At the risk of premature eulogising, Vettel and Red Bull’s clean sweep at the Belgian Grand Prix is the nail in the coffin of other drivers’ and constructors’ challenge in this season’s title race. OSIAME MOLEFE delivers the last rites as he looks back at the weekend’s race.
The challengers to Sebastian Vettel’s crown as Formula One drivers’ world champion arrived at Spa feeling pretty chipper. Vettel hadn’t won in three races and during the weekend press conferences, he and Red Bull Racing sounded like they were more interested in conserving their lead rather than winning outright.
Fernando Alonso said Ferrari would take more chances as, unlike Red Bull, they had nothing to lose. And this weekend’s odds-on favourite, Lewis Hamilton, was full of beans on the back of strong performances from his McLaren in the previous races, despite the team’s suspect race strategy.
But when the carbon fibre shards settled on Sunday afternoon, Vettel had extended his lead in the drivers’ championship to 92 points and ended his winless streak with victory at an incident-filled race. He led home his teammate, Mark Webber, to give Red Bull maximum points and end, surely, any hopes their rivals had of taking the top spots in this year’s championship.
As usual at Spa, the weather was a factor the entire weekend. Friday and Saturday practices were rained out, and qualifying happened on a wet-but-drying track. Vettel kept his head in the tricky conditions and secured his ninth pole position (out of 12 races) ahead of Hamilton and Webber.
The Pirelli rubber was as big a story as the rain. Some of the teams who qualified in the top ten, particularly Red Bull, pleaded with the FIA to allow them to change the tyres, which had blistered badly by the end of the session. The FIA refused, forcing the teams to start their cars on suspect tyres.
When the lights went out on Sunday, some drivers may have still been in holiday mode. Mark Webber bogged down badly, forcing his rivals to take evasive action around him. And as the drivers headed into the first corner at the La Source hairpin, Bruno Senna, racing for the first time since last season, clattered into Jaime Alguesauri and caused a chain reaction that damaged a few cars, including Jensen Button’s.
Nico Rosberg took the early lead, but began to fall back as the race settled down. Red Bull’s tyre problems became apparent when Webber pitted in the fourth lap and Vettel in the fifth. But after the stop, the pair seemed to manage their tyres better and Vettel used the safety car period (caused by Kamui Kobayashi crashing into and taking out Hamilton at the turn into Les Combes) to steal a pitstop.
Vettel passed his teammate and took the lead from Alonso after the safety car period, and never looked under any threat for the victory after that. Alonso’s early pace deserted him once he was on the medium compound Pirellis and eventually finished fourth. Button, who’d been making rapid progress through the field, put in what was arguably the drive of the day to finish third after failing to make the top ten shoot-out during qualifying.
The other drive of the day came from Michael Schumacher, who, having crashed after losing a left rear tyre during first qualifying, turned back the years to race from last to secure fifth place ahead of his younger teammate Nico Rosberg.
It may not have been a classic Belgian grand prix of endless laps of wheel-to-wheel racing, but it was enjoyable. The long DRS activation zone unfortunately made overtaking too easy, and will again draw criticism from purists who have been calling it nothing more than a gimmick.
The one-two finish puts Red Bull 131 points ahead of second placed McLaren and 195 ahead of third placed Ferrari.
Vettel has notched up seven victories this season and has not finished lower than third. Only a brave or foolish man would bet against him now. But F1 drivers, like airline pilots estimating arrival times, are known for their optimism. All four of Vettel’s rivals – Webber, Alonso, Button and Hamilton – are still in with a mathematical chance, which should be enough to motivate them to keep Vettel honest. Well, at least for a few races more. DM
Photo: Red Bull Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany races during the Belgian F1 Grand Prix in Spa-Francorchamps, August 28, 2011. REUTERS/Thierry Roge
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