Hamilton too quick for Vettel at Spa as title rivals finish 1-2; Ricciardo an opportunistic 3rd
Mercedes ace Lewis Hamilton returned from the summer break refreshed and ready to fight for his fourth World Championship. Needing to recapture momentum that had recently swung to his nemesis at Ferrari, points leader Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton threw down the gauntlet with a dominant performance at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the Ardennes forest, the first of two back-to-back European classics that kick off the business end of the championship. Starting from his record-tying 68th pole position, a time that also set the track record, Hamilton kept his lead when the lights went out on Sunday and managed to hold off a hard charging Vettel in the opening laps and pull out a DRS-proof lead on the Ferrari. And when the race got bunched up again for a restart after a Safety Car period later Hamilton kept his cool and managed the trick again despite Vettel being on softer, grippier tires. Perhaps Hamilton benefited from the aero disruption in close quarters of this year’s high downforce configuration chassis that seems to somewhat negate tire advantages between otherwise equally matched cars. And in the end Hamilton romped to victory in his 200th Grand Prix, his 3rd career win at Spa and the Englishman’s 58th victory overall. That cut Vettel’s championship lead back down to a mere 7 points. As the two team leaders head into Monza next weekend, which should be a frenzied sea of Ferrari red, it is clear that there is virtually nothing to choose between the Prancing Horses and the Silver Arrows. The key difference maker going forward will be the pilots. And with Hamilton and Vettel proving themselves superior to their teammates it is all but certain one of these superlative drivers will be the champion at season’s end.
Another standout at Spa was Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who once again showed why he is likely the most opportunistic F1 driver in the paddock. Despite the RB13s lack of pure pace at this very fast and long circuit the Aussie took advantage of the post-Safety Car restart on Lap 34 to jump the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and hold off the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen with a lovely, gutsy pass up the Kemmel Straight. So despite running quietly in P5 for the entirety of the first two thirds of the race Ricciardo’s brave move saw him vault up into a podium spot. He made it stick and kept his pursuers behind for the rest of the race earning that ever-valuable last step on the podium with a sparkling P3 finish. That makes six podium finishes this year for Ricciardo — including that serendipitous win at Baku — who has displayed the kind of luck in the reliability department his teammate, Max Verstappen, has sorely lacked. Verstappen’s Red Bull mount once again betrayed him, this time on Lap 8 and in front of a huge throng of orange-clad fans from nearby Holland. The Dutch wunderkind has now failed to finish an astonishing 50% of the contests so far in 2017. Will he be looking for the exits and a more reliable ride for next year? Couldn’t blame him if he is.
Ricciardo’s ballsy pass meant Kimi Raikkonen had to settle for P4. But in truth the Iceman probably felt relieved by that result after having incurred an 10-second stop & hold penalty for failing to lift for the yellow flag brought out by Vertappen’s stalled Red Bull. Continue reading →
Mercedes’ Hamilton earns record-tying pole at Spa, Vettel P2 for Ferrari pipping Bottas
Formula 1’s long summer break is over and Mercedes ace Lewis Hamilton returned to action in style earning the pole at venerable Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium with a new track record for the current layout of 1:42.553. That impressive pole position also tied him with the great Michael Schumacher for most all time in F1 with 68. All in all it was perfect way for Hamilton to kick off his second half efforts in the quest for his fourth World Championship. As the season enters its pivotal final phase beginning with the two European classics at Spa and then Monza next weekend, the English contender will look to impose his will from the front of the field come race day in the unpredictable Ardennes.
It was not quite as perfect a day for Hamilton’s Mercedes team, however, as it was for the man himself. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the current points leader, put in a tremendous effort on his final Q3 lap to overhaul the other Silver Arrow of Valtteri Bottas, wrestling P2 from the Finn. That should make for an extremely interesting start when the lights go out tomorrow with Hamilton & Vettel now side by side at the front of the grid. And with his P3 starting position Bottas finds himself next to Vettel’s Ferrari teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, who muffed his final lap after complaining of vibration all session long but still had a time quick enough for P4. With no love lost between the two Finnish countrymen on the second row or between Hamilton & Vettel at the front watch for potential opening lap Mercedes-Ferrari fireworks as this quartet flies into Eau Rouge.
