Belgian Grand Prix Analysis: A move too far?

World © Octane Photographic Ltd. Mercedes AMG Petronas W07 Hybrid – Nico Rosberg leads race start. Sunday 28th August 2016, F1 Belgian GP Race, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. Digital Ref : 1692LB1D2480

From the outside, last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix looked to be a race like any other, but there were in fact a number of key incidents that changed the homoeostasis of the 2016 Formula 1 World Championship, as we hit the second the half of the season.

Rosberg unable to capitalise…

The Belgian Grand Prix weekend should have been the perfect chance for Mercedes AMG PETRONAS driver Nico Rosberg to claw back a good haul of points from team-mate Lewis Hamilton, after the Brit took three different engine changes during the Friday and Saturday practice sessions, which saw him handed a fifty-five place grid penalty in total for Sunday’s race.

This was of course a ploy by the German squad to get all Hamilton’s potential penalties out of the way in one foul swoop, instead of having to take further reprimands later on in the season. As it stands now, the Brit should not have to take any further penalties down the line, as he has plenty of available engines should any technical issues arise.

However, as is often the case at the Belgian Grand Prix, accidents happen and safety cars or red flags come to the aid of the luck ridden driver. Which is exactly what happened in Sundays race…

The good, the bad, and the ugly…

It was a strong getaway from Rosberg, who perhaps in the absence of Hamilton competing for the full qualifying session, started from pole. Further back however things were getting a little bit heated, as Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, sat in second on the grid, got bogged down off the line, and was immediately overtaken by the two Scuderia Ferrari’s of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Having none of that, the Dutchman who had by now recovered from his initial poor getaway and on seeing a small gap emerge beside the Ferrari, launched his RB12 down the inside of Raikkonen going into the La Source hairpin.

With three cars all trying to make the corner in unison, there was only ever going to be one outcome, and as Vettel attempted to make the apex he collided with his team-mate, now the filling in a Vettel/Verstappen sandwich, as the Dutchman simultaneously clipped the Finn’s front wing, sending Vettel spinning off track, with all three sustaining damage and ultimately ending their chances of victory there and then.

Whilst Vettel managed to right his SF16-H and continue on, Verstappen and Raikkonen both began to lose time in the following laps and pitted for repair jobs, the Finn a lap down as his mechanics fixed the front end damage.

Unsurprisingly Rosberg had begun to open up a gap at the head of the pack, and was now four seconds clear of second placed Nico Hulkenberg who had qualified well in seventh place and taken advantage of the mayhem off the start line. It was not going to be a stroll in the park for Rosberg however, as a virtual safety car, activated whilst marshals cleared the on track debris from a tyre puncture experienced by Carlos Sainz Jr, that saw the rubber casing wrap around the rear of the Scuderia Toro Rosso and rip off the Spaniard’s rear wing in spectacular fashion, reduced his lead.

Charging backmarkers…

Meanwhile, McLaren-Honda driver Fernando Alonso, who had also been hit with numerous engine penalties and started at the back of the grid, and Hamilton had begun to move forward and were now in tenth and twelfth place respectively, having cleared half the field in a short space of time, both were on the medium tyre as they attempted to go as long as possible before needing to pit. Haas F1 Team drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez had also jumped up the order following the messy start.

Crashing in…

On lap six however, the race was about to be disrupted once again in dramatic style, when Kevin Magnussen lost the rear of his RS16 at high-speed at Raidillon, crashing heavily into the tyre barriers after the Renault machine violently snapped back on him, and the Dane was just a passenger from there on in.

Magnussen was able to get straight out of the car afterwards, and although fine was seen hobbling away from the wreckage. The Renault Sport F1 Team later confirmed he had sustained a small cut to his ankle, which the medical team will need to check before the Dane will be cleared to race in Italy.

A more worrying finding from the incident, was that the head guard was ripped clean off the car in the impact, a safety concern that will now be investigated by the FIA.

Following the accident, the safety car was initially deployed and a number of drivers pitted to switch tyres, which brought a further opportunity for Alonso and Hamilton to move up the order both having not chosen to pit. The pair now sat in a respectable fourth and fifth place respectively.

The damage sustained to the tyre barrier was worse than initially thought however, and the race was red flagged for twenty minutes, which saw all drivers return to the pits, where they were able to make changes to the cars.

The most significant change was Rosberg’s switch to the medium compound tyre, the more durable and as it turned out the best option, as the German was able to control the race from the front to take victory, whilst his rivals suffered with tyre degradation towards the end of the grand prix.

