Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Formula 1 - Belgian Grand Prix 2011

Spa-Francorchamps track map. This is the longest circuit on the calendar, and one of the drivers' all-time favourites
The Race In A Nutshell:
- Bruno Senna locks up and causes collisions at turn 1, loses front wing, gains drive-thru penalty later
- Nico Rosberg took the lead at Les Combes, but fell back after DRS was enabled
- After first round of pit stops, Webber passes Alonso at Eau Rouge (no mean feat)
- Hamilton and Kobayashi collide braking into Les Combes, Hamilton crashes out at high speed
- Vettel capitalises on resultant Safety Car to take lead post-pitstop
- Big gains as Button goes from 13th to 3rd (leading briefly), Schumacher goes from 24th to 5th

Top 5 Finishers: Vettel, Webber, Button, Alonso, Schumacher

Spa, the only race track in the world shaped like a sub-machine gun, is the closest thing Formula 1 has to the Nürburgring Nordschleife in terms of length, history and difficulty (despite it having the longest flat-out section - from the exit of turn 1 to the braking zone at turn 5 - of any track on the calendar). This year's race marked the 20th anniversary of Michael Schumacher's Formula 1 début at this very track. He's gone from retiring on lap 1 in a Jordan car in 1991 to returning 20 years later as a 7-time world champion, Ferrari legend and 6-time Belgian GP winner (including winning it in 1992, just one year later). Contrastingly, the one considered "Schumacher 2.0" went into this race without a single Belgian win to his name. That didn't stop him qualifying on Pole Position by half a second though...

Eventful Start: Michael Schumacher wasn't able to show off his experience, however, as a loose rear wheel lead to a crash in Qualifying 1, putting him stone dead last on the grid. Jenson Button was also caught out by rapidly changing conditions and started the race in 13th place, when he had the potential to start 3rd or better. F1 returnee Bruno Senna, on the other hand, managed to get his Lotus-Renault GP car up to 7th on the starting grid, after controversially replacing Nick Heidfeld for this and the next race at Monza. Whilst a strong qualifying probably gave bosses a good impression of him as a main driver, his first corner of the race probably didn't. As the field piled into the very tight first corner, he locked his brakes after overtaking Mark Webber - who went into Anti-Stall and fell back at the start - and slid straight into Jaime Alguersuari, who was feeling good after a career-best 6th place in Quali and not so good after being taken out of the race so early with broken front suspension. Senna's front wing fell off and hit Jenson Button's car, ripping off his right mirror and some of his front wing and putting the McLaren in the pits and putting him in 19th. Senna was later given a drive-thru penalty and finished an otherwise uneventful race in 13th place. The Toro Rosso of Alguersuari was also pushed into Fernando Alonso, who seemed to come out of it unscathed in the run-off area. Also getting it wrong on the brakes was Timo Glock, who caused a stir at the back of the grid with the two Team Lotus cars, allowing Schumacher to scythe through the chaos and work his way up from 24th and last to 15th place in one lap. His team mate Nico Rosberg got off to a decent start as well, going from 5th to 1st in the first sector and staying there until the activation of DRS on lap 3, which allowed Vettel to cruise back past him with consummate ease. The Ferraris also started well, putting Lewis Hamilton in 5th place (from 2nd on the grid) within the first two laps.

Overtakes Everywhere: A mix of blistering Pirelli tyres (thanks to the cars running a high negative camber angle) and the long track meant it was only lap 4 out of 44 when Mark Webber pitted in for new tyres, opting for the slower, more durable Primes. Meanwhile, Alonso was trying to pass fellow Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, finally doing so at the Rivage hairpin but locking his brakes up and sending both red cars wide. There wasn't quite enough room for Hamilton to immediately capitalise on the Spañard's mistake, but as they finished tussling out of turn 9 Hamilton deployed KERS and went as wide as the tarmac would allow to overtake Massa for 4th just before Pouhon. Fourth became third after Vettel pitted in for more Option tyres. Alonso proved too hard to catch, however, as he pulled away from Hamilton, fired up the backwards rollercoaster of Eau Rouge and sailed past Nico Rosberg on lap 7 to take the lead after starting 8th. A lap later, Hamilton used his DRS to pass Rosberg for 2nd place, becoming one of a few people to undo the German's hard work in the opening laps using the long DRS zone between Radillon and Les Combes. The very next lap saw what's possibly the overtake of the year, as Alonso exited the pits just ahead of Mark Webber, who wasn't letting him get away, flooring it down the hill after La Source to enter the flat out and very dangerous Eau Rouge side-by-side with a double world champion he's had many battles with this year already, and forcing Alonso to back out and prevent what could've been a truly monumental high-speed crash had they collided. After this, Hamilton pitted in from the lead for more Option tyres on lap 11.