Best of the rest in quali were Red Bull’s dynamic duo of Dutch wunderkind Max Verstappen and Aussie veteran Daniel Ricciardo, who clocked in at P5 and P6 respectively. Nico Hulkenberg led an impressive qualifying result for Renault with a very solid P7 time and even though teammate Jolyen Palmer suffered gearbox failure early in Q3 he’ll still start from P10. So it ws a good day for the improving factory Renault program. Force India did their usual yeoman’s work even though they were down on downforce with Sergio Perez qualifying in P8 and Esteban Ocon in P9.
Tomorrow’s race airs live starting at 7:30 Eastern on NBCSN here in the States. Can Hamilton use the momentum of this record-setting pole to get back to his winning ways on the grand old Spa circuit? Or will Vettel spoil those best laid plans and extend his lead in the points? Hope to see you the to find out!
The first race back from the summer break was marked by clashes, shunts and remarkable performances in Belgium. Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg had a flawless drive from pole, making a speedy getaway, getting the most out of his tires for long stints and leaving the drama in the rest of the field far behind. In the end it led to a dominant victory at the historic Spa-Francorchamps track on Sunday. But while Rosberg was untouchable in the win he still must have been slightly unnerved seeing his teammate and archival Lewis Hamilton charge through the field and astonishingly come home P3. Hamilton started from the back of the grid after the team made multiple strategic engine changes and somehow willed his way to the podium, limiting Rosberg’s gains on the day. If there was a thought bubble above Rosberg’s head as he looked at Hamilton during the podium ceremonies it probably read: “What the hell are you doing up here?” For surely in his heart of hearts the German contender was expecting — and hoping — that Hamilton would finish out of the points completely and that he, Rosberg, would re-take the championship lead. Instead, despite his perfect day in the Ardennes, Hamilton’s scrappy effort insured that Rosberg remained behind him by 9 points as the two head into next weekend’s tussle at Monza, where they will once again be fighting on even terms. As has been said more than once before, if you want some serious passing done in Formula 1 better call Lewis Hamilton. And if you want to beat Hamilton in the championship you better keep him out of the points on those rare days when all the cards seem to be stacked against him.
All due credit to the English defending champion but Hamilton was also helped by a lengthy Red Flag period that bunched up the field and neutralized a lot of potential tire strategy with free changes available in the pits (as an aside, it is truly a ridiculous rule that tires can be changed in the pits during Red Flag periods in F1 — absolutely incomprehensible for race that has been “frozen”). The stoppage came when Ranault’s Kevin Magnussen suffered a prototypical Spa crash on Lap 7 when he lost control at high speed coming to the top of the big uphill sweeping left-hander Eau Rouge and smashed into the tire barriers. Though it looked nasty, Magnusson suffered only a minor ankle injury and was able to limp away with help from the medical crew. But the tire wall he speared into was badly damaged by the fierce impact and required 17 minutes worth of significant repairs. It capped a hectic opening stanza to the race featuring multiple collisions and retirements but after the Red Flag period the contest would settle down somewhat.
The Grand Prix got off to that contentious start when Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull’s wunderkind Max Verstappen all came together trying to squeeze through Turn 1, damaging all of their cars to some degree in the process. But the Red Flag period also wound up helping that combative trio when they were able to recover valuable track position after time-consuming repairs to front wings and under trays that should have destroyed all their races. While the two Ferraris got quickly back up to speed, Verstappen could never seem to recover his poise after that early incident where he felt hard done by. And while he diced and made life difficult for both Prancing Horses to the point of dangerous blocking maneuvers, they were able to overtake him eventually and score at least some points to salvage what had looked to be a dismal day in Belgium for the Scuderia. In the end, Vettel finished P6 and Raikkonen came home P9, which is something but maybe not enough to forestall major shakeups at Maranello. Verstappen, meanwhile, finished out of the points in P11 and with his erratic performance in front of huge crowd boosted by many of his enthusiastic Dutch countrymen (he also claims Belgian heritage) it seemed like the sheer moment of the occasion got to him. On days like yesterday it’s worth remembering that while Verstappen shows all the signs of being a super talented prodigy he is still just 18-years-old. At the intense Spa circuit and under the weight of so much expectation that lack of maturity seemed to cost him.
