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Stat Wrap: Belgian Grand Prix

The field charges down towards Eau Rouge at the start of the race

By Sean Kelly, C4F1 Statistician 

On the 25th anniversary of his first Grand Prix victory, the shadow of Michael Schumacher’s gargantuan achievements hung strongly over the Spa-Francorchamps racetrack in this, its 50th hosting of the Belgian Grand Prix.

Not only did Schumacher win his first race here in 1992, he had also made his GP debut here the previous season – barely lasting as far as Raidillon before stopping with a clutch failure. Nevertheless, from then he went on to take six wins at Spa; a circuit record to this day.

Given all these numbers, it was fitting that Lewis Hamilton equalled Schumacher’s all-time F1 pole record of 68 at a track so synonymous with the German.

Not that there was any doubt over Hamilton’s place among the F1 greats before this weekend, but on the occasion of his 200th Grand Prix, Hamilton now has joint custody of one of F1’s most important records, reaching Schumacher’s total in 43 fewer appearances. Ironically, Hamilton has achieved the bulk of his success since joining Mercedes in 2013 at Schumacher’s expense.

Given the historic value of his pole position on Saturday, it was only right that Hamilton’s actual pole lap was the fastest EVER lap of Spa in an F1 car, in any configuration. Prior to Saturday, that distinction had belonged to Chris Amon, who set an average lap speed of 152.050mph in the latter stages of the 1970 Belgian GP, the last on the old nine-mile Spa layout.

Hamilton lapped at 152.775mph in Q3, the fastest Formula 1 lap of any circuit other than Monza since Juan-Pablo Montoya’s pole position at Hockenheim in 2001, also the last race on an old (and long) venue before it was curtailed.

The pole record may be the principal reason why this weekend is remembered, but let’s not forget the small matter of the current championship battle, and even on race day Hamilton couldn’t escape the Schumacher comparisons.

Hamilton won his 200th race appearance from pole position, just as Schumacher did at the 2004 Spanish GP. It was the 37th time Hamilton has taken the win/pole double, moving to within three of Schumi’s all-time record.

This has been a season of relative feast or famine for Hamilton, as in the last nine races his only podium finishes have all been victories (Spain, Canada, Britain and Belgium). Nevertheless, he trails Sebastian Vettel by only seven points in the championship with eight races to go.

Vettel came close to usurping Hamilton on Sunday, but in the end second place was reasonable damage limitation. There has been little to choose between them throughout 2017 – they even both have the same 17-race scoring streak. The last time either of them failed to score or failed to finish was at the 2016 Malaysian GP.

While it’s not unusual for Vettel to be on the podium – Sunday was his ninth podium this year – it was a result of distinction for Ferrari, who had only taken one podium finish at Spa in this entire decade before Sunday (Fernando Alonso was second in 2013).

Daniel Ricciardo’s third place was a pleasant surprise for the Australian after the recent dominance of the Mercedes/Ferrari juggernaut. The Australian claimed a third career podium finish at Spa, tied for the most at any circuit in his F1 career.  It was a nice way to mark his 71st start with Red Bull, tying David Coulthard for third in team history, trailing only Vettel (113) and the very man who interviewed Ricciardo on the podium, birthday boy Mark Webber (129).

Speaking of birthdays, Valtteri Bottas turns 28 years old on Monday, but although he maintained his 100% finishing record in five Spa F1 starts, fifth place was his worst result since retiring from the Spanish GP back in May.

Sandwiched between Ricciardo and Bottas was the delayed Kimi Raikkonen, who suffered a 10-second stop/go penalty for failing to slow down sufficiently under yellow flags. This maintained one of Spa’s most unusual (and most obscure) statistics.

There have now been 50 Formula 1 races held at Spa-Francorchamps, and Raikkonen’s failure to win means that there has still never been a race winner from fourth on the grid at this circuit. We’ve had successes from tenth (Raikkonen himself in 2004), twelfth (Jim Clark in 1962) and even sixteenth (you guessed it, Michael Schumacher in 1995), but starting fourth is so jinxed at Spa that it hasn’t even produced a podium finisher since Fernando Alonso in 2005!

This week’s “best of the rest” battle was won by Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, who scored a third top six finish of 2017, for a Renault/Enstone team who had taken precisely one top six finish in the previous three years combined (Romain Grosjean’s third at this venue in 2015).

Many derided Hulkenberg’s move away from Force India after the team finished fourth in last year’s constructors’ championship, but now he could perhaps say he’s been vindicated – he only claimed two top six finishes in 2016.

Another competitor feeling vindication on Sunday was Haas. The American outfit has defied expectations of the sort of second-year growing pains experienced by startup privateer outfits such as Jordan and Stewart, and Romain Grosjean’s seventh place at Spa means not only has he scored in more races this year than last year (6-5), but the Haas team has also exceeded their entire 2016 points total (29) with eight races still remaining.

Williams have had a terrible time of things lately, seeing both cars knocked out in Q1 at three of the last four races, having not had it happen at all since the 2014 British GP. Despite this, Felipe Massa somehow salvaged eighth place in Belgium, his best result since Bahrain. Nevertheless, the Brazilian looks increasingly likely to go without a top five finish for the first season in his career.

Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz had never previously finished the Belgian GP in his career, and not only did he do so this weekend but he also snatched the final point, one position behind Esteban Ocon, who had an unintentionally high profile in Sunday’s race….

The Force India teammates of Ocon and Sergio Perez were already in bad odour with the team management for colliding in Baku – in a worst-case scenario costing the team a 1-2 finish – and things got even worse on Sunday when they banged wheels on the entry to Eau Rouge on lap one, before a more substantial collision late in the race punctured Perez’ rear tyre and sent Ocon in for a new front wing.

As in Baku, Ocon somehow emerged from this to score points on the anniversary of his Grand Prix debut for Manor in 2016, and only Vettel and Hamilton have more points finishes this year (12 each) than Ocon (11).

The Frenchman has also finished 21 consecutive races, four short of Max Chilton’s record 25 finishes before posting a retirement. Rather ironically, Chilton’s streak ended in a collision with a teammate, something which seems to be all in a day’s work for Ocon lately!

While Ocon has put together a remarkable run of finishes, such consistency remains a pipe dream for the likes of Fernando Alonso and Max Verstappen, two major talents hamstrung by mechanical deficiencies. Alonso channelled his inner Gordon Ramsay on the team radio at times, before eventually declaring an engine problem and retiring for the fifth time this season.

Meanwhile, Max Verstappen’s presence saw the Belgian GP organisers declare a record