Sebastian Vettel has the 2011 World Championship seemingly within reach after an imperious drive to claim his and Red Bull Racing’s first victory at Spa-Francorchamps, leading home team-mate Mark Webber to claim a team 1-2 and his first visit to the top of the rostrum since June’s European Grand Prix.
In another action-packed event, Jenson Button drove a commendable race to finish third after a disastrous qualifying result, while McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton crashed out after tangling with Kamui Kobayashi.
The pre-race build-up effectively set the tone for what was to be another intriguing round of the 2011 season, with the top-ten qualifiers – led by Red Bull Racing – complaining that their blistered front tyres posed an apparent safety risk. They lobbied Pirelli to be able to change them before the start, and Pirelli in turn was panicked into bringing an emergency supply of front tyres, but rival teams and the FIA sensibly vetoed this.
The issue was actually caused by Red Bull running its front tyre camber well beyond the four-degree limit suggested by Pirelli, which caused blistering to quickly appear near the tyre sidewalls. The blistering would prove a factor during the race, with Vettel and Webber struggling with tyre wear issues, although they had the inherent pace to claim another 1-2.
There were actually few tyre-related issues during the race – Felipe Massa suffered a puncture mid-race that dropped him to a lower points’ finish – and the race was also dry throughout, marking the first time that rain would stay away from the venue for an extended period while the cars were on track.
As predictable as a Sebastian Vettel title defence is proving, what is becoming equally predictable are Webber’s poor starts. Yet again, the Australian undid all of his hard work in qualifying with another appalling getaway, spluttering off the line and falling to eighth in the few hundred metres to La Source.
The pack funnelled around the slow-starting RB7 and into the tight right-hander. Nico Rosberg snatched second place behind Vettel, while behind there was plenty of argy-bargy.
Bruno Senna’s impressive top-ten qualifying result came to naught with a laughably late braking effort as the pack approached the entry to the corner. It would have been funny but for the fact that he collected poor Jaime Alguersuari, who saw his career-best qualifying result squandered – along with the team’s hopes of a hefty points’ haul – when he was then sent into the side of Fernando Alonso, breaking his front suspension.
Alonso was lucky to survive the ravaging to his Ferrari, while Senna limped back to the pits minus his front wing. The Brazilian’s maiden race for Renault was not going well, and it was little surprise to see him issued with a drive-through penalty for his brain fade. He finished a disappointing 13th.
Further behind, the two Lotus’ of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli came together – tapping Trulli into a half-spin – although both were able to continue without much more than cosmetic damage.
Rosberg’s mighty start meant that he could slipstream Vettel as the pack blasted out of Eau Rouge, and he took the lead with a great overtaking move into Les Combes, with Massa, Hamilton and Alonso completing the top-five.
Rosberg’s shock lead lasted for two glorious laps before he was passed by Vettel when DRS was enabled on lap three.
Up at the front, Vettel’s tyre troubles started early, with the German pitting for a fresh set of soft tyres on the sixth lap, while team-mate Webber pitted even earlier, switching to the harder tyres on the third lap, an alternative strategy decision that would make up for his poor start later in the race.
Rosberg held the lead once again, but the Mercedes’ lack of pace and its own tyre troubles began to rear their head quickly, with Alonso and Hamilton quickly sweeping by, while Massa seemingly had much more difficulty finding a way past.
With Alonso and Hamilton now battling it out at the front, they were both coping with tyre wear marginally better than the Red Bulls, no doubt hoping that their slight pace disadvantage could become an advantage if they could make fewer pit stops.
As it was, Alonso pitted on lap eight and Hamilton did likewise three laps later, which saw Vettel to undercut them and take the lead once again when he repassed Rosberg with a brave move around the outside of Blanchimont.
As Alonso emerged from his pit stop, Webber took the momentum to squeeze by the Spaniard into Eau Rouge in a move that will surely be declared the pass of the year. Alonso squeezed Webber on the inside as they sprinted towards the kink, giving Webber just inches more than a car’s width to get by. But Webber kept the throttle pedal firmly planted and squeezed through. It was heart-stopping stuff, and a credit to both drivers that they managed to avoid a colossal accident.
Hamilton’s hopes of a race win ended on the thirteenth lap. After overtaking the still-to-stop Kobayashi along the Kemmel straight, he attempted to take the racing line in the braking zone to Les Combes. But Kobayashi – whose Sauber was running with little rear wing – had picked up such a tow after being overtaken that he’d drawn alongside Hamilton at the braking zone.
Hamilton’s left-rear was tagged by Kobayashi’s right-front, and the hapless Englishman was speared into the barriers and instant retirement, which resulted in the Safety Car making an appearance while repairs were hastily carried out on the battered Armco.
Several drivers – most notably, Vettel, Adrian Sutil, Michael Schumacher and Button – all pitted for fresh rubber without losing much in the way of track position.
When the race got underway once again on Lap 17, Alonso now led from Webber and Vettel, but the Spaniard’s lead proved short-lived with Vettel getting by him courtesy of another DRS move into Les Combes.
From that point, Vettel’s seventh win was seemingly assured. He pitted once more on Lap 30 and countered Button’s hopes of taking a surprise win – courtesy of starting on the harder tyres – with another pass.