But all was not lost for resurgent Red Bull, as their senior driver Daniel Ricciardo drove a beautiful race, keeping his nose clean and maximizing his car’s greatly improved pace to come home P2 after starting from 5th on the grid. The Aussie was all smiles after the race and his ebullient spirit seems to have reemerged in full after a bit of a down period post-Monaco, where his team fumbled away what appeared to be a certain victory. The fact that Red Bull are now 22 points up on Ferrari for second in the Constructors’ standings and that it was also his third podium in a row couldn’t be hurting Ricciardo’s mood either. Also all smiles were the Force India duo of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez, who came home P4 and P5 respectively. While Hulkenberg may have been slightly disappointed that he couldn’t score his first career podium in F1, The Little Team That Could saw their drivers’ excellent efforts vault them ahead of mighty Williams for 4th in the incredibly lucrative Constructors’ standings.
And speaking of bettering Team Williams, Fernando Alonso did just that in his at long last improving McLaren, besting a game Valtteri Bottas P7 to P8. It was fine finish for the Spaniard, who also started at the back of the pack due to penalties, and the McLaren team as a whole. One has to wonder what might have been had Jenson Button, starting from P9 on the grid, not been punted out of the race early on by Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein. Bottas’ teammate Felipe Massa took the last points paying position with P10 but all in all it was forgettable weekend for Williams, where their chassis’ continued lack of downforce proved too big a challenge to overcome at this long, fast but also twisty all-time great circuit.
The next race is but a week away and it’s at yet another historical European track — the very fast, very storied Monza Autodromo in Italy. It’s Ferrari’s home circuit but the fight for victory should end up being between the evenly matched Silver Arrows of Hamilton and Rosberg. With only eight more contests to go each race becomes more and more important in determining 2016’s champion and every little twist and turn takes on added significance — hope to see you then!
Rosberg starts second half action with pole at Spa; Red Bull’s Verstappen P2 & Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen P3; Hamilton faces raft of engine penalties, will start last
The summer break is over and the F1 circus is back in action at the historic Spa-Francorchamps track in Belgium. And with unseasonably warm temperatures and no signs of the infamous Ardennes rains to be found in Saturday’s qualifying session, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg made the most of the unusually good conditions — as well as his teammate and archival Lewis Hamilton’s absence — to score the pole for Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix. It was just the psychological lift that Rosberg needed upon returning from the hiatus after having been overhauled for the points lead by Hamilton. In truth, Hamilton earned his top position by winning 6 of the last 7 contests prior to the break while Rosberg had a string of self-inflicted misfortunes that cost him valuable points and positions during that time. He despartaely needs to make the most of Hamilton’s penalties this weekend, go out and win this race and perhaps regain the overall lead if Hamilton cannot recover from his back-of-the-pack start to score meaningful points.
Hamilton finds himself in that predicament because he elected to take multiple engine-change penalties for this race and so he didn’t run at all in qualifying, as he was guaranteed to be starting from either the back for the grid or the pit lane after all those penalty points were racked up no matter what he might have done on the track. So Mercedes were in essence writing off the Belgian GP for Hamilton while insuring that he would likely not face any penalties for the rest of the season, having run multiple engines in the 3 Practice sessions to inoculate them from the dreaded “new” label going forward. It should be interesting to see if the pugnacious Englishman is able to fight his way through the field and grab at least some points out of the contest or if he is sanguine enough to simply concede this race and the attendant points to Rosberg, save his car and come back strong next week at Monza. My money’s on Hamilton charging his way through and at least getting into the Top 10. I don’t think he knows how to do anything else but compete even when the odds are stacked against him and in the end he is the fastest guy driving the fastest car out there.
With Hamilton not participating that opened up grid spots for other drivers. Red Bull’s wunderkind Max Verstappen, who seems to have been responsible for a major uptick in ticket sales due to his Dutch-Belgian heritage, capitalized to grab P2 for the race tomorrow, besting his teammate Daniel Ricciardo’s P5. Likewise, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen continued his solid form since being re-signed by the Scuderia, qualifying P3 to teammate Sebastian Vettel’s P4. Sergio Perez had a lap good enough for P6 and his teammate Nico Hulkenberg qualified P7. The Williams of Vatteri Bottas and Felipe Massa were P8 and P10 respectively and Jenson Button will start P9 for McLaren, a much needed lift for the team after Fernando Alonso could not finish a lap in Q1 when his engine died early in the session.
Tomorrow’s race airs live beginning at 7:30 Eastern on NBC Sports here in the States. Can we really have three warm, dry days in the Ardennes? I wouldn’t bet on it and wouldn’t that put the cat amongst the pigeons with everyone married to a dry set up…