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Tag Archive | Belgium

Reckless Romain

At the start of Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, Romain Grosjean veered sharply to the right-hand side of the track, pushing Lewis Hamilton onto the grass and triggering an accident that saw Grosjean’s Lotus launch over the back of Sergio Perez’s Sauber and very nearly connect with Fernando Alonso’s head. The stewards handed Grosjean a one-race ban and a hefty fine, which he accepted without argument.

From a spectator point of view, the incident was terrifying. It looked at first glance as though Alonso had taken a blow to the helmet, which would almost certainly have been fatal. Fortunately, that was not the case and everyone walked away from the crash apparently uninjured. But the crash highlighted the dangers involved in single-seater racing, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of irresponsible driving.

The greatest safety risk in open-cockpit racing is the driver’s head, as it is exposed and therefore vulnerable to direct impact. In 2009, Felipe Massa suffered a near-fatal accident in which a spring from another car hit his helmet. Massa was in critical condition for some time and spent the second half of the season recovering before returning to Formula One in 2010. Also in 2009, Henry Surtees was killed in a Formula Two race when a wheel from another crashed car hit him on the head.

Considering the dangers involved, a certain amount of caution is required from drivers. Races are not generally won and lost in the first corner (except perhaps at Monaco, as David Coulthard pointed out during his BBC commentary on Sunday), and so it is fairly obvious that surviving the start should be a priority to any driver.

Grosjean’s aggressive move across the track was anything but cautious. It was also unnecessary. A more gradual move across the track would have given Hamilton more time to react, and Grosjean could have made the corner in a good position. In Grosjean’s defense, it must be admitted that the drivers have limited peripheral vision, due to high cockpit sides that assist in driver head and neck protection. He claimed that he thought he was already completely past Hamilton. He was not, but perhaps he could not see that. In any event, if he thought he was that far ahead, then why the aggressive move?

Considering the potentially disastrous consequences of his on-track conduct, Grosjean’s one-race ban is certainly appropriate. There are also likely to be consequences within the team, as he caused an enormous amount of costly damage to the car and is now unable to race at the next round, which will affect his team’s efforts in the Constructors’ Championship.

Grosjean will now have some time on the sidelines to reflect on the incident. He has an opportunity to show his maturity by returning to the grid in Singapore more composed and controlled. In any event, he will certainly be sorry to be sitting out the next race at Monza. No racing driver likes to watch his car get raced by someone else.

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Brilliant Button triumphs in Belgium

Until last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, Jenson Button had never started on pole for McLaren. He made up for that by lapping Spa-Francorchamps three tenths faster than anyone else in qualifying on Saturday, setting up the ideal start to Sunday’s race.

In the race, Button was untouchable, disappearing into a comfortable lead in the first few laps as all hell broke loose behind him in a massive first corner crash, and controlling his pace thereafter. He led every lap of the race, the first time that has been done this season, and took a thoroughly-deserved second win of 2012 to put himself back in contention for the title.

Button’s performance was masterful, reminiscent of the early part of 2009 where he was easily faster than the rest of the field. The difference is that this year’s McLaren is not nearly as dominant as the Brawn car was in 2009. Button has developed massively as a driver since winning the World Championship, and yesterday’s win was a demonstration that he is right up there with the best in Formula One at the moment.

Carnage in the first corner © Ferrari SPA

If Button was impressive, Romain Grosjean was precisely the opposite. After appearing to be a little hot-headed at the start of the season, the Frenchman seemed to have calmed down a bit recently and was beginning to get on with the job of finishing races. At Spa, however, his rash streak made an unwelcome comeback as he pushed Lewis Hamilton onto the grass on the way to the first corner. That started a chain-reaction that resulted in Grosjean spinning through the air over the back of Sergio Perez’s Sauber and perilously close to Fernando Alonso’s head. Miraculously, no-one was injured, but it was a stark reminder of the dangers involved in open-cockpit racing.

The first corner accident took Grosjean, Hamilton, Alonso and Perez out of the race, and shook up the order behind Button quite significantly. Raikkonen had escaped the drama and was running second. Behind him, the Force India pair of Hulkenberg and Di Resta found themselves third and fourth, followed by the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher in a surprising fifth from 13th on the grid.

