After oppressive heat in Hungary and a long summer break, the F1 circus moved on and nestled into the Ardennes Forest and the somewhat cooler, less predictable climate that envelopes Spa Francorchamps for the staging of the 2013 Belgium Grand Prix. It may surprise some that the original Spa Circuit measured a car breaking 9.2 miles and was first used in 1922 for the Belgian Bike Grand Prix. Les Combes, pre 1979, was a left rather than right hand bend, taking racers into open countryside on public roads, only to return them some while later into the familiar Stavelot and Blanchimont complexes. Today’s Spa circuit measures just half that original distance at a mere 4.33 miles. Alas it has not been a happy hunting ground for the Maranello Team in recent years with 2009 being the last year a podium place was secured and Fernando yet to tick off Spa with a GP win.
As all the teams got down to business for the Friday free practice sessions variable weather was immediately evident, with cool damp conditions hampering the opening ninety minutes of play. Fernando made the most of it to head the leader board with a lap of 1.55.198. Slowest of all, at this stage, were the two Lotuses, clearly saving their slick tyres for later combat. The second Friday session brought sunshine and improving temperatures approaching 23C. In these more familiar track conditions the Red Bulls dominated proceedings with Vettel outpacing his team mate throughout most of the session. Ominously, Vettel did encounter a sudden deflation of a right rear tyre with Alonso also picked up a less publicised puncture. After all the tyre issues at Silverstone and the steps taken by Pirelli to revise compounds as well as introduce camber and tyre pressure restrictions, these two punctures were potentially worrying developments. In the event a piece of metal debris on the track was adjudged the cause.
The Saturday final free practice period saw Massa narrowly avoid a big meeting with the tight barriers at Turn 9 when on a hot lap. Fernando was again quick and posted an impressive 1.48.432 lap only to be pipped at the last minute by Vettel.
Throughout the set up periods, Mercedes struggled to generate consistent heat in all four tyres, Ferrari seemed unsure as to optimal down force levels and McLaren were even at odds as to the best rear wing to deploy. Alas the Red Bulls looked strong, straight out of the box, with none of these maladies seeming to impede their early progress at the meeting. Their only issue is deciding who will be in the second car in 2014. Despite speculation around Kimi transferring from Lotus, hot money still seems to be on Ricciardo.
Then came qualifying in the most challenging climatic conditions even the Spa weather fairies could dream up. The rain seemed to tipple down one minute and stop the next throughout each qualifying session. In Q1 Williams were first and second quickest towards the end of the session yet finished in the drop zone. Alonso thankfully managed the reverse of the Williams fortunes to top the time sheets. Q1 also claimed both Toro Rossos. Big names succumbing in Q2 were Perez and Hulkenberg. Then we were treated to probably one of the most entertaining Q3 sessions your writer can ever recall. With minutes to go before the start of the final qualifying session, the track appeared dry enough to lure the last ten combatants out on medium slicks. Only the canny Scot, Di Resta, thought otherwise, appearing with green ringed tyres to reveal his choice of intermediates.
As the cars made their way out on track, the rains came as if a switch had been flicked, and slicks became instantly redundant. With the exception of Paul’s Force India the rest filed straight back in to copy his strategy. PDR posted an immediate lap of 2.02.332 that might have proved unbeatable on a track that was getting wetter by the second. Massa pitted and was out in double quick time but could only get within 1.7 seconds of Di Resta. Vettel and Webber were slower still. It looked a done deal for Force India, in a potential pole position until the Ardennes micro climate intervened yet again. The rain stopped half way into the 10 minute session, with the track drying as fast it had moistened only minutes before. Rosberg was the first to find enough grip to displace the Scot, but by the time the chequered flag waved, pole would be awarded to whichever driver earlier crossed the line on the limit of the clock ticking down to zero. That driver just happened to be Hamilton who proceeded to post a time of 2.01.012. If Q3 had lasted even a further couple of minutes, the grid would have turned upside down again, as pole time was over 10 seconds slower than the fastest Q2 times. It didn’t and with both Ferraris posting their times a tad too early, 9th(Alonso) and 10th (Massa)was their scant reward.
Race day was dry throughout, and Ferrari fans could reasonably hope therefore that their two heroes might advance from their lowly grid positions when the race finally got going. They would not be disappointed. Fernando made one of his mesmeric starts to round and pass a slow starting Di Resta, then dive to the right on the run down to La Source to sneak round the first tight right hander on the inside. With the Lotuses and Webber’s Red Bull in line but running wider, the Ferrari sling shotted its way down to Eau Rouge, already up in 5th position. On lap 4 the hard charging Spaniard dispatched Button and was then chasing down Rosberg. In the DRS zone into Les Combes, Rosberg too succumbed to the Ferrari in an exciting overtake leaving it just behind race leader Vettel. Vettel too had made a good start and light work of steaming ahead of pole sitter Lewis on the opening lap.
All the front runners opted for a two stop race strategy with most pitting for new rubber around Laps 14 and 30 in the 44 lap race. Jenson was hoping to run the distance with one stop but tyre wear dictated in the event he too had to pit twice. Fernando maintained a steady 8 second gap to the leading Red Bull, but in the final stages dropped back finishing 17 seconds adrift. Felipe also made gains from his grid position finishing 7th.
Raikkonen was forced to retire with brakes that were barbecuing themselves even on the grid, thus bringing to an end an amazing reliability record for Lotus stretching back to Kimi’s return to F1. Di Resta’s luck ran out whilst in combat with a mix of cars at the final chicane, including his team mate and the Williams boys, in an incident later adjudged Maldonado’s fault. Pic also retired with an oil leak in the Caterham.
Ferrari finally returned to the podium at Spa after a three year absence. Fernando’s champagne might have tasted sweeter if the guy on the top step had not been his German nemesis who now leads the Championship by 46 points.
Click here for FIA lap chart.
Postscript: During the podium ceremony, a remote controlled protest banner was raised by Greenpeace supporters directly in front of the participants, accompanied by a large banner on the grandstands. Greenpeace posted it on YouTube, and it was then removed. Please click here to see that video.
Stefano Domenicali: “After qualifying hadn’t really given a true picture of the hierarchy down pit lane, today’s result showed just how competitive is our car. This second place wasn’t easy to come by and follows on from a difficult month and comes after plenty of speculation, which we prefer to reply to with results on track. Certainly this result alone is not enough, because we cannot claim to be satisfied until we manage to reduce the gap to Red Bull and be able to fight for first place”.
Fernando Alonso: “Today’s result shows that the outcome of qualifying bears little relation to the result on Sunday, although I think that even if I’d started from pole I would still have finished second, because Vettel was quicker. At the start we immediately made up some places and all in a rush, first passing Button, then Rosberg and Hamilton, so I found myself six seconds behind Vettel, but if one looks at the final gap of 16 seconds, we can but congratulate him and his team. The car worked well in all conditions, with a full fuel load at first and then with a lighter one at the end and, on top of that, the extra speed we had on the straight meant I could overtake without taking too many laps to do so”.
Felipe Massa: “That was a difficult race for me right from the early stages, because after managing a good passing move at the start, I then had to slow and drop back four or five places, to avoid a collision with Grosjean at the exit of the first corner. From then on, things got complicated because for a few laps I had a problem on the steering wheel linked to the KERS operation and I wasn’t able to communicate well with the team. When everything was back to normal again, it wasn’t easy to catch up, because even if the decision to bring forward the first pit stop allowed me to get past several cars, the pace wasn’t good”.