Issue 29: Belgian Grand Prix Review

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26 August 2014

Race Summary: Daniel Ricciardo won an unlikely victory at Spa-Francorchamps as the Mercedes drivers collided on Lap 2, which effectively ended Lewis Hamilton’s race and severely hampered Nico’s Rosberg’s chances of a win. Rosberg finished second with Valtteri Bottas’ Williams coming third. Kimi Raikkonen put in a much-improved performance to claim fourth ahead of Sebastian Vettel.

It’s open civil war at Mercedes!

Mercedes are under severe strain, if not self-destructing. It was obvious from the immediate post-race fallout that the trust between Hamilton and Rosberg to race hard but fair has evaporated. More significantly, it was evident that the Mercedes management has lost control of its drivers. Talk of punishment and repercussions for Rosberg ring hollow, frankly. What can Mercedes actually do to ensure that their drivers follow any instructions from the team and don’t crash into each other? There’s a world championship on the line. Threats of fines or points on licences will not bring these drivers into line. As I see it, the only sanction Mercedes has this season is to threaten a driver with a race suspension. That would be dramatic though. And it would hand the title to the other driver.

Mercedes have brought this situation on themselves. They employed two of the best drivers in F1, built a vastly superior car that embraced energy recovery technology, but then failed to bring their drivers back in line earlier in the season. Mercedes enjoy a technical advantage beyond anything that Red Bull achieved in recent seasons, however, the German marque’s championship-winning season does not have the same clinically precision that Red Bull managed in 2011, for example. Things could have been different this season, however. If Mercedes had found a way to keep Ross Brawn at the end of 2013 he would probably have managed to minimise some of the operational errors and driver management failures that have hindered Mercedes. That said, I’m reluctant to stick the boot in to Mercedes too hard. To their credit, they have let their drivers race. Additionally, they stand practically on their own among the world’s car manufacturers when it comes to automotive heritage. And they give the impression that they care deeply about their history. These are qualities to admire.

Much has already been written about that incident at Les Combes on Lap 2. The collision was entirely unnecessary in my view and more importantly, it cost us the fans a classic battle for the lead with consequences for the world championship. The cause of the incident was undoubtedly poor driving on the part of Nico Rosberg. Hamilton had won the corner squarely; he was well within his rights to take the racing line and Rosberg had no business keeping his nose in the fight to ‘make a point’. However, what I find interesting is how the incident has been portrayed and analysed by pundits and fans on social media. The discussion of the incident reveals so many biases – hidden or overt. For example, some critics of Hamilton have almost grudgingly had to accept that Rosberg was at fault and have been keen to claim that ‘it was a racing incident’. They also point to similiar ‘wild moves’ made by Hamilton earlier this season. Actually, this reasoning conveniently forgets – or ignores – the fact that when Hamilton has collided with other drivers this season, there was a realistic overtake on and critically, any collisions he made did not cost his team an almost-certain 1-2 finish as Rosberg’s did. The move at Les Combes wasn’t just careless driving, it undeniably cost Mercedes an easy victory.

There is surely now a high-pressure environment within Mercedes. Luckily for F1 and its fans, in such an explosive situation there will undoubtedly be further twists and turns as this season plays out. Errors of judgment and technical failures are more likely under such pressure and further contact on the track is probable given such fierce competition.

2014 is not over yet by a long shot.

Williams out-strategised by Red Bull

Aside from Mercedes, there was in fact a decent Grand Prix at Spa last weekend. Red Bull cunningly took significant downforce off their car (I was amazed at the very skinny rear wing they ran on both cars), sacrificing speed in Sector 2 for a quick car in Sectors 1 and 3. It worked. The ever-impressive Daniel Ricciardo picked up the pieces when the Mercedes tripped over. In fact, I thought his very accomplished drive contrasted strongly with the rather scrappy efforts of his team-mate. Vettel made two driving errors in the early laps, the second of which allowed Ricciardo to easily pass him. Nevertheless, both Red Bull drivers made effective use of their Energy Recovery System to compete with the Williams of Bottas. Spa was made for the Williams FW36, but the team under-delivered again. Sure, the wet qualifying session did not help their cause, but so much more was expected from the Grove team. In Issue 27, I asked whether Williams could claim runner-up in the constructors’ title. I think we have the answer.

As for Ferrari and McLaren, I still have to blink when I see these two legendary teams scrapping for minor points. They gave us a thrilling battle in the closing laps, but where did it all go so wrong? That said, Ferrari performed better than I expected, albeit they were still painfully slow down the straights, which doesn’t bode well for their home race in two weeks’ time. Alonso was compromised by an operational error on Ferrari’s part at the start, but the under-pressure Raikkonen delivered. At Spa, the Finn showed he has not lost his speed.

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