F1 Belgian Grand Prix: Taking Opportunities

f1-2016-belgium-rosberg-victoryWhen you’re handed the perfect opportunity on a silver platter, your only choice is to take it. Take the two Mercedes drivers. Lewis Hamilton’s extra engines gave Nico Rosberg the perfect opportunity to win the race. Crashes and red flag gave Hamilton an opportunity to claw his way back from the back of the grid. In both cases, they capitalized on the opportunity to score the results they needed.

The race started with the two Mercedes drivers on opposite ends of the grid. Rosberg scored pole on Saturday while Hamilton tapped out after a token Q1 effort. He had a 55-place grid penalty for a series of power unit component changes above the five per season limit.

The race got off to an expensive start. The usual La Source calamity saw Sebastian Vettel turn down on teammate Kimi Raikkonen which resulted in a collision with Max Verstappen on the inside. Vettel spun, Verstappen lost the left part of his front wing and Raikkonen was left with a puncture. Farther up the track at Les Combes, Pascal Wehrlein threw away his great qualifying by plowing into the back of Jenson Button and ending their day.

f1-2016-belgium-magnussen-crashThe chaos resulted in the Haas and Renaults being in the points and Nico Hulkenberg looking good for a podium. That changed quickly when Kevin Magnussen hit the barrier at the top of Eau Rouge. The resulting collision left KMag with some bruises and the barrier in need of repairs. At first, the FIA was willing to handle it with a safety car but then changed their mind to a red flag after most of the field pit for tyres. Included in those benefiting from not stopping under the safety car were both Mercedes.

On the restart, Rosberg was able to streak away from the field while Hamilton restarted 5th. He quickly dispatched Fernando Alonso for 4th and then Nico Hulkenberg for 3rd. It was much more of a battle for 2nd with Daniel Ricciardo. Hamilton was told to make another pit stop as he wouldn’t make it to the end of the race on his softs and be able to keep Ricciardo behind. It turned out to be the wrong call but there may not have been a right call to get Hamilton in 2nd.

f1-2016-belgium-podiumRosberg’s win was his 6th of the season and brings him within nine points of Hamilton for the championship lead. Daniel Ricciardo scored his second-straight 2nd. He passed on the shoey and instead left it up to podium interviewer Mark Webber. Hamilton rounded out the podium though one wonders how much of that is down to skill, how much the car and how much luck.

Nico Hulkenberg matched his career best result with a 4th but was as high as 2nd before Magnussen’s crash. Teammate Sergio Perez finished in 5th. Sebastian Vettel recovered from his first corner collision to cross the line in 6th. Fernando Alonso’s McLaren is starting to look a little more competitive as he finished 7th. Valtteri Bottas was 8th on the day. Kimi Raikkonen had a seemingly race-long battle with Max Verstappen but managed to get to 9th. Felipe Massa rounded out the points in 10th.

It’s in a racer’s blood to stretch and exploit the rules as best they could. Old NASCAR mechanic Smokey Yunick made his reputation off it exploiting loopholes in the rules including the time he installed a fuel line that held five gallons of gas because there were no rules about anything other than the fuel capacity of the tank.

Mercedes pulled a similar spirited trick in Belgium. They exploited the current rules of F1, changed after the 2014 season and 2015 British GP, that made the maximum punishment for engine component changes and cap violations starting from the back of the grid. For Hamilton’s race this weekend, Mercedes introduced three new MGU-H and turbo units (his 6th, 7th and 8th of the season) and a 6th internal combustion engine and MGU-K. The result was a 55-place grid penalty but it also gave him enough fresh parts that he should be fine for the rest of the season failing any more reliability problems and changes for component upgrades.

f1-2016-belgium-hamiltonMany inside the paddock are now wondering if the rules should be changed to prevent this sort of exploitation again. In 2014, unused grid penalties carried over to the next race. In 2015, unused grid penalties resulted in an in-race time penalty. Now, it’s just to the back of the grid depending on the timing of the penalties since Hamilton was ahead of Alonso despite having more grid spot penalties. People complained about the fairness of the two previous engine penalties and they’re now doing the same in 2016.