Alonso found his final-stint pace sorely lacking – shades of the Spanish Grand Prix once again – and he dropped down the order to finish fourth behind Webber and Button, who both managed to get by.
Webber and Button drove excellent races despite their respective race start and qualifying woes, passing car after car during the middle stint of the race to cement their podium finishes.
Fifth place went to Schumacher, who drove superbly from his last-place grid slot – following Button’s route of getting the harder tyre running out of the way in the first stint – with a hard-charging drive over the 44-lap race. With team-mate Rosberg running the slower tyres in his final stint, Schumacher nipped by in the closing stages to help the team eke out a 30-point buffer in the Championship Standings over nearest rivals Renault.
Seventh place and a welcome six points went to Adrian Sutil, who recovered from his unimpressive drive at Hungary with another solid, error-free race to move Force India to within striking distance of Sauber in the points’ race for seventh place. Team-mate di Resta finished just out of the points in eleventh.
As we mentioned before, Massa finished a disappointing eighth, only claiming the pace in the last few hundred metres of the race when Vitaly Petrov’s Renault slowed on the run to the finish line. It was a bit of a fizzer from the Brazilian after he managed to outqualify Alonso for just the second time all season, and he particularly seemed uneasy in wheel-to-wheel combat this weekend.
Petrov’s two points was hardly the result Renault would have been looking for after its uncomfortable pre-race build-up that saw the team dispensing with Nick Heidfeld’s services in favour of reserve driver Senna. Whatever updates the team may have brought onto its R31 couldn’t be effectively gauged after the La Source incident on Lap 1.
The final point when to Pastor Maldonado, marking the rookie’s first ever points’ finish and Williams’ second in what is turning into a miserable season for the Grove squad. His driving in qualifying may have been worthy of a race ban, but the Venezuelan drove a more mature race to claim tenth place. Team-mate Rubens Barrichello struggled once again, finishing 16th behind Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus.
Sauber’s insistence on running fewer pit stops to counter for the C30’s lack of pace again backfired, with Kobayashi surviving his clash with Hamilton to finish 12th, while Sergio Pérez retired just after half-distance with a rear suspension failure. The Mexican rookie had already earned a drive-through penalty for hitting Sébastien Buemi’s car early in the race, which saw the Swiss driver also losing his hopes of a points’ finish in what was a weekend that went begging for Toro Rosso.
Team Lotus again finished ahead of the backmarkers, but still found themselves too far off the pace to threaten the midfield. Trulli survived his first-corner contretemps with Kovalainen to finish 14th, fending off his team-mate in the closing stages.
Jérôme d’Ambrosio performed well on home soil, with the Belgian rookie finishing ahead of his more-fancied team-mate Timo Glock as Virgin got one over main rivals HRT, who only had Vitantonio Liuzzi see the chequered flag – team-mate Daniel Ricciardo retired with a vibration.
2011 Belgian Formula 1 Grand Prix – Final Classification (44 laps):
|1.||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing – Renault RB7||44||1:26:44.893|
|2.||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing – Renault RB7||44||+ 3.741|
|3.||Jenson Button||Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-26||44||+ 9.669|
|4.||Fernando Alonso||Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro F150° Italia||44||+ 13.022|
|5.||Michael Schumacher||Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team W02||44||+ 47.464|
|6.||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team W02||44||+ 48.674|
|7.||Adrian Sutil||Force India F1 Team – Mercedes VJM04||44||+ 59.713|
|8.||Felipe Massa||Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro F150° Italia||44||+ 1:06.076|
|9.||Vitaly Petrov||Lotus Renault GP R31||44||+ 1:11.917|
|10.||Pastor Maldonado||AT&T Williams – Cosworth FW33||44||+ 1:17.615|
|11.||Paul di Resta||Force India F1 Team – Mercedes VJM04||44||+ 1:23.994|
|12.||Kamui Kobayashi||Sauber F1 Team – Ferrari C30||44||+ 1:31.976|
|13.||Bruno Senna||Lotus Renault GP R31||44||+ 1:32.985|
|14.||Jarno Trulli||Team Lotus – Renault T128||43||1 lap behind|
|15.||Heikki Kovalainen||Team Lotus – Renault T128||43||1 lap behind|
|16.||Rubens Barrichello||AT&T Williams – Cosworth FW33||43||1 lap behind|
|17.||Jérôme d’Ambrosio||Marussia Virgin Racing – Cosworth||43||1 lap behind|
|18.||Timo Glock||Marussia Virgin Racing – Cosworth||43||1 lap behind|
|19.||Vitantonio Liuzzi||HRT F1 Team – Cosworth F111||43||1 lap behind|
|DNF.||Sergio Pérez||Sauber F1 Team – Ferrari C30||26||Suspension|
|DNF.||Daniel Ricciardo||HRT F1 Team – Cosworth F111||12||Vibration|
|DNF.||Lewis Hamilton||Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-26||11||Collision|
|DNF.||Sébastien Buemi||Scuderia Toro Rosso – Ferrari STR6||6||Rear Wing|
|DNF.||Jaime Alguersuari||Scuderia Toro Rosso – Ferrari STR6||0||Collision|
|Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing – Renault RB7||33||1:49.883|
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