There was a bit of commotion even before the Belgian grand prix officially got underway. Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg waved desperately from the cockpit of his car on the starting grid moments before the red lights were extinguished. It turns out that the German had a mechanical issue that would end his race before it even started.
But this was nothing in the face of the drama that would develop towards the end of the race and subsequent fall-out of it all.
By all accounts Ferrari’s Spa weekend was dismal when measured against the high of the Hungarian grand prix. The woes started in Saturday qualifying as Kimi Raikkonen grinded to a halt in the second part of qualifying with an oil pressure problem. The misery didn’t end here though the Finn was further hampered by having to drop five places on the grid for a gearbox change. Raikkonen eventually finished seventh in the race after a difficult time of trying to look after his tyres. Perhaps the Iceman can console himself with his freshly signed 2016 contract.
For Sebastian Vettel, in his 150th grand prix start, it looked to be going slightly better. The German scrapped his way into third by daring to run a one-stop strategy. But a spectacular failure of his right-rear tyre two laps from the end of the grand prix dropped him out of the running. The four time world champion was fuming in the post race interviews during which he lambasted Pirelli and its tyres. The Italian tyre manufacturer released its own statement in which the blame tyre wear as the reason for the failure.
This conclusion would be acceptable if it were true. If we are to accept Pirelli’s version of events, and the tyre was worn down to the point where it could explode, his laptimes would’ve been significantly impacted before the tyre exploded. The truth is that while Vettel was lapping slower than the charging Romain Grosjean he was only seven tenths of a second off the Frenchman’s pace.
Further, Ferrari was informed that the medium compound tyre would be able to endure forty laps around the Spa circuit. Vettel’s tyre blew up after only twenty-seven laps on the car. What we have learnt is that Pirelli is awfully good at shifting blame away from themselves.
Two years ago, at the British grand prix, they blamed a slew of tyre blowouts on aggressive tyre pressures by teams and sharp kerb edges. After Saturday practice they attributed Nico Rosberg’s spectacular blowout in Blanchemont to an “external cut” as the reason for the tyre failure. Yet, Rosberg denied going off track or running over debris and confirmed that they “didn’t understand” the failure within the team despite Pirelli’s conclusion.
Tyres seemed to be at the forefront in Spa as the Williams pit crew fitted three medium and one soft compound tyre to Valtteri Bottas’ car. It was insult to a lack of pace for Williams who didn’t perform at all well around the famous circuit. Rob Smedley confirmed the team’s disappointment at finishing sixth and ninth with Massa and Bottas respectively.
Romain Grosjean was a surprise but welcome third place finisher in his black and gold Lotus. The Frenchman maintained impressive pace throughout the weekend and topped it off with a third place finish in which was arguably the best drive of the day. Grosjean admitted to “crying on the last lap” such was elation at the result. Respect to the smiling Frenchman who’s kept his head up through some incredibly difficult times with this team.
And amidst the drama and tyre sagas was a serene and very smiley Lewis Hamilton with a second Spa victory in his pocket. Never apparently under pressure the Brit led and controlled all 43 Belgian grand prix laps with consummate ease. Teammate Rosberg finished in an ever-present second place but is now twenty-eight points adrift of Hamilton. At this stage it doesn’t seem as if the multi-lingual Rosberg has any sort of answer to his teammate’s pace. It’s looking all the more as if Hamilton is transforming himself from the reigning champion to the champion-elect.