The Formula 1 circus returned after a near month’s ‘summer break’ and pitched tent at the sport’s most iconic circuit – Spa Francorchamps, the host venue for the 2016 Belgian Grand Prix. It was at this very venue 25 years ago (in 1991) that a legend named Michael Schumacher made his Formula 1 debut for Jordan and took the Paddock by surprise by qualifying 7th and ahead of his much-experienced teammate, most crucially.
Post-race, his efforts gained even more importance after it was known that the young German had never raced ever at this challenging circuit – one known to separate the ‘men from the boys’. It was a year later, in 1992, when Schumacher claimed his first ever Formula 1 victory, before going on to win another 90 to become the sport’s most successful driver.
Come 2016, it was the turn of Schumacher’s last teammate in the sport and the current Drivers’ Championship challenger, Nico Rosberg, turn to claim his first ever win at Spa. Surprisingly, it has taken Rosberg almost a decade since his debut (in 2006) to win here. But to be fair, his chance to win came only 2014 onwards – after Mercedes produced a race-winning car. Before you judge Rosberg on this statistic, it would be prudent for us to share that in 12 attempts, double World Champion Fernando Alonso is yet to win here. Maybe that is the challenge of Spa.
This was Rosberg’s 20th career win – equaling his total number of wins with Formula 1 greats like Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, both being former World Champions, with Hakkinen claiming the Drivers’ crown twice. But despite this record, one wonders if Rosberg has succeeded in creating a similar aura around him as the two legendary Finns. Is this due to his inability to win eithrt of the last two Drivers’ Championships fought against teammate Lewis Hamilton? If yes, then let’s hope he can claim the much-coveted title in 2016.
Lewis Hamilton’s start to the weekend wasn’t ideal. He had to incur a pre-race penalty of 55 grid slots for changing parts of his Mercedes power unit – a penalty that was publicly known since many months that he would have to incur at some point. Mercedes and Hamilton could’ve chosen which race on the calendar to take the penalty at and they were smart in choosing Spa. The Belgian Grand Prix, though only 44 laps long, is one of the few circuits with a high chance of a Safety Car period (as high as 80 percent claimed by McLaren in their race preview). This is primarily due to the high-speed nature of the circuit.
The penalty meant that even if Hamilton clinched pole-position, he would start the race from the back of the grid, unless someone incurred a higher penalty than him – and strangely enough, his former teammate and current Mclaren-Honda driver Fernando Alonso did. Keeping this in mind, Mercedes and Hamilton decided not to risk their chance in qualifying, a decision that made sense and allowed Rosberg to clinch the expected pole position on Saturday.
Starting from P21, Hamilton managed to find his way to the podium and limit the points damage to his Drivers’ championship tally. Although certain parts of the media drummed up Hamilton’s challenge, it must be known that reigning World Champion benefited immensely from the expected Safety Car period (due to Kevin Magnussen’s high speed crash) and the eventual Red Flag that neutralized Rosberg’s race advantage to nil. The first lap-first corner damage to the two Ferraris and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing car too worked in Hamilton’s favour.
While pre-race coverage indicated that Mercedes and Hamilton probably wondered if Spa was the correct track to take the penalty, we’re sure the team and driver knew that their chances of finishing closer to or on the podium were probably higher here than anywhere else on the calendar. They wouldn’t just jeopardise Hamilton’s championship challenge to chance.
Kevin Magnussen’s high-speed crash at the top of the hill and the exit of Eau Rouge was scary, but a testimony again to FIA’s relentless pursuit of safety as the driver walked away from the crash but with a small cut to his ankle. The one area that the FIA would’ve already commenced work on is the ‘driver head rest’ which flew off due to impact – one that many experts believe isn’t by design. As for Magnussen, let’s hope he’s ready in time for Monza (this weekend), else Renault might have to call upon their reserve Esteban Ocon, who debut for Manor in Spa. And if Ocon does drive for Renault, Manor might be forced to recall their recent discard – Indonesian driver Rio Haryanto.
The one team that deserves the loudest applauds for their performance in Spa is Force India. The Indian-owned team managed to finish fourth (Nico Hulkenberg) and fifth ( Sergio Perez) – their season best. This performance propelled the team to fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship, a point ahead of the legendary Williams F1 Team. If the team does manage to hold position and finish the season in fourth, it’ll be their best-ever Championship performance and a much-needed boost in prize money for 2017.
Max Verstappen, the Belgian born Dutch racing prodigy, is turning out to be Formula 1’s new trump card to attract crowds at racing events. The Belgian Grand Prix stands saw the ‘Orange Army’ in full attendance to cheer their lad who delivered a stunning performance to clinch P2 in qualifying – ahead of his teammate Daniel Ricciardo (who eventually finished the race in P2). However, his race driving, mainly defense against Kimi Raikkonen, was discussed much by a few drivers and experts for moving at the very last second in the braking area – an act that usually leads to avoidable accidents. While we’re split in our view, we wonder who will have a chat with young Verstappen first – the FIA Stewards or a disgruntled driver?
And before we look forward to Monza this weekend, Alonso’s P7 finish - ahead of both Williams and a Ferrari deserve some notice too. The McLaren-Honda partnership is still struggling to compete at the sharper end of the grid, but such race performances will cheer them up to hopefully deliver better. As for Ferrari, their Belgian GP chances were destroyed after a Vettel-Raikkonen-Verstappen sandwich at the La Source hairpin saw all three cars pick up damage that needed in-race attention. Let’s hope that they’re able to revive in Monza (although seems impossible!) and deliver a result that’ll cheer up the Scuderia.