The Belgian Grand Prix was one of those races which looked a little processional but was actually better than the spectacle would suggest. As Mark Webber remarked on the rostrum, both leader Lewis Hamilton and challenger Sebastian Vettel were actually hard on it, every inch of the way, even though there were just two real challenges for the lead.
It was a fascinating tussle though, which became more crucial in the closing moments after the second pit stops – a one stop was the favoured strategy until the safety car on lap 30 – and it became obvious that Ferrari and Mercedes were going to have to take tyres that were at the opposite extremes of the available Pirelli tyre range. There had been some pretty interesting and differing tyre choices and Mercedes had gone more for the harder compound tyres than Ferrari who preferred the softer.
So fitting new tyres involved Ferrari taking a new set of ultrasofts and Mercedes fitting a new set of softs on Lewis Hamilton’s car. The difference between the two tyre compounds had been well over a second around the seven kilometre circuit but that tends to come down as the weekend evolves and when Sebastian tried to get around Lewis after the drag race from La Source at the restart it was his second opportunity after the initial start.
Lewis was actually in the wrong engine mode, which had allowed Sebastian to get so close, but in spite of Sebastian being on those softer tyres, he never got so close again even though they were all going hard at it for lap after lap after lap. It was a great battle but one which came down in favour of Lewis who had done a great job all weekend, as he equalled Michael Schumacher’s tally of pole positions in his landmark 200th Grand Prix.
There were several other stand-out performances over the weekend and of course, some not so brilliant efforts. Kimi seemed to be back to mediocre mode at the circuit where he was the most successful of the current Formula One drivers, while compatriot Valtteri Bottas had one of those weekends which drivers sometimes have where they just can’t get confidence in their machinery, and you need confidence in Spa.
The Force India drivers, of course, had their spats, continuation of the contacts that started at Montreal, continued at Baku and perhaps ended at Spa, as they’re saying here at Monza that they’re now on best behaviour! We shall see.
The atmosphere, of course, was brilliant in spite of the disappointment for the legions of Dutch fans. There was the usual British crowd, loads of Dutch and a full house made up with Vandoorne fans, although they, too, had little to cheer about. But there was plenty for them to be excited about, lots of off-circuit action and of course the prospect of Mick Schumacher demonstrating his father’s Benetton. It all made for a good weekend, even if getting out of the circuit on Sunday night proved difficult.
It’s looking as though Monza will be just as exciting and full. All the Italians want is to see their beloved Ferrari win but the entertainment has already started with a rather one-sided kart challenge of Grand Prix drivers versus footballers around a tight circuit laid out on the pit straight. It’s getting a bit bumper cars out there!
But will the tifosi get a victory from Ferrari, that’s the begging question? Ferrari have won more times here than anyone else. Hamilton has five poles and three wins, Vettel has three wins from pole – including his first win from his first pole, of course – and Alonso has two wins from pole. Indeed, the race has been won from pole on eight occasions in the last ten. It does look like a Mercedes type of circuit…
That lack of straight line speed at Spa just might be a bit worrying for Ferrari. Speeds on the 1.12kms straight are likely to be the highest of the year. Pirelli are bringing their harder selection of tyres with the white medium, yellow soft and red supersoft – but no ultras. It does point to a one stop strategy, particularly as a pit stop entails around 19s of 80kph motoring in the pit lane while the competition is whizzing past at over 300kph on the track.
The circuit demands the lowest downforce of the year but also considerable traction and an ability to take the kerbs. There will be penalties of course, as well, so it will once again be an interesting lottery when it comes to the grid itself but with grid position being so important, qualifying will be vital.
The one thing that is threatening to put a spanner in the works is the weather. It has rained already and rain would be welcome to dispel thirty degree heat. But a whole weekend of rain would be more than interesting on this superfast temple of speed. It has been wet for only one of the last 25 sessions and only one race – which Sebastian Vettel won, of course, from that first pole.
So it could all be up in the air, literally. What we can expect to see is the closing up of the championship between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, with a very vocal crowd cheering on the German against the Brit. The atmosphere is always electric at Monza and this will be no different. We still have many fascinating circuits to go but this is the last classic of the year.