Another stellar performance from Sebastian Vettel gave the Red Bull pilot his seventh victory of the season at Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps.
Indeed, the Britain-based Austrian team made it difficult for themselves in the run up to event and showed that while the RB7 is still the best car to have, Red Bull are clearly pushing the margins.
Pushing the Limits
Having gone beyond the recommended limits for wheel camber, the squad applied for fresh tyres on the morning of the Grand Prix, only to be denied by the FIA. Whether it truly was the safety risk that Red Bull claimed it was is up for debate, but it still put a spanner in the works for a time.
It would mean either having to alter the camber in Parc Ferme – something that would have relegated them to starting from the pitlane – or alternatively taking a risk with the Pirelli’s as they were.
Alas, the title leaders ran with an extremely short opening stint – Vettel was in on lap 5 following Mark Webber two laps earlier – allowing the pair to enjoy fresh rubber and higher tyre temperatures.
This went some way to securing the big points; however the red and blue cars still had the entire 44-lap distance to cover before they could revel in the taste of victory.
Indeed for Red Bull, the opening tours were dire affairs. A superb start by Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg allowed the German to steal the lead from Vettel on the opening circulation, while a poor getaway by Webber left the Australian lingering down in 8th.
As the field crossed the line at the entire of the opening tour Rosberg led Vettel, the Ferrari pairing of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi, Sergio Perez in his Sauber, with Webber tailing the group.
Rosberg’s joy was short-lived – come the 3rd tour, Vettel pulled to the rear of the Mercedes before slicing passed the helpless Mercedes.
Clashes and Bad Days
It wasn’t all clean in the pack though. A trio of clashes saw both Team Lotus’ collide, just after Timo Glock (Virgin) speared Paul di Resta (Force India) and Renault substitute Bruno Senna slid hard into Jamie Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso.
The start proved to be unfortunate for Alguersuari – the only casualty of the smash; the Spaniard’s brittle front suspension destroyed in the melee – however Toro Rosso’s high speed performance signalled that there may be more to come from the Italian squad.
“Going into the hairpin after the start, I was in the middle with Senna on my inside and Fernando on my outside and Senna completely missed his braking point and hit me which pushed me into the path of the Ferrari.”
Toro Rosso’s day would deteriorate further on the fourth tour. A misjudged move by both Perez and Buemi, forcefully disabled the rear wing of the Toro Rosso, before the Swiss driver could really make use of his 6th place.
Within two laps, the stewards called Buemi into the pits – his rear wing section now barely hanging on – whereby the Toro Rosso pulled into the garage, its day done.
“I got a great start, moving up from eleventh on the grid to sixth after the first corner, which was fantastic. Then Perez tried to pass me and simply drove into the back of me, which completed destroyed my rear win… I really can’t understand what he was doing, as I was clearly ahead of him: it was as though he forgot to brake.”
For now, Perez carried on regardless, only to be addressed by the stewards much later in the race.
Aside from the stricken Toro Rosso, di Resta, Glock, Senna and Heikki Kovalainen all suffered front wing damage, while Trulli garnered damage to the underside of his Lotus.
Meanwhile, Senna and Glock would both later pick up drive through penalties for their pleasure.
There was shrapnel damage to both Jenson Button (McLaren) and Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi. As loose carbon fibre littered the pair at surely lethal speed, the Briton had his right-hand wing mirror ripped off, while Kobayashi suffered a battered front wing – both continued.
Good Starts and Early Rubber
This hindrance to some would prove a help to others, especially Michael Schumacher. The Mercedes man suffered in car failure in qualifying leaving the veteran last on the grip; however a good start mixed with a plentiful sum of carnage gave Schumacher 13th as the field came around for the second lap.
A good start by the Williams of Pastor Maldonado (16th from 21st), gave the Venezuelan early hope of a points score following a trying weekend.
The Red Bull’s were not the only machine to populate the pitlane in the early laps – Button (lap 3), Schumacher (lap 4) and Perez (lap 5) also made use of an off kilter tyre strategy. All would change to the new Pirelli softs (bar Webber, favouring the medium compound), effectively shaping their races’ early on.
Both Ferrari’s followed in on lap 8 (Alonso) and lap 9 (Massa) – both taking softs – following an early on track scuffle between the red pair and Rosberg. Alonso won the brief battle and even took a brief lead while others pitted before him.