By the end of the race, the order had settled a bit, and Button led home Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Nico Hulkenberg finished an impressive fourth, with team-mate Paul Di Resta tenth to complete a double points finish for Force India. Felipe Massa took a credible fifth place, followed by Mark Webber who was lacking straight-line speed and struggling to overtake as a result. Michael Schumacher had looked set for a top-four finish until high tyre degradation forced him to pit and he subsequently lost sixth gear. He nursed the car home in seventh, ahead of the Toro Rosso pair of Vergne and Ricciardo, who game their team a much needed double helping of points.

The first corner incident is likely to result in some discussion about head protection in Formula One cars, and talk of closed cockpits is already beginning to resurface. Perhaps of more concern is the lack of peripheral vision afforded to the drivers by the current high cockpit sides. Although the design greatly assists in protecting the driver from harm, it also greats a very large blind spot alongside the car. Solving that problem while maintaining safety is a great challenge for the rule-makers of Formula One.

The championship has opened up quite a bit after Spa, as Button won with Alonso and Hamilton not scoring. Vettel’s second place finish pushes him up to second in the table, within a race victory of Alonso. Kimi Raikkonen’s consistency has paid off, as he is now just 33 points off the championship lead. With eight races left in the season and the cars as closely matched as they are, the title fight is far from over.

Pic tops FP2 at Spa

Rain can play havoc with the time-sheets, and today was no exception. Free Practice 2 was so wet that only 10 drivers set laptimes, and all of those laps were finished after the chequered flag fell. When the spray settled, Marussia’s Charles Pic emerged quickest.

Practice times are normally difficult to interpret, as the top teams often do not reveal their true pace until qualifying. Today’s laptimes are, as a result of the weather, practically meaningless. Marussia certainly do not have the fastest car. Pic’s time reveals nothing at all about the pace of the Marussia, although he will no doubt appreciate (and probably chuckle at) having his name at the top of the time-sheets.

The rain effectively made today’s running useless for all of the teams. No useful dry setup work could be done in the difficult conditions, and that includes testing of new parts. Lotus in particular will be frustrated by the lack of dry running, as they had intended to run their new “double” DRS device this weekend, but have had to abandon that plan due to a lack of calibration time.

Only one practice session remains before qualifying, which means that tomorrow morning should see a very crowded track as all of the teams and drivers attempt to cram 2 days work into the one hour session that is FP3. Ideally, that should mean a very close qualifying session, weather permitting.

Belgium preview – Back on track at spectacular Spa

The mid-season break is finally over, and there could be no better place to celebrate a return to Formula One action than Spa-Francorchamps.

The circuit is one of the oldest in motor racing, having been opened in 1921. It featured on the calendar of the first Formula One season in 1950, and remains a firm favourite with teams, drivers and spectators due to its high-speed, challenging layout and picturesque setting in the Ardennes region of Belgium.

Over the years, the track has, like so many other great tracks around the world, undergone significant changes for reasons of safety. The original circuit was 15km long and ludicrously fast. Today’s F1 cars would probably lap the original layout at average speeds close to 300km/h.

The current layout is the longest on the F1 calendar at 7.004km and, despite being much shorter than the original, has retained the essential character that made the previous layouts so appealing. Watching Formula One cars defy the forces of nature to blast at full-throttle into Eau Rouge and up through Raidillon is breathtaking, and that is only the beginning of the lap. The sweeping curves of the middle sector, followed by the enormously fast Blanchimont left-hander before the Bus Stop chicane, ensure that every lap of this majestic track is thrilling to watch.

The only downside to the Belgian Grand Prix is that it happens but once a year.

300 races for Schumi

Michael Schumacher celebrates his 300th Grand Prix this weekend at the circuit he describes as his “living room”. His description is apt, as Spa was the scene of Schumacher’s first F1 race, his first win, and his seventh World Championship title in 2004. He also holds the record for most wins at Spa, with six.

The Mercedes W03 should be well-suited to the fast, flowing Spa circuit, and so Schumacher will be hoping to add to his impressive CV with a good result. In the 2011 race, he started last and finished fifth in one of the more impressive drives of his comeback. Another performance like that could see the illustrious German on the podium, or perhaps even challenging for victory.

Tyres

Pirelli are providing their hard and medium compound tyres for the race.

Tyres, and tyre temperatures in particular, have played a significant role in determining results so far this season, and Spa is likely to be no exception, but the high-speed nature of the track should at least make it fairly straightforward to get the tyres up to operating temperature.

Race prediction

Lotus are long overdue a victory, and are well poised to strike at Spa. With their new, more efficient DRS likely to be raced, qualifying performance should be improved, and then the car’s already impressive race pace can take care of the rest.

