Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo won his third Grand Prix of the season at Spa-Francorchamps today.
The Australian took the 44-lap Belgian event ahead of world championship leader Nico Rosberg and Williams’ rising star Valtteri Bottas.
Starting 5th, Ricciardo was 4th by lap two and made that 3rd when he passed Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso on lap four. One tour later that became 2nd when Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) fell to the Australian’s prowess and when Rosberg pitted after eight tours, the lead was Ricciardo’s.
Thereafter the Red Bull racer only lost the lead for one lap and even then only because he had moved to change tyres, but for much of the event, Ricciardo drove a canny, calm race.
Following a stop ten laps from the end, Rosberg drew back toward Ricciardo as he took advantage of his much fresher tyres, but the Australian was too far ahead for Rosberg to affect a realistic challenge.
But the race was in no way that straight forward. Indeed, it could be argued that – like the Canadian Grand Prix – Ricciardo had this one handed to him by an overly forceful Rosberg.
From pole, the Mercedes man bogged down, allowing teammate and rival Lewis Hamilton to take the lead, with Vettel following through. Whereas Vettel was quickly dispatched, Hamilton proved a far more trying opposition for Rosberg.
At just over half-a-second shy of the lead at the beginning of the second lap, Rosberg clung to the rear of Hamilton through Eau Rouge, Radillon and along the Kemmel Straight.
Holding the lead into Les Combes, Hamilton took his line, only for Rosberg to slice Hamilton’s left rear tyre on his front wing endplate, puncturing the Pirelli tyre instantly and dropping him to the rear of the field.
Unable to escape the clutches of Ricciardo, Rosberg continued with a slightly damaged front wing until lap eight, eventually stopping for fresh medium tyres and a new nose.
Meanwhile the 2008 World Champion also damaged the floor on the way back to the pits and emerged from the stop in 19th…
As far as Hamilton was concerned, the blame lay with his opposite man. “I gave him plenty of space, took the corner like I usually do and suddenly felt a big hit from behind.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff had some choice words. “To see that kind of contact, so early in the race, is an unacceptable level of risk to be taking out on track. It cannot – and will not – happen again.”
Ricciardo Out Front
For all the claims regarding the Rosberg / Hamilton clash, Ricciardo still needed to drive the car and drive it hard. Using a two-stop strategy, Ricciardo pitted on lap eleven, taking on a new set of softs – and it is here that the 25-year-old made his mark in the race.
Emerging some 2.5s ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, Ricciardo recorded set eleven laps in the 1’54” range, while Raikkonen – having already stopped on lap eight – pushed hard, ripping the best from his rubber early on.
While Ricciardo’s pace was quick, one could argue that the steady nature of his run in the gentle nature of the RB10 helped extend the life of his second set of soft Pirelli’s for sixteen laps.
As the stint aged, the leader drew a 7.7s gap over the Finn, before Ferrari called him in for his third set on lap 21, momentarily promoting Vettel to 2nd, before his pitstop allowed Bottas to take the mantle of chasing the leader on lap 22.
Any thoughts of Bottas catching the lead were pipe dreams though. From (a brief sojourn in) the lead, the Williams man was brought in for new runner on lap 12, only to emerge behind Rosberg, who in turn was losing pace behind a sluggish Vettel.
Until Vettel and Rosberg made their second stops, Bottas dropped 7.8s over the course of the next nine laps – effectively neutering his challenge to Ricciardo. As the field ahead cleared itself, Ricciardo’s lead was now over fourteen seconds. This race was a done deal…
Rosberg Charges Back
Except it wasn’t. Well, not quite.
Forced onto a three-stop strategy following his lap two mishap, Rosberg sidestepped for new tyres on laps 19 (mediums) and 34 (softs). Add to that a wet qualifying session, which – like the rest of the field – ensured the championship leader had a full compliment of new tyres for the race.
So Rosberg pushed. On the mediums, the German effectively matched Ricciardo’s pace over his longer run; however when Mercedes bolted a set of softs onto Rosberg’s car eleven laps from the end, the 29-year-old charged.
When the Finn returned to the track after his final Pirelli switch, he immediately launched into a barrage of laps in the 1’51” range and even set three tours in the 1’50s.
There was further fortune and force. Emerging just ahead of Bottas, Rosberg escaped the Finn, while also powering past Raikkonen. Tellingly Rosberg was over four seconds per lap quicker than the Ferrari man, as Raikkonen’s two-stop race theory (with a 23 lap stint on mediums) hung by a thread.
From 22.57s, the gap to Ricciardo began to shrink at an incredible rate, but this is where the leader made his consistency really count. Despite the threat, the Red Bull man maintained a pace in the low-1’53s, refusing to be drawn into a dogfight that would only destroy his tyres in the closing laps.
A Calculated Win
As the immediate effectiveness of Rosberg’s rubber deteriorated toward the end of the race, Ricciardo was rewarded with victory – and deservedly so following a superbly executed race, yet there were still some lingering worries. “I think we had some really good pace today and surprised ourselves. […] It was difficult staying out at the end of the race,” said Ricciardo.
