Thursday, 27 August 2015

#F1 in Spa

Apologies for being a little late with a post about Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps – and also for having missed writing about the last couple of races altogether.

Spa is a classic circuit, and always a favourite with the fans.  Sadly, this probably means its days are numbered – like Monza's, Hockenheim's, etc. – so it can make way for another brand new sterile complex in the middle of nowhere in a country where no one's heard of Formula 1.  (But that's a rant for another time…)

Lewis Hamilton, as he has been practically all of this season, was sublime in Belgium.  He has his third World Championship all but in the bag already – it will take an extraordinary set of circumstances now for him not to win it again this year.  Teammate Nico Rosberg, by comparison, is lacking in confidence and doesn't truly believe he can compete with Hamilton on an equal footing.  We are seeing this especially at race starts – the Mercedes is not the quickest car off the line, but Rosberg's starting in the past few Grands Prix has been abysmal.  In Belgium, he slipped from a front row grid slot down to about fifth, being overtaken by several slower cars behind him.

I think the only thing that will 'save' Rosberg now, if he ever wants to be a World Champion, is to change teams.  If he stays at Mercedes, and continues to partner Hamilton, he will always feel outclassed – and so, he will always be outclassed.

Another team where is noticeably better than the other is Lotus, who had their best race for quite some time at Spa.  Following a dismal 2014, their car this year has been quite a lot better, but they haven't really been able to recapture the form they showed in 2012 and 2013, when Kimi Räikkönen and Romain Grosjean were both podium regulars.  Grosjean's inspired drive in Belgium was his and the team's best result, and first podium finish, since the USA Grand Prix in Austin in 2013 and it was good to see him back on the podium after all this time, beaming from ear to ear and enjoying to the full a thoroughly well-deserved third place.

I have long considered Grosjean to be a very talented driver, and always felt he would 'come good' even during his troubled period when most dismissed him as a 'first lap nutcase' (in the words of Mark Webber, who was then driving for Red Bull – when the chip on his shoulder didn't slow him down too much).  But, as I have said before, Lotus are continually suffering from only having one driver who seems able to compete for points on a regular basis.

It remains a source of confusion for me that, of the two Lotus drivers, Pastor Maldonado is the one who is already a race winner, not Grosjean.  But that one win of Maldonado's, from his time with the Williams team, is something of an anomaly compared to the rest of his record in F1.  It's not that Maldonado is without talent – he certainly has his moments, and can be a very quick driver – but his 'moments' are few and far between, and he is far too inconsistent a driver to be of much worth to the Lotus team.  Grosjean has scored 38 points so far this season – more than three times Maldonado's current tally of 12 – and has only retired three times this season, compared to Maldonado's seven retirements.

Grosjean's third place last weekend allowed Lotus to climb to fifth in the Constructors' table, one point above mid-grid rivals Force India – but they're not going to stay there.  Force India have, in Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Pérez, two drivers capable of scoring points regularly; Lotus are relying on one driver to bring home the lion's share of their points, and this is going to end up hurting them in their battle to come out on top of a tightly-packed, highly competitive midfield.

The other issue which dominated the Belgian Grand Prix was tyre failures.  Nico Rosberg's Qualifying (and possibly his confidence for the race the next day, as well) was ruined by a tyre failure, and Sebastian Vettel's dramatic tyre explosion only a couple of laps before the end, as he fought with Grosjean's Lotus for third place, was a big talking point immediately after the race.  The two schools of thought are as follows…

Some people are saying that Ferrari were running the tyre right on its limit by trying to do a one-stop race, and that it was dangerous for them not to bring their driver in and change the tyres instead of letting him drive around on tyres already so old and worn – and also that Vettel was consistently running wide over the kerbs at Eau Rouge in his efforts to keep Grosjean (who was considerable quicker, and on newer tyres) behind him in the final few laps of the race.

On the other hand, Vettel's post-race interview showed him being absolutely livid with Pirelli for the tyre bursting – he said the company keeps making excuses for tyres failing (it was debris, there was a cut, you went wide, etc.), and that these things are to be expected during a Grand Prix race and so Pirelli should make tyres able to cope with them.

Personally, I can see both sides of the coin here.  I think Vettel is right in that the margin of error in the tyres' durability should not be so fine that a single piece of debris, or an adventure on the kerbs, is enough to cause a potentially extremely dangerous accident.  But then, I have long been a vocal and exasperated critic of the disastrous experiment with 'high degradation' Pirelli tyres!  I also think, however, that Vettel claiming (as he did in his interview) that he wasn't running wide, when we clearly saw him on TV doing exactly that several laps in a row, is laughable.

The application of the 'track limits' rule is so sloppy and inconsistent I, frankly, wonder why they bother to have it at all.  The rule refers to 'gaining an advantage' by driving outside the stated limits of the racetrack; if the guy behind you is quicker, and braking later for the corners than you are (as was the case as Grosjean hunted Vettel down in the last part of last weekend's Grand Prix), and you're consistently cutting a corner in order to keep yourself ahead of him (as Vettel did at Eau Rouge), there's no way anybody can say you haven't 'gained an advantage' by doing so!  It is 'an advantage' to stay in third instead of slipping to fourth place – and Vettel should have been punished by the stewards for going outside the track limits in order to keep from losing the place to Grosjean.

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