There was one battle the Spaniard was never going to win though. With Webber’s tyres already five laps old and snugly warm, the Australian approached the rear of Alonso exiting La Source, before squeezing through the inside of the Ferrari at the bottom of Eau Rouge.
As the road suddenly ripped upwards, the Red Bull emerged just ahead, as the RB7 pulled grip from every conceivable – and inconceivable – angle, allowing Webber to surge ahead.
A stunning move and one that should be a lesson to all though coming through the feeder ranks of the sport. Few, however, may remember Alonso re-passing Webber on the Kemmel Straight one tour later.
The Face of the Race
Whereas a number of the front-runners had by now discarded their worn Pirelli’s, several midfielders held on until just past the one-quarter race distance – including Kobayashi – until their hands became forced. By lap 13, Kobayashi’s softs had long passed their best and as a result, the Japanese pilot found himself being re-taken by recent “pitters”.
One of those was Hamilton. Having gone for a second set of soft tyres on lap ten, the Englishman reeled Kobayashi in swiftly, taking what was then 4th place off the Sauber three laps later – or nearly…
As Hamilton made his move coming out of Eau Rouge, Kobayashi sat under the rear wing of the McLaren – unsighted – as they approached the hard breaking point at Les Combes.
The McLaren pilot, feeling the position had been won, pulled back onto the racing line, only to clumsily clatter the Sauber, pitching Hamilton very hard into the Armco barrier. Hamilton was bemused by the incident:
“I was in a good position and I’d already got past one of the Ferraris, but then I was hit by Kamui. I don’t really know what happened, but I hit the wall pretty hard and my race was immediately over. I was ahead, so I don’t know why I got hit.”
It left the former world champion dazed, but relatively all right, while Kobayashi – already wounded from the first corner melee – received further damage, leaving no option but to pit for a new front wing and soft tyres.
“…I knew perfectly well he was faster than me so had no reason to fight with him. After he overtook me it was not my intention to get my position back, so I stayed on my line and didn’t expect him to move over.”
With Hamilton’s destroyed McLaren trackside – as well as several annihilated polystyrene advertising boards – the safety car was needed, neutralising the race and opening the pit window for the field.
As the pits filled with high-tech racing machinery, Alonso and Webber elected to stay out, taking the lead of the pack, while Vettel, Massa, Rosberg and Adrian Sutil (Force India) sat in wait.
On his climb through the field, Schumacher assumed 9th behind Perez and Renault’s Vitaly Petrov. Button, meanwhile, found himself 11th and in a Williams sandwich with Barrichello ahead and Maldonado just behind.
Making the Best of it
The green flags flew again come the 17th lap, with Vettel instantly dispatching Webber for 2nd before nailing the lead one lap later. The reigning champion was once again in full control, but with a new set of softs fitted, Vettel still had to be careful.
With Alonso keeping one eye on Webber, Vettel worked on extending his lead over the Spaniard, taking it to 3.9 seconds by lap 22 – despite the tyre worries, this Red Bull was showing its wings.
As the laps ticked off, Vettel continued to extend his precious lead – first to 4.7 by lap 25 and then 5.4 two tours later, but the German could feel the inevitable coming. Indeed, the beginnings blistered rubber made themselves apparent – the final laps of this stint would be quite a struggle.
In the pack Rosberg claimed Massa for 4th, Schumacher jumped to 7th ahead of Perez and Petrov, while Button broke into the top ten by demoting Barrichello.
Within a lap, Button had also surpassed the Perez / Petrov battle, before streaming by Schumacher at the bus stop – the McLaren man was putting on a sterling effort. Come the 23rd tour this became 6th as Sutil, too, fell behind the charging McLaren.
Now the 2009 World Champion set his sights on Massa and Rosberg, both of whom were falling toward Button. It would not be long before the inevitable – and quick – fight. Making the most of his soft Pirelli’s, Button latched on the rear of Massa / Rosberg, taking the Ferrari on lap 25 in the bus stop and Rosberg half-a-lap later.
With Webber some eight seconds ahead in 3rd and being caught, one was almost beginning to regret the Briton qualifying so low in the field the previous day.