Considering the length of Ricciardo’s final stint, there were naturally some concerns as to whether the Pirelli’s would last, but Australian was keen to reassure his engineer Simon Rennie.
“I said I think I can keep more or less this pace, and we were able to, then on the last lap I found a couple more tenths. Today was more calculated and it was nice to win under different circumstances.”
Rosberg was 3.3s shy of the top step come the flag and for all of his valiant efforts late on, the race was lost in that second lap contact. “We had the pace to win today but the incident cost us a top result, so I’m really disappointed because for the team.”
There was further controversy following the race when Hamilton told crash.net that Rosberg admitted to not lifting off on the approach to Les Combes, initiating the incident. “We just had a meeting about it and […] he said he did it on purpose, he said he could have avoided it. He said ‘I did it to prove a point’…”
Hamilton continued on until the 38th lap, but with his floor heavily damaged following the clash, Mercedes told the Briton to retire his car; however this too has raised eyebrows as the order came following several requests by Hamilton to retire his car to ‘save the engine’. The no-score for Hamilton means Rosberg’s championship lead increases to 29 points.
Another Bottas Podium
Bottas may have led for a lap, but it was never an honest lead once strategies played out and as they did Bottas settled into a top four position, which became 3rd as Raikkonen’s tyres cried foul late on.
Indeed Raikkonen’s tyres were so destroyed in the later tours that he dropped 9.4s to Bottas in the final five laps alone and while the Finn has not yet reached the podium this season, 4th place was easily Raikkonen’s best finish of the season.
Behind Raikkonen, an epic last dash battle for 5th was playing out between McLaren pairing Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button, Alonso and Vettel. Through the final three laps, the quartet swapped places repeatedly as gripless tyres dealt their final hands.
Wheel spinning across the track through the middle sector, Magnussen ran wheel-to-wheel with Button, allowing Alonso and Vettel opportunities to take places, until they too slipped back behind the McLaren’s in an enthralling battle.
It all came to a head on the final tour when Magnussen – having momentarily shaken off Button – squeezed Alonso off the road at Stavelot, allowing Vettel to feed through the gap and take 5th.
Magnussen would recover to take 6th ahead of Button and Alonso, only for Magnussen to be punished with a 20-second post-race penalty for not leaving enough room for Alonso, forcing him off the track. The sanction promoted Button to 6th, while Alonso was classified in 7th – Magnussen, meanwhile, had to make do with 12th overall.
Sergio Perez (Sauber) drove a solid race to 8th, finishing just ahead of Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat (9th), after the latter closed upon the Mexican late on. After initially finishing outside the points, Nico Hulkenberg was promoted to 10th following Magnussen’s penalty – small reward for the Force India driver, who remains stuck in midfield peril.
Jean-Éric Vergne needed a big performance, but could no better than 11th, while Felipe Massa took 13th. Adrian Sutil (Sauber) led teammate Esteban Gutierrez to unspectacular 14th and 15th place finishes.
Max Chilton (Marussia, 16th) and Marcus Ericsson (Caterham, 17th) were the only other finishers, as Jules Bianchi (Marussia) was classified 18th, but had retired on lap 40.
Neither Lotus finished and André Lotterer retired on the first lap of his Formula One debut with Caterham. Whether the impressive Lotterer gets another opportunity in the future remains to be seen.
If nothing else, the Mercedes situation is becoming more and more intense as the second half of the season gets under way. Whether this intensifies once Mercedes wrap up the Constructor’s Championship will make the close of the title even more intriguing.
And then in the background was a smiling Australian, who is also getting closer to the silver machines.
2014 Belgian Grand Prix (Rd 12, Spa-Francorchamps) Pos Driver Team Time/Gap 1. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull-Renault 1h24m36.556s (44 laps) 2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes +3.383s 3. Valtteri Bottas Williams-Mercedes +28.032s 4. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari +36.815s 5. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault +52.196s 6. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes +54.580s 7. Fernando Alonso Ferrari +1m01.162s 8. Sergio Perez Force India-Mercedes +1m04.293s 9. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso-Renault +1m05.347s 10. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes +1m05.697s 11. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Renault +1m11.920s 12. Kevin Magnussen McLaren-Mercedes +1m14.262s* 13. Felipe Massa Williams-Mercedes +1m15.975s 14. Adrian Sutil Sauber-Ferrari +1m22.447s 15. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber-Ferrari +1m30.825s 16. Max Chilton Marussia-Ferrari -1 lap 17. Marcus Ericsson Caterham-Renault -1 lap 18. Jules Bianchi Marussia-Ferrari -5 laps Retirements: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +6 laps Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault +11 laps Pastor Maldonado Lotus-Renault +43 laps Andre Lotterer Caterham-Renault +43 laps
Kevin Magnussen (McLaren) received 20-second post-race penalty for pushing Alonso off track on final lap.