Ideas such as fines or Constructors’ Championship points penalties have been suggested but that would increase the punishment as you go down the grid. Mercedes could throw a new engine in their cars every race and not be worse for wear but Manor and Sauber would be crushed by that. Perhaps carryovers of penalties should exist for stockpiling such as Mercedes did here. Lewis didn’t need more three MGU-H and turbos this weekend since none failed so should the additional penalties for #7 and #8 of each carryover to Italy and Singapore? That might be the only way to close the loophole that Mercedes exploited here.

A post on Reddit says that both Jenson Button and Sergio Perez visited the Williams factory at some point between Germany and Belgium. The poster cited a friend at the Williams factory who said the pair were there for seat fittings.

It seems odd for seat fittings so far in advance of the season but apparently this could be a preemptive design move. Current driver Felipe Massa is one of the smaller drivers on the grid but Button is one of the taller drivers. It’s possible that the current design of 2017 Williams chassis might not be big enough for a driver like Button. It has been reported that Mark Webber had a slightly larger cockpit for his Red Bull than Vettel’s cars. Famously, McLaren had to build special chassis for Nigel Mansell during his abbreviated stint with the team.

That Button would be at Williams and the team needing to size him up comes as no surprise. Rumours that Button would be ousted for Stoffel Vandoorne at McLaren have been floating around since last year. Button’s retirement tour at Williams is also a months old story.

f1-2016-belgium-perezThe Perez story is an interesting one. According to Force India, he’s coming back next season. So why are there so many rumours about him? Sure, a contract in F1 is worth the paper its written on and Force India can certainly use the money since their ownership is legal hot water that makes the former Gawker look tame by comparison. For weeks, it’s seemed as though Perez to Renault was nearly a done deal but Williams certainly seems to be closing in on him with this seat fitting rumour.

This leaves the ongoing question of what happens to Williams’s current drivers. Massa is said to be coveted by Renault but his seat for 2017 will likely be fallout from Perez’s decision. Esteban Ocon is likely to be the second driver at Renault in 2017.

Valtteri Bottas may be the odd one out. While Williams or bust doesn’t seem likely, I haven’t read any rumours about other places he may land. If he loses his seat at Williams (to some combination of Button, Perez, Massa and/or Alex Lynn), a move to Force India might be his only option unless Mercedes moves Pascal Wehrlein up from Manor. To think that he was on Ferrari’s shortlist last season and could now be weeks or months away from calling WEC teams.

And there’s still some intrigue about driver changes this season. Kevin Magnussen suffered an unspecified left ankle injury in his crash at Raidillon. There is already speculation among the press that Magnussen may not be medically cleared for next weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.

The logical replacement for KMag would be calling up reserve driver Esteban Ocon from Manor to run for Renault next weekend. That would require Manor’s current reserve driver, Rio Haryanto, to be called into action after a whole weekend out of the sport. Renault and Manor’s remaining reserve drivers, Sergei Sirotkin and Jordan King, respectively, are GP2 drivers and probably won’t be asked to pull double-duty next weekend so Haryanto is the most logical solution.

f1-2015-italy-podiumThe next round of the 2016 Formula One World Championship is next week. The teams will load up the trucks and send their equipment 800 km south from Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium to the Autodromo Nazionale Monza in Italy for this year’s Italian Grand Prix.

As one would expect, the two Mercedes will be at the head of the field and Hamilton’s new engines, which he got with his 55 grid spot penalties, will certainly give him an advantage in terms of raw power over Rosberg. Given their pace this weekend, I like Force India’s chances to play spoiler behind the Mercedes. The Renault engines still aren’t spectacularly quick so we could see any order of the six Red Bulls, Ferraris and Force Indias.


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