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.
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.
Since the first race of the season in Australia, Lotus have looked like challenging for victory. The car is quick in all conditions, and drivers Raikkonen and Grosjean have shown their skill by delivering 8 podiums between them. But victory has eluded the team from Enstone.
Qualifying has been holding the Lotus team back. The car has typically been very quick in the races, but the drivers have often had to fight through the top end of the field. It seems clear that the secret to winning for Raikkonen and Grosjean is to put the car on pole, something they have not yet achieved this season. But they may now have the answer to that problem – in the form of a more efficient DRS system.
Lotus have been trialling their upgraded DRS during practice at the previous few races, and technical director James Allison has been quoted as saying that the team is aiming to run the device at the next race in Belgium. The device will no doubt be tested further during Friday practice at Spa, and if the team is satisfied that it is working as desired, it should feature in qualifying and the race.
Spa is a power and top-speed track. In particular, the first and last sectors are very quick. The middle sector, however, requires a reasonable amount of downforce to deal with a long series of medium- and high-speed corners. A more efficient DRS system will allow the team to run slightly more downforce to assist with the middle sector, but still be quick in the first and last sectors during qualifying. A Lotus pole at Spa is now reasonably likely.
The race presents a different challenge, as DRS may only be used in the demarcated DRS zone on the Kemmel straight for overtaking, provided the chasing car is within a second of the car in front at the detection point, which is just before Eau Rouge. There will therefore be a compromise between qualifying pace and race pace, as the top-speed of the car in race trim will necessarily be lower when not using DRS.
If Lotus can get their DRS working well, and set the cars up to be quick in both qualifying and the race, there is a real possibility of a Lotus victory this weekend.
Next week’s Belgian Grand Prix will be the 300th race of Michael Schumacher’s Formula One career. The illustrious German will become only the second driver in history to reach this particular milestone, after Rubens Barrichello who has participated in 326 race weekends.
Schumacher’s achievements are the stuff of legend. He has amassed seven World Drivers’ Championships, 91 race victories, 155 podiums, 68 pole positions, 77 fastest laps and 1546 points in a career that has spanned 21 years (including a break from 2007 to 2009).
That Schumacher’s 300th race should be in Belgium is appropriate. His remarkable career began at Spa back in 1991, where he qualified an astonishing seventh in a Jordan before retiring on the opening lap of the race with clutch failure. A year later, Schumacher took his first victory at a rather damp Spa. He has won in Belgium a further five times, including the 2001 race, where he took his 52nd victory to claim the all-time record for most wins by a driver, and the 2004 race, where he clinched his seventh title.
This year’s race presents the very real possibility of another Schumacher victory. The 2012 Mercedes W03 is easily the best car he has raced since returning to the sport in 2010, and it is well-suited to the track. Spa demands engine performance and high top speed, which are the strengths of the W03. The middle sector of the lap requires downforce and high-speed cornering stability, which are not the strong points of the car, but quick first and third sectors should result in Mercedes being competitive.
In 2011, Schumacher crashed in qualifying, which meant he had to start from the back of the grid. The seven-time champion finished fifth, producing one of the finest drives of his career and reminding the racing world that he is still extremely capable behind the wheel and hungry for success.
Can Schumacher deliver victory at Spa? He will need to qualify well, and race as well as he has ever done in his career, but it is possible with the current car. Given his history at Spa and the possibility that this may be his last Belgian Grand Prix, it would be a fitting way to return to the track where his Formula journey began.