Verstappen on a charge, or is he?

Having already had an early fracas with the Ferrari’s, Verstappen was far from done, and as the Dutchman made his charge through the field following the race re-start, it was clear nothing was going to stand in his way.

The unfortunate Raikkonen was about to be bullied out of the way by the RB12 once again as the pair both navigated Les Coombes. With the Finn attempting to come round the outside of the Dutchman, Verstappen squeezed him wide and onto the grass as he inevitably ran out of road. It was an aggressive move, but perhaps the fairest he had made during the race. He also made similar manoeuvres on Vettel and Sergio Perez on the same part of the track, the 18-year-old was pushing the boundaries with his competitors today.

Later in the race a further incident between Verstappen and Raikkonen took place on the 200mph Kemmel Straight, a far more dangerous section of the track to pull out aggressive moves.

As the Finn approached the Dutchman at speed, having received the benefit of DRS, he began to close down the Red Bull at rapid pace and swiftly chose a side to make his overtake. Verstappen however had other ideas, and as Raikkonen went in for the pass, the Dutchman moved over very late to block the Finn’s advances, causing him to brake hard in the middle of the straight. Had he not, at such speeds a catastrophic accident would have been inevitable.

It sparked a controversial debate on whether Verstappen’s move was fair, or indeed out of order. Raikkonen’s feelings were clear, from the expletives heard over team radio, and in interviews following the race. The stewards however, chose not to even investigate any of the incident’s involving Verstappen let alone penalise him for them, which angered not only the Finn but other drivers and teams too, who feel if the Dutchman is not penalised for his actions, then he will not learn the error of his ways and will continue to be a hazard to other drivers who dare to take him on. The drivers debrief this Friday will be the only tool for the drivers to vent their frustrations with the youngster.

Yes he is hungry to win, yes he is showing his passion, but if he is the talent that many mark him out to be, then he should also be able to see that some of his actions are not acceptable.

After all that dicing and angering his fellow competitors, Verstappen finished the race out of the points and in eleventh place. But had he taken a calmer approach, could events have turned out differently?

Verstappen had been on the softer tyre compound at the start of the race, compared to most of those around him, which would have given him the perfect chance to break away with Rosberg, perhaps even catch him, before pitting for the harder tyre early on, leaving plenty of time for him to recuperate lost time for the remainder of the race. Was the risk of jamming it up the inside at the start therefore really necessary, or just  a hot-headed moment of youth?

Hamilton hammers home his intent…

Hamilton meanwhile, who had taken the race re-start in fifth place on a set of soft tyres, kept his championship hopes alive by coming home in a brilliant third place, and losing very little ground in the end to main rival and team-mate Rosberg.

It was damage limitation to the letter from the Brit, who maintained his tyres and his cool to finish on the podium. It was not all plain sailing for the current world champion however as high tyre wear on the soft tyre, saw him have to pit twice during the race, in the end switching to the medium tyre, the compound he had started the race on, which saw him lose time to Daniel Ricciardo, but allowed him to comfortably finish in third.

Rosberg must have looked twice when he saw his team-mate join him in the pre-podium room, or then again, maybe not…

World © Octane Photographic Ltd. Mercedes AMG Petronas – Nico Rosberg, Red Bull Racing – Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton. Sunday 28th August 2016, F1 Belgian GP Race Podium, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. Digital Ref : 1693LB1D3311
Nico Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

And the rest…

Ricciardo, who had jumped the Sahara Force India of Hulkenberg at the first round of pit stops, finished a fantastic second for Red Bull. A result they had not expected at a track that does not really suit the strengths of the RB12, but it was a well-executed drive from the smiling Australian who had outshone his team-mate ten-fold. His result also means that Red Bull further stake their claim on second place in the Constructor’s Championship, having now moved clear of Ferrari by twenty-two points.

The Force India’s of Hulkenberg and Perez came home in fourth and fifth, ahead of Vettel who had recovered well from his first lap melee to finish in sixth.

Alonso took seventh, in what was a fantastic effort from the Spaniard and an even better result for McLaren-Honda, who did not feel they had any hope of points in Belgium, when driver Jenson Button was taken out by Pascal Wehrlein on the first lap, and Alonso starting way down the order. They managed it however and that is a big step forward for the Woking based squad.

Valtteri Bottas was eighth for Williams Martini Racing, who are struggling to make much of an impact on the top three teams this season, whilst Raikkonen, who was able to un-lap himself during the safety car period, came home in ninth and took a couple of points at least, with Felipe Massa rounding out the top ten.