Tire issue sends Vettel to sidelines late, effectively crushes Ferrari’s championship hopes
The Mercedes Formula One team bounced back from its disappointing weekend in Hungary to score a dominant one-two at Spa after a bad start for Nico Rosberg robbed the German of any chance of posing a serious threat to teammate Lewis Hamilton.
The big story of the day was a tire puncture for Sebastian Vettel that cost the Ferrari ace a hard-earned third place with just under two laps left to run. The incident came two days after another failure for Nico Rosberg, and former champion Vettel was fuming afterwards, and he did not hold back in his criticisms of Pirelli.
The setback left Vettel 67 points behind Hamilton and 39 points behind Rosberg, virtually eliminating the last challenger to a Mercedes championship.
This was an unusual Belgian Grand Prix, run in sunny weather, and aside from the Vettel puncture, almost completely devoid of incidents. However, behind the Mercedes duo, there was some good racing down the field, and a lot of overtaking, although the gap to the pacesetters was ominously big.
Hamilton’s margin of victory was 2 seconds over Rosberg. Third-place Romain Grosjean of Lotus was more than 37 seconds back.
All eyes were on what would happen at the start under the revised regulations that hand more responsibility back to the drivers. Rosberg expressed his concerns early in the weekend, and sure enough he made a bad getaway and dropped as low as fifth. In contrast, Force India’s Sergio Perez made a great start from fourth spot to get into an initial second — and at the top of the hill, he drew alongside leader Hamilton and actually passed the first sector timing beam in first place, before dropping back into second.
Perez proved to be no threat, however, as he finished fifth, 54 seconds behind Hamilton.
Rosberg soon worked his way up into second as Perez and Daniel Ricciardo in third made early tire stops, while the Mercedes drivers stayed out for a longer first stint. But having got into second place there, was nothing Rosberg could do about Hamilton, who stayed a few seconds clear for the duration, with both men running identical strategies and no opportunity for Nico to try anything. There was some concern about rain coming near the end of the race, but it didn’t arrive until two hours after the flag.
“It was really just about utilizing the tires, not having to push,” said Hamilton. “I didn’t really push very hard on the out-laps, took it quite easy for the first three or four laps in which there was areas where Nico would be closing. And then I started to push after that, but I was really never in a position where I was nervous or anything. I had great pace in the car, the balance felt fantastic. It actually was getting better throughout the race.
“There was no real need to push any more than I was already. I had a comfortable gap and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it’s won by a tenth or won by 10 seconds. So, at the end I saw that there was a blow-up so I was being very cautious with my tires. I’d done pretty well up until then so I was just going to make sure I bought it home.”
This was a morale-boosting win for Mercedes after a poor afternoon in Hungary, and it was made sweeter by the fact that Vettel failed to score, and the threat from Ferrari has been tempered.
From eighth on the grid, Vettel had worked his way up into second. He pitted for the medium tires on lap 14, but unlike everyone else, he had no intention of coming in a second time, so he stayed in a solid third place. It appeared that running 29 laps on that set of tires was a gamble, but more in terms of them “falling off the cliff” and losing performance, perhaps forcing Vettel into a late stop. In fact, he kept up a good pace until the late failure, for which no cause was immediately apparent as Pirelli began its investigations.
“I tell you what is upsetting, one thing is the result,” Vettel said. “This is racing. For sure we deserved to finish on the podium. The other thing as I said is if this happens earlier… I think it’s a sort of theme that’s going around, nobody’s mentioning, but it’s unacceptable.”
The man who benefited most was Romain Grosjean of the financially troubled Lotus team. He had qualified fourth, but dropped back to ninth on the grid with a gearbox penalty, but he soon worked his way up as the black car showed good speed. He’d earned fourth on merit before Vettel’s problem gifted him the final podium spot.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was set for a good helping of points before a mid-race retirement, but his Red Bull teammate Dany Kvyat picked up the mantle. Helped by a later second stop that left him with fresher tires than rivals, he was charging near the end, and worked his way up to fourth.
Perez slipped back from his early second to finish fifth, but that was still a good result for the Force India team. Williams had a bad day, with the cars lacking speed on soft tires in the early stages, but it got better and Felipe Massa salvaged sixth. His teammate Valtteri Bottas was delayed by a drive-through after the team fitted a mismatched set of soft and medium tires at the Finn’s first stop.
A gearbox penalty dropped Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to 16th on the grid, but he moved up to seventh, just nipping Max Verstappen, who kept a large contingent of Dutch fans entertained. It was another poor day for McLaren as the cars finished 13th and 14th.
Not a great race at the front perhaps, but still one with plenty of talking points. The worrying thing for everyone is that Mercedes remains in a class of its own out front, and the gap isn’t closing. It’s hard to see much changing by the next race in Monza.
Provisional Results – Formula One Belgian Grand Prix
|4||Daniil Kvyat||RUS||Red Bull Racing||+45.692s||12|
|5||Sergio Perez||MEX||Force India||+53.997s||10|
|8||Max Verstappen||NED||Toro Rosso||+56.076s||4|
|13||Fernando Alonso||ESP||McLaren||+1 lap||0|
|14||Jenson Button||GBR||McLaren||+1 lap||0|
|15||Roberto Merhi||ESP||Marussia||+1 lap||0|
|16||Will Stevens||GBR||Marussia||+1 lap||0|
|NC||Carlos Sainz||ESP||Toro Rosso||DNF||0|
|NC||Daniel Ricciardo||AUS||Red Bull Racing||DNF||0|
|NC||Nico Hulkenberg||GER||Force India||DNS||0|