F1 Belgian GP: Eyes on the Skies

Two safety cars and intermittent rain made for a very interesting Belgian Grand Prix. Tire strategies were based largely on what teams were seeing on the radar. In the end, Lewis Hamilton didn’t have to worry much about weather or crashes. Mark Webber bogged down on the start and that was all that Hamilton needed to take the win and championship lead. Further down the grid, things were a bit more interesting.

Hamilton’s quick getaway gave him a lead he wouldn’t relinquish. Webber dropped to 6th behind Button, Kubica, Vettel and Massa. Rain in parts of the track made things interesting as a safety car came out but not before the McLarens were able to grab hold of the top two spots. When he got into second, Button was told that he had front wing damage which seemed fairly minimal. The “damaged” front wing allowed Hamilton to build up a gap until Vettel got involved. He tried to pass Button heading into the Bus Stop Chicane but lost control and speared into the side of Button’s car. The collision cost Vettel a front wing and Button his left radiator and race. It also cost Vettel a drive-through penalty for causing a collision which I’ll get to in a bit. Oddly, without Button in the way, the pace of Hamilton’s pursuers picked up considerably.

The race settled in for a bit as teams waited on the much-anticipated downpour. When it came, all hell broke loose. The front three of Hamilton, Kubica and Webber went by the pits while most of the field came in. It nearly cost Hamilton everything. While the TV broadcast played a message from the McLaren pits that they didn’t want to pit too soon and wear out their tires, Lewis ran wide at the left-hand hairpin Bruxelles and just grazed the barrier. That convinced the top three to pit. Kubica slid long in his pit stall which allowed Webber to vault past for 2nd. A safety car came out shortly thereafter for Alonso spinning and wrecking coming out of Les Combes. While it bunched the field, a good restart gave Lewis all the distance he needed to seal the deal.

Meanwhile, off the podium, things were fairly interesting. Felipe Massa finished fourth for Ferrari. Adrian Sutil crossed the line in fifth after making a power move on Schumacher before the final big shower. Not bad for a driver and team downplaying their chances before the race. Nico Rosberg finished sixth after barging past Schumacher after the final restart. Schumacher played strategy to finish 7th after his 21st place start following the events of Hungary. Mercedes left Schumi out while waiting on the rain so he could advance his position before making his mandatory stop. Kamui Kobayashi upped his stock with a drive to 8th. Vitaly Petrov used the same strategy as Michael Schumacher to go from last to 9th. Jaime Alguersuari crossed the line in 10th but was penalized 20 seconds for cutting the Bus Stop late in the running. That promoted Vitantonio Liuzzi to 10th. Definitely the most interesting and unexpected finishing order of the season.

•••

I mentioned on my Twitter that I thought the drive-through for Vettel was overly harsh. The FIA, FOM and FOTA want to encourage overtaking but the race stewards are the biggest thing holding them back. Vettel lost control of the car during an overtaking move and was penalized for it. This isn’t an isolated incident by any stretch. The stewards are willing to give out penalties for any sort of contact during the race. Remember last year’s German GP when Webber bumped into Barrichello at the start and had to serve a drive-through?

The FIA is willing to penalize any little contact which is basically encouraging a parade. Motorsports is called racing because you’re supposed to go as fast as you can to be the first one across the finish line. To do so, you have to pass people. That means taking a chance. If you are penalized for taking chances, then people will be less inclined to take a chance to pass people. That means we get parades the likes of this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix. I think NASCAR has it right when it comes to contact. The FIA should just say that they can have at it. If you run someone off the road, you better be ready for the favour to be repaid.

By the way, Alguersuari was the only driver penalized for cutting the Bus Stop. On lap one, about three-quarters of the field cut the Bus Stop. I guess they all went off and on perfectly.

•••

Speaking of ridiculous penalties, Pedro de la Rosa was the first driver to be penalized for going over the annual engine allotment. Drivers are allowed to use up to 8 different engines over the course of the season. However, a rash of early season engine failures meant that Sauber had to put engine #9 in the back of de la Rosa’s car for the race. That forced the Spaniard to take a ten spot grid penalty. And he’ll get that ten spot penalty again for every new engine after #9 that Sauber uses.

