booing Rosberg, why???? very unsporting and pathetic
    2 – Hamilton had the easiest podium I have ever seen, a conservative strategy and conservative drive… hundreds of f1 drivers have never scored a point driving harder… car advantage is getting out of date in f1, bring on one make to reward driving effort.
    3- Verstappen is a great driver, but a very dirty driver… in the same way Schumacher was – the dirty late block on Raikonnen at 200mph reminded me of Schumacher on Hakkinnen at Macau in 1990 or 91 – yes you are allowed one block – but at 200mph which forces the other driver to back off – one day Verstappen will get his comeuppance – not from Kimi, he wont risk hurting someone, but it will happen with someone like Hamilton, who has driven people off track in Monza at 200mph, and then Verstappen will learn his lesson.
    4 – TURN 1 was “NOBODIES FAULT” – it was racing. Vettel went to pass one driver, and Verstappen went to pass one driver – 3 into 1 doesn’t fit – yes it CAN – BUT – in this circumstance, the drivers were doing what they do naturally, looking at the car next to them, and not expecting a third car.
    5 – How was Alonso ahead of Hamilton at the red flag stage??? even on softer tyres, the McLaren is making gains that is for sure.
    6 – Perez pulled off the overtake of the year so far… beautiful.
    7 – Ricciardo – still driver of the year.
    8 – Webber drinking champaigne from Ricciardo’s shoe – classic.

    1. 1) Football fans in F1?
      2) Your anti-Hamilton tirades are getting boring. Please stop it!
      3) Max was stupid in this race, full stop.
      4) Vettal hit his team mate again in another turn 1 incident. The last one was in China. Kimi needs to have a “chat” with him as well as Max. Max though was stupid as well, going for a gap that wasn’t there!
      5) Alonso doesn’t have a Championship to worry about, Hamilton does. As he explained himself, he learned from China this year, where he ended up with car damage after a turn one incident there. He was playing the long game (as per Alain Prost), so played it safe for lap 1.
      6) May be.
      7) May be.
      8) Eww. Please guys, stop this practice.

      1. I’m not anti Hamilton, I’m just stating my fact of hating the way F1 is where the machinery gives an unfair advantage from one human driver to another human driver. my favourite driver is Ricciardo, as I feel he is currently performing the best in the machinery he has, but I would hate to see him in a Mercedes getting the result Hamilton did this weekend – I would feel the same way. I prefer to watch IndyCar – everything is more equal for drivers to compete, ofcourse some teams are better then others, but you never get the totally INFLATED performance gap like in F1 that lets a driver start last and finish 3rd on a conservative strategy.

        1. F1’s always been like this, will never change. I complained all those years ago when Schumacher dominated and then it was Vettel, now its Hamilton. Down the track it will be Verstappen dominating. If only Dany Ric was dominating, would you have the same complaints?

          1. verstappen won’t be dominating because he’s more focused on being maldonado

    2. How is this anti-Hamilton? Pretty much every driver who would have managed to stay out of trouble during the first laps with the same stategy would have finished in the same position, that’s just hard fact. In fact, Hamilton deserves some criticsm for still being behind Alonso by the time the red flag appeared.

      1. Lewis was ahead of alonso when mags crashed, but he decided to give the place back.

  5. One of the thing that proves Max maneuver on blocking Kimi is dangerous I think is Button/Pascal incident. While the circumstances are different, when the car ahead with lesser speed suddenly changed direction in front of faster car (but in this case Button is justified because he must evade another car in front of him), it can easily end the race for both of them and probably worse accident. Max is lucky Kimi is experienced driver.

  6. I’m still waiting for Rosberg to win a race through taking or having to maintain the win. He has driven some superb calculated/calm and “necessary” races, like this one, but I’ve not seen him take a win in emphatic form. I hope he does soon, as he’s the only other horse in the championship race.

    Lewis got very lucky on Sunday, but he & Mercedes used that luck to their advantage and made all the right calls. Unlike Williams, who shot themselves in all four drivers feet.

    I think Vettel is getting to the Alonso level of frustration with Ferrari. If they’re not at least the second best team in 2017, expect some fireworks.

    Ricciardo did well, delivering a calm and controlled drive to deliver a podium. His comments in the driver cool down room (and just before) shows how much it must have meant to him delivering that 2nd place where his team mate was nowhere to be seen. Those defensive moves by his team mate were very questionable. Still, it made it interesting; Kimi certainly didn’t get the easy DRS “motorway” pass everyone else overtaking there did!

    Looking forward to Monza. It’ll really show how much progress Honda have made compared to 2015.

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