Following another installment of an thrilling Vettel/Hamilton battle, whilst the midfield were busy with all sorts of dramas, Sparsh Sharma gives his verdict on the Belgian Grand Prix.
1. Force India has a war on its hands
Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon’s clash at Spa was a disaster waiting to happen for Force India.
Not even precarious wheel-to-wheel contact on the first lap, in which Perez pushed an unsighted Ocon into the wall at the run to Eau Rouge, was enough to dissuade the duo from scrapping over what could have been yet another strong haul of points for the fourth-placed constructors.
Force India recognises this and has put its foot down, vowing “they’ll never have that opportunity again”.
This is the culmination of a series of incidents that have started to brew since Canada in June, where the team let slip a potential, and a very valuable, podium through letting their drivers jockey for position. Through this reluctance to impose team orders it allowed Daniel Ricciardo to streak away, and enabled a charging Sebastian Vettel to overtake them both for fourth.
Two into one does not go, and it only took the next round in the chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix for the duo to realise this – Ocon and Perez looked for the same piece of tarmac which led to the latter being squeezed into the wall, much to the irk of the Mexican, who suggested this had sacrificed the team’s chance at a first victory.
Since then, the ‘team-mates’ have scrapped for track position and cost the team plenty of points. Ocon has taken to social media to complain about his fellow driver’s attempts at trying to ‘kill’ him twice, something Force India, its sponsors and even the FIA will not look lightly upon. The partnership may look untenable, and the outfit will have to do a good job of keeping team orders and (some form of) harmony within the team dynamic if it wants to keep both its drivers for next season. Perez turned down a move to Renault for 2017 – if the opportunity arose once more, would he respond the same way? This will be a significant factor…
2. Hamilton may regret his sportsmanship
Lewis Hamilton won the Belgian Grand Prix by 2.358 seconds ahead of title rival Vettel, to whom he closes the gap to seven points in the drivers’ championship.
There are two crucial pieces of information in that sentence.
One – There was hardly a gap between the two championship protagonists at the chequered flag, and this is particularly alarming for Mercedes. This should have been a track they dominated, with long straights where its power unit can flex its muscles, and with the current constructors’ champions looking to out-develop Ferrari as they turn up the heat heading into the fly-away part of the 2017 calendar.
This has not happened, and what’s worse is that Vettel’s race pace was very strong. It’s hard to judge who should have won today’s race on raw speed due to the two playing cat-and-mouse, bringing turbulent air into play, but it’s fair to say Mercedes were a little anxious about the pace Vettel showed in the race simulation on Friday, when he was 0.5secs quicker.
Two – Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda, three-time world champion, has previously said “I’ve won the title by one point. I’ve also lost the title by one point”. While it is certainly a good thing that Hamilton has now shortened the gap between himself and the championship leader, what should become apparent is how much the gap has closed by.
Even though Vettel finished a close second, he’s seen his lead in the title race diminish by half. That’s the difference between first and second under the 25-18-15[…] points system introduced for the 2010 season. Hamilton will look at this and wonder whether handing back third position in Hungary last time out to team-mate Valtteri Bottas, as agreed over radio, was worth it for his championship aspirations.
Bottas ran a very silent weekend, finishing a distant fifth place after losing out in the space of a few-hundred yards. This may be an off-weekend, but Hamilton looks to be the one more likely to grab the title challenger gauntlet for Mercedes at the moment. Hamilton’s act of sportsmanship last month may be something he grows to regret.
3. We need to address turbulent air
Despite the fact we don’t know the true pace of the Ferrari under Sebastian Vettel in the Belgian Grand Prix, we do know that it could have gone much quicker than it did towards the end of the race where it ran grippier ultra-soft tyres versus Hamilton’s softs. There was one thing that denied the audience a longer wheel-to-wheel affair between the two drivers, and its been a problem foreseen yet not addressed.
Turbulent air has been a problem in Formula 1 for years now – fans are looking for a spectacle, great machines driven by athletes at peak physical condition side-by-side fighting to the rugged edge for position. Therefore, the last thing people want to see is a procession of cars following each other around in circles unable to get close to the car in front.
How much longer until this becomes something the bosses of F1 act upon? While there’s undeniably been great racing this season, amplified by the battle for supremacy at the very top, there can be more, and the sport can improve.
4. Red Bull runs a tightrope with Verstappen
“It’s unbelievable,” deemed Max Verstappen as he crawled to a stop in front of a strong contingent of Dutch fans on the Kemmel Straight at the closest grand prix circuit to his homeland.
A cylinder failure in his Red Bull’s internal combustion engine raises the likelihood of a grid penalty for the next race at Monza, as he sees his team-mate streak away in the drivers’ championship with yet another podium.
The stats make for startling reading – Verstappen now has a 50% retirement rate so far this season.
“Of course, in the beginning, you say maybe it’s just bad luck or whatever, [but] I’m actually competing against Fernando [Alonso] in terms of retirements.”
Even if he’s locked under a “watertight” contract until 2019, that doesn’t stop him from being on other teams’ radars. More worryingly for the four-time constructors’ title-bearers, it doesn’t stop other teams from being on his radar. Red Bull boss Christian Horner said the team’s engine supplier Renault needs to sort out its reliability problems because his team is not getting what it pays for. Well, they can pile on the pressure all they like but it doesn’t guarantee them a competitive engine, and that in turn certainly doesn’t bode well for their chances at keeping the young star.
Not only do they have to look to keep Verstappen for the sake of keeping a potential future champion in their hands, but fellow driver Daniel Ricciardo is eyeing a move in different teams too. If Ricciardo was to leave, it’d be very important for Red Bull to keep Verstappen as a flag-bearer for the team.