Kimi Raikkonen has won four out of his last five Belgian Grands Prix, which makes him the favourite to take the Lotus team’s first win of the season.

Stats

Circuit Length: 7.004 km
Corners: 19 (some sources count 20)
Race laps: 44
Race length: 308.052 km
Lap Record: 1:45.108 – Kimi Raikkonen / McLaren (2004)

2011 results:
Race winner: Sebastian Vettel / Red Bull
Pole position: Sebastian Vettel / Red Bull – 1:48.298
Fastest lap: Mark Webber / Red Bull – 1:49.883

Trivia

  • The circuit is so long that it is not uncommon to have bright sunshine and heavy rain at different parts of the track at the same time.
  • Ferrari have won the race 16 times, more than any other team.
  • Championship leader Fernando Alonso has never won at Spa, although his team-mate Felipe Massa took victory in 2008.

Weather

Some rain is expected on Friday, but the rest of the weekend is forecast to be dry and sunny. However, sudden unpredictable weather changes are in the nature of Spa, which will doubtless have an effect on the weekend.

Mercedes

The German dream team was created for the 2010 season. Mercedes returned to Formula 1, Michael Schumacher returned to Formula 1, and up-and-coming star Nico Rosberg joined the team. Mercedes had bought Brawn, the team that won both championships in 2009. Who could compete with them?

As it turned out, everyone could compete with Mercedes. They finished only 4th in the 2010 Constructors’ Championship and didn’t ever look like challenging for a win. Rosberg stood on the podium 3 times and qualified on the front row of the grid once, but never really challenged for a race win. Schumacher looked a shadow of his former dominant self, and didn’t trouble the podium all season.

The 2010 season was a big let-down, but perhaps that was understandable. Any Formula 1 team needs time to develop, and Mercedes had not yet had that time. In addition, Schumacher had been out of Formula 1 for 3 years. He was visibly rusty, and only more track time could solve that problem. The positive that came out of 2010 was that Nico Rosberg looked every bit a future race winner. He easily outperformed Schumacher and raced hard on the track for his 3 podiums and 7th place in the championship.

Pre-season testing for 2011 looked promising. The new Mercedes seemed fast, although it’s always difficult to compare testing times. There was hope that 2011 could be a year of podiums and perhaps a win or two. Sadly, it was not to be. The expected competitiveness did not materialise. Once again, Mercedes were the 4th fastest team, and once again they were nowhere near winning a race.

In 2011, Mercedes did not win a race, did not appear on the podium and did not qualify on the front row of the grid. If anything, the team has fallen even further behind Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari than it was in 2010. What is particularly concerning is that Mercedes seem to be operating conservatively. No big technical developments have come from Mercedes this season. Red Bull pioneered the blown diffuser, McLaren started the season with very interesting looking side-pods. What are Mercedes doing differently? They have no shortage of resources, so where is the innovation? If it is happening, it’s not visible.

On the positive side, 2011 saw a resurgent Schumacher. He still lacks a bit of qualifying performance, but his race-pace is no longer questionable. His race starts have been impressive, and as a result he has frequently been fighting with the top teams early on in the races. The car has let him down, however, and he has not been able to translate those good starts into big points. Schumacher put in a fantastic performance in Canada in changing conditions to finish 4th, after running second close to the end. Jenson Button and Mark Webber managed to pass him only with the benefit of DRS. If he can carry this form into 2012 and Mercedes can give him a front-running car, Schumacher should have a strong 2012.  His contract finishes at the end of 2012, and while he can extend his contract (the team have already stated that they are open to an extension), Mercedes will have to give him a reason to stay.

Nico Rosberg had a quiet but strong season. He finished 7th in the championship again, ahead of Schumacher, and outqualified his team-mate 16 times out of 19 races. Among his performances, Rosberg led in the opening laps of the Belgian Grand Prix after storming to the front on lap 1 from 5th on the grid. Alas, it was not to last as Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull eventually proved simply too quick for the Mercedes. Rosberg has shown his pace. He has already proven that all he needs is a competitive car to be able to fight for race wins. But there is an impression of frustration developing. 2 years in to his contract with Mercedes, he is not at the front, and it is obviously the car that is lacking. If the 2012 car is not capable of winning, Rosberg’s patience will be severely tested.

Mercedes have now been back in Formula 1 for 2 difficult years. 2012 must surely be a significant year for them. Either they will return to the front of the grid, or the dream will begin to fade. Pre-season testing will give some indication of what is to come, but ultimately, Mercedes have to deliver in the races. Thus far, they have not done so.

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