I’ve never liked that rule. Sure it saves some money but it unfairly punishes the customer teams who have no control over the engines supplied to them. An engine per weekend or per two weekends would be a much more reasonable rule. It’s easier for fans to keep track of than eight over the course of the season. After all, if the fans don’t understand, do you think they’ll like a rule? Very little is revealed about engine usage unless you dig deep into F1 technical reading. Everyone knows and understands one engine per weekend. If the FIA is concerned about costs, force manufacturers to use production-based engines in the next set of engine regs. For now, put a cost cap on engines (which they already have if memory serves).

•••

Rubens Barrichello celebrated his 300th Grand Prix start at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix. Before the season, he already shattered Ricardo Patrese’s record mark of 256 GP starts. Now, Rubens really sits in a class of his own in terms of longevity. Hell, some luck and an even playing field prevented him from winning a world title with Ferrari and Brawn. The man hasn’t lasted this long because he brought money to the table. He brings results. This season, he sits 11th in the drivers’ points standings. He has the fourth most points of all-time in F1 competition. He has nine wins, including that epic maiden win in changing conditions in the 2000 German Grand Prix. He’s also built that history with Michael Schumacher. First, he went on BBC’s Top Gear and beat The Stig’s time. Then, Michael Schumacher, who revealed himself as The Stig last summer, nearly ran Rubens into the pit wall in Hungary. As great as Rubens is, he still wouldn’t like The Stig while he’s angry.

By the way, Grand Prix #300 didn’t go very well for Rubens. He wrecked the car on lap one when he skidded long at the Bus Stop and ripped the front suspension off when he hit Fernando Alonso.

•••

By the way, Schumacher texted Barrichello at some point in time before the start of the weekend to congratulate him for his 300th start and to apologize for that whole nearly crashing thing in Hungary. I still don’t necessarily condemn Michael for his move but I think that has to be a funny text. Something like: “Congrats on ur 300th gp. sry for nearly crashing u in hun.”

•••

It looks like we’re down to two teams competing for that 13th spot on the 2011 grid. It looks like the only two going through the selection process will be Stefan GP and Villeneuve/Durango Racing. The former third favourite was Epsilon Euskadi but it looks like they may take a different way into the series. EE is said to be short on funds and would struggle to put up FOM’s mandatory appearance bond which is a condition of their approval as the 13th team. Meanwhile, F1 incumbant HRT is said to also be short on funds but is facing the bigger problem of not having a way to construct their 2011 chassis after parting ways with Dallara. So what we have is a match made in heaven. EE has constructed their own sports cars so design and construction of chassis will not be an issue for them. If they merge with HRT, EE will have their grid spot and HRT will have their chassis built. Nothing is official yet. Quite obviously, this makes too much sense for both teams for this plan to work.

•••

Speaking of possible new entrants to F1, the new Korean Grand Prix may not happen this year. Fans of Champ Car wouldn’t be surprised because the planned Korean round was cancelled for about three seasons in a row. Photographs taken at the new Korean International Circuit shows that the track is far from complete. The photos show that the asphalt has yet to be laid. Track designer Hermann Tilke claims that inclement weather has delayed the laying of tarmac and that the track will be ready on time for October’s race. I read somewhere that for asphalt to properly cure, it takes two months after being laid. We’ll have to see if that affects the race in any way.

Rumour has it that Bernie Ecclestone has already been trying to recruit replacement venues. Motorland Aragon in Spain was said to have been in discussions with the FOM over replacing Korea. However, the track broke off talks because it wouldn’t be able to recover the €22 million sanctioning fee that Bernie would want to have the track be used as a replacement. I love Bernie’s nerve to demand payment so he can save face. Maybe he should give the race to a track for free or a percentage of the gate and see how the fans like the event and use that as a bargaining chip for future events.

•••

After four weeks off between races, we get two weeks before the next Grand Prix weekend.The fourteenth race of the season brings us to Italy’s historic Autodromo Nazionale Monza. Unlike what my April Fools’ post would have you think, the race will be run on the same layout as last year.

The horsepower advantage enjoyed by Mercedes should make McLaren the favourites at this round. Look for Ferrari to shine at Monza yet again. They’re traditionally strong at the Italian rounds and there’s no reason to think that the Tifosi won’t carry the Scuderia to the top step of the podium. If it’s wet, look out for Sebastian Vettel. He won his first race and Red Bull’s first race in a wet race in 2008 for Toro Rosso. Mind you, in last year’s dry race, he finished 8th.

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