Of course, worse things could have happened – just ask Sergio Perez. Remembering the Mexican’s collision earlier in the event, the stewards finally decided to address the matter nearly thirty minutes later.
Having examined footage from every conceivable angle (most of which are not available to television), Perez was adjudged to have assaulted Buemi’s rear wing. Just as the race ticked the halfway point, the Sauber man was running in the points, until being informed of an impending drive through penalty.
Having trundled through the pits at a sluggish pace, the rev-limited Ferrari engine ripping severely behind him, Perez fell toward the rear of the midfield, only to drop out of the race completely on the 29th lap with a broken wheel.
“On lap five I was in seventh when Sebastien Buemi changed his line in front of me under braking, I tried to avoid hitting him but couldn’t as I had lost downforce. I later got a drive through penalty.
After that I also made my second pit stop. I had dropped way behind and tried to recover from there. I had just overtaken Bruno Senna when I felt there was something seriously wrong at the back of the car, so I drove it carefully back to the pits and that was it for today.”
Final Throws of the Die
Perez would miss out on the final round of pitstops, led by Alonso (lap 29), with Vettel changing tyres a lap later followed by Webber (lap 31) – all of whom selected the medium tyres.
Both Button and Schumacher held the advantage of taking on the Pirelli softs – as the race entered its final stage the charge was on. Yet while the Mercedes pilot was able to take advantage, Button was about to hit a brick wall.
Having raised tyre pressures to counter excessive camber, both Vettel and Webber hit a sweet spot – so much so that Vettel was able to take the lead from Button before he made his stop.
While it was looking impossible for Button to snatch a win, a podium at least was on the cards, for Alonso was ripe for the taking.
The Ferrari’s had struggled to get heat into the prime tyres all weekend and although two stints on the softs was enough to take Alonso to 2nd spot, the mediums would see the Spaniard drift backward.
It would not be long before both Webber and Button had drafted passed the Ferrari to drop Alonso to 4th spot (on laps 35 and 41 respectively); however the Scuderia may be thankful that the advantage over the Mercedes was more than enough to stop the rot.
Indeed, this proved to be a difficult stint in general for the scarlet red squad. Having stopped for mediums on lap 30, Massa took 7th spot as the field restored its natural order.
Yet even this would go awry for the Brazilian – a puncture two tours later saw the Brazilian back in the pits and down in 11th place.
Indeed, when Massa made his initial stop, Schumacher’s turquoise Mercedes followed in 8th. That became 7th as Massa’s right rear Pirelli ran down and 6th when the veteran took the two-stopping Sutil on the 34th lap.
With teammate Rosberg lean on fuel and struggling to make sense of the medium tyre, the soft-shod Schumacher had pulled to the rear of Rosberg by lap 38.
For what it’s worth, the younger Mercedes man held Schumacher at bay with some magical defending, but Schumacher’s advantage was always going to be too great.
Come lap 42, the pair swapped places as Rosberg relented to Schumacher’s pressure.
Make a, or 25 Point(s)
I am sure had Sebastian Vettel been watching the Mercedes battle, he would have been impressed; however the reigning Champion was busy out front.
A firm lead established over the sister Red Bull, Vettel lifted off in the final couple of tours to ensure the victory – and 25 valuable points, a result that gives the spritely German a 92 point lead over Webber.
Vettel seemed well collected after the race; the early scare now a distant memory.
“I’m very happy; today was a very good race for us, although it was not easy with the tyres. This morning disturbed our normal rhythm, as normally you know what you do when you arrive on Sunday morning, but today we had a lot of discussions, which doesn’t make it easy to keep focused. Before the race, we decided the priority was simply to finish the race today and not think too much about where, so that’s why I am so happy with the result. It couldn’t have been any better.”
Relief drew across Mark Webber’s face. The Australian could have lost so much more following his poor start, but a good drive gave Webber another solid podium.
Indeed the Red Bull veteran can count himself lucky that he didn’t fall further down the order exiting La Source. Yet, as Vettel notches up his seventh win of the 2011 season, Webber has yet to make the top step once and that can only be a great frustration.
“The lights went out and I got anti-stall at the start. We were worried about the tyres going into the race and (…) in the end, the right decisions were made and the team reacted incredibly well and did some good research overnight to work out how we could best get through the race. We picked some people off, but in terms of the result I was after I was frustrated at that point.”
