The best of the best

Eau Rouge at Spa 2011

Hallowed ground - fans descend down Eau Rouge after the race. (Raul Soler)

While the glitterati and the glamorous declare Monte Carlo to be the jewel in F1’s crown, the true fans know that it is Spa that is the greatest Grand Prix venue of them all. The sweeps, swoops and straights of the longest circuit on the calendar provided yet another memorable race for the faithful, albeit one that saw a one-two finish for the rampant Red Bulls which did the prospects of a close finish to the season no good at all. Sebastian Vettel’s seventh win of the season all but assures him of his second title but it was a race that could so easily have gone to any driver from the top three teams.

Qualifying was a thrilling mix of wet and dry that didn’t faze pole-meister Vettel who duly lined up first on the grid – he is certainly the speediest Saturday specialist we’ve seen since Mika Hakkinen. The young German put in a calm and committed lap to land the top spot while an older German lined up at the opposite end of the field. Here is where Michael Schumacher made his debut 20 years ago, won his first race 19 years ago, took perhaps his most thrilling victory 16 years ago and claimed his record-smashing seventh title back in 2004. This weekend he added another milestone – starting last on the grid after a wheel went walkies from his Mercedes on his out-lap in qualifying. Not the ideal way to celebrate the start of his third decade at the top level of the sport, but he turned things right around come the race.

Bruno Senna was the hero of Saturday but became the first villain of Sunday as he squandered his excellent seventh place on the grid by running into fellow surprise front-runner Jaime Alguersari at the start. This triggered the traditional first corner calamity from which the Mercedes drivers came out smiling. While Schumacher negotiated the chaos to move right up the field his teammate Nico Rosberg took second place out of turn one and used the straightline pace of the silver arrow to power past Vettel down the Kemmel straight. The lead wasn’t to last, but Nico stayed in contention for the podium until his final stint when Schumacher who was enjoying his best post-comeback performance took fifth from his teammate after an encouraging race for Mercedes.

The Mclaren drivers are never ones for quiet races. The British pair battled hard after a somewhat trying Saturday that saw Button lining up 13th and Hamilton hauled in front of the stewards. From where I was sitting on the sofa Pastor Maldonado’s tackle on Lewis was an instant red card – driving towards another driver after the session has ended just isn’t on. But the aggressive action rated less of a punishment than an engine blow-up according to the stewards as Maldonado’s lunge into the side of Hamilton’s Mclaren warranted a mere five-place grid drop while Lewis got reprimanded for it too.

During the race Button made his way through the field with aplomb. He finished third despite changing a front wing after the opening lap. Jenson
overtakes so coolly and calmly, thoroughly deserving his podium appearance. He may have received help from a safety car but he also suffered hindrance from a damaged rear end.

The aforementioned safety car was for Hamilton who clumsily clipped Kobayashi as the pair diced for position. The resultant knock looked nasty as Hamilton lay prone for a few seconds before getting his breath back and slowly rising out of the car. To his credit Lewis has apologised publicly to the Sauber driver, although it is his Mclaren team who he should be saying sorry to – they gave him a competitive car and now their championship chances are all but gone.

After battling hard in the early-going, Red Bull took their first one-two since May and now look unassailable in both titles. Even more ominous is the fact that the team have completed every lap of the season so far, an astounding feat. Mark Webber looked quicker than Vettel at times although yet again he was compromised by a shocking start. A Red Bull clean-sweep may look ominous but Button was just as quick as them and even Rubens Barrichello in the Williams turned in a faster lap than Vettel giving a little hope to those competitors who usually have none.

There were some cracking overtaking moves, the best of which was surely
Webber’s move on eventual fourth-placed finisher Alonso into Eau Rouge. It was the most daring pass of the year, no question. It brought to mind another heart-in-the-mouth moment between them back at the magnificent Japanese Grand Prix of 2005 when Fernando took to the grass to pass Mark back when their cars weren’t quite so evenly matched. Another DRS-free overtaking move of note was Vettel’s on Rosberg around the outside of Blanchimont – perhaps the quickest corner in F1. It went someway to disproving the doubters assertion that Vettel’s weakness is his ability in traffic. A few more of those and he’ll have us convinced, although I quite like him having at least one fault…

Before the race there was a bit of a bluster over blistered tyres with Red Bull and others lobbying to be allowed a fresh set of Pirelli rubber before the start without the need to start from the pitlane as the rules decree. The Beeb featured some interesting footage of the famous Vettel finger being used to make a point with a Pirelli employee but the powers-that-be rightly told the teams that the rulebook needed to be followed and the tatty tyres held together well enough to give Red Bull the result it wanted. To me there didn’t seem to be much of a problem. Due to the changing conditions the cars were out for the whole of Q3 on the same tyres which were due to start the race. That meant at least ten minutes of quick running along with a long warm-up lap on Sunday afternoon, it seemed obvious that Pirelli’s edgy compounds would be past their best by this point. The fact that Red Bull went beyond Pirelli’s guidelines on camber meant their argument was a moot one anyway. Still, it only added to the intrigue and action as the Red Bull’s appeared more cautious than they might have been in the early running, exactly what the fans wanted to see.

The viewing public were treated to tremendous spectacle all afternoon, Spa is the perfect fit for a Grand Prix machine. While an F1 car around Monte Carlo is akin to a killer whale confined in Seaworld, Spa remains the natural habitat for the world’s most sophisticated racing machines. The fact that the talk of Spa becoming a bi-annual event continues is shameful for F1. While Monaco is given a nearly-free ride the other traditional tracks are being squeezed for the sake of investors in the sport that are clearly only here for the short-term. Anybody with their eye on the long-game would surely accept a compromise that would see a guaranteed place on the calendar for the most inspiring and exciting venue on the calendar and leave the Tilke-dromes to play the swapping game.

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