Crash and Safety Car:  Unfortunately for Mr. Hamilton, he would only make it another lap and a third on those Option tyres, because as he overtook Kamui Kobayashi, he moved over too early, thinking he'd passed him, and the two bumped wheels in the braking zone for Les Combes. The Sauber survived, but the McLaren, who was in with a shout of winning, speared off into the barrier at high speed and rolled to a halt in the big run-off area, but only after poking the tyre wall. Hamilton wasn't moving in the car for a short period after the impacts, but this turned out to be more a mix of frustration and disappointment rather than unconsciousness. He did seem a little shaken up in the interview afterwards, though. This of course lead to the safety car coming out and bunching the field up, allowing Sebastian Vettel to pit in for more Option tyres, along with three or four other cars. Having pitted from the lead, Vettel was now third, and bunched up behind Mark Webber in 2nd and Fernando Alonso following the AMG SLS Safety Car. After they were released, Vettel overtook Webber around Les Combes as Rosberg made up a place against Felipe Massa using his DRS for 4th place.

Button's Surge For The Podium: Jenson Button in 10th place was part of a three-car battle for 8th with Vitaly Petrov and Sergio Pérez, and as they approached the first corner of lap 18, Pérez braked early, meaning Petrov couldn't overtake Button (who was on the outside) without running into the Mexican, and Button could go round the outside to take 8th while Petrov undercut Pérez on the exit of La Source and won the impromptu drag race down to Eau Rouge. Another drag race was happening in the DRS zone after Eau Rouge, with Vettel chasing and passing Alonso for the lead of the race. Button then overtook Michael Schumacher for 7th place (Schumacher had worked his way up with clever pit strategies and overtaking). Continuing this surge, the Brit then overtook Adrian Sutil's Force India around the outside of Les Combes, and quickly set his teeth into Felipe Massa. Going down the inside of the final chicane, a tight right-left, he ended up side-by-side on the outside of the left corner, but turned in hoping Massa wouldn't bang wheels with him and spin him round. Sure enough, he didn't, and Button took 5th position. Not long afterwards, he was challenging Nico Rosberg for 4th, chasing him through Sector 1 and passing him in the usual place at turn 5. He then started eating into the big gap between him and Webber, a meal he got through quickly when the Aussie decided to pit. Because Alonso and Vettel had also pitted a lap previously, Button was now in the lead of the race. His lead was short-lived however, as Vettel chased him down from turn one, powered up Eau Rouge and passed Button with DRS on lap 32 of 44, who then pitted for more Options. Because the first two qualifying sessions were done in wet weather, everyone had a full set of Option tyres to hand, except for the top 10 qualifiers, who had put a few laps on one set. This would theoretically give Button an advantage, alas the pit stops didn't match up with Vettel's and he was consigned to 3rd place, which is still impresive considering he started in 13th place.

Closing Stages: While Schumacher was DRS-ing Adrian Sutil for 6th place, Vettel pounded round in the lead, Alonso and Webber were battling again in 2nd and 3rd place and Button catching them in 4th. Webber then overtook Alonso in the usual way, and Michael Schumacher started challenging his team mate for 5th place on lap 42 of 44, overtaking him with DRS not long after Jenson Button did the same thing to Alonso to take his 3rd place and a well-earned place on the podium. Michael Schumacher celebrated 20 years of Formula 1 (ignoring the three-year hiatus) by climbing 19 places up the field to finish 5th, just ahead of his valiant team mate Nico Rosberg. 19 places on a 20th anniversary is one place short of a Fun Fact, but then he has seemed one short since his comeback last year, so in a sense it's still appropriate. Felipe Massa suffered a puncture after his final stop and had to come in again, dropping him down to 12th, but he climbed back up to 8th and finished behind a high-scoring Adrian Sutil. Vitaly Petrov came 9th, and Venezuelan Lewis Hamilton enthusiast (not really) Pastor Maldonado rounded out the top 10 and scored his first ever Formula 1 World Championship Point. Just the one, but it still must be satisfying not to be on zero any more. Maybe he'll frame it and put it on the wall... somehow.

And so ends another eventful and gruelling Belgian Grand Prix at one of the very best race tracks in the world. Next up is another European classic, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Can the Ferraris score another home victory? Is this apparent return to form for Vettel a one-off, or is the championship all but sewn up already? Find out on the weekend after next!

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