Although 3rd was not the ideal result for McLaren, the team can look on accept that Jenson Button drove a masterful – and aggressive – race; however a win was simply too much to ask. The mistake in the second stint of qualifying was enough to ensure of that. His lowly grid spot also put him in the heart of the turn one melee.
“At the start, somebody hit me at the rear and damaged a rear-wing endplate. At the exit of Turn One, there was debris everywhere, and somebody else’s front wing went through my front wing and sliced my right-side mirror off. The team had a look at the data and saw that the damage was manageable. Then, after that, I drove flat-out to the end of the race. We just need to stop the little mistakes from happening…”
Beyond the Top Three
Fernando Alonso’s 4th keeps the Spaniard within ten points of Webber, while Michael Schumacher’s drive 5th leaves him fourteen points shy of teammate Nico Rosberg who settled for 6th.
Come the flag, two stops worked for Adrian Sutil. After starting on row eight, the Force India driver displayed excellent patience to a 7th place finish out of the bag, although it is questionable if he would have held the spot had the race been a little longer.
Following his puncture, Felipe Massa reclaimed a part of the order on his fresh medium Pirelli’s. Passes on Kamui Kobayashi (lap 34), Paul di Resta (lap 36), Pastor Maldonado (lap 38) and Vitaly Petrov (final lap) gave the Brazilian an 8th place finish, several seconds shy of Sutil.
Petrov, too, made a two-stop strategy work. The Russian spent much of the race loosely hanging around the points paying spots, securing 9th, just ahead of the delighted Venezuelan, Maldonado.
After being denied a 6th place finish in Monaco following an accident with Lewis Hamilton, the Williams pilot finally achieved his first Formula 1 point thanks to a stellar driver from the eleventh row.
…and the Rest
Alas this left di Resta on the outside looking in. The Scot simply did not have enough in the car after his assault by Timo Glock at La Source.
Kobayashi came home 12th, despite being hit in the rear by Rubens Barrichello late in the event, while Bruno Senna climbed back up the order to take 13th spot on his Renault début. For his trouble, Barrichello pitted for a new front wing, dropping to 16th place in the process.
Jarno Trulli (14th) led the Lotus train, not far ahead of teammate Heikki Kovalainen (15th), while Jerome d’Ambrosio claimed 17th ahead of fellow Virgin racer Glock (18th).
Vitantonio Liuzzi was the final finisher, assuming 19th in his HRT-F1 machine. The Italian fared far better than teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who retired on the 13th lap with a mechanical issue.
This now means that with seven races remaining, championship leader Sebastian Vettel only needs to finish 4th in each event to secure the crown.
Even for the most optimistic betting man in the world, those odds are hardly worth putting the house on.
Race Rating: 4.5 out of 5
2011 Belgian Grand Prix (Rd 12, Aug 28th) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h26.44.893 (44 laps) 2. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 3.741 3. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 9.669 4. Alonso Ferrari + 13.022 5. Schumacher Mercedes + 47.464 6. Rosberg Mercedes + 48.674 7. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 59.713 8. Massa Ferrari + 1m06.076 9. Petrov Renault + 1m11.917 10. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 1m17.615 11. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1m23.994 12. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1m31.976 13. Senna Renault + 1m32.985 14. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 15. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 16. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 17. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 1 lap 18. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 1 lap 19. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 1 lap Fastest lap: Webber, 1:49.883 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Perez Sauber-Ferrari 27 Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth 13 Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 12 Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 6 Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1 World Championship standings, Drivers: 1. Vettel 259 2. Webber 167 3. Alonso 157 4. Button 149 5. Hamilton 146 6. Massa 74 7. Rosberg 56 8. Schumacher 42 9. Petrov 34 10. Heidfeld 34 11. Kobayashi 27 12. Sutil 24 13. Buemi 12 14. Alguersuari 10 15. Di Resta 8 16. Perez 8 17. Barrichello 4 18. Maldonado 1 World Championship standings, Constructors: 1. Red Bull-Renault 426 2. McLaren-Mercedes 295 3. Ferrari 231 4. Mercedes 88 5. Renault 68 6. Sauber-Ferrari 35 7. Force India-Mercedes 32 8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 22 9. Williams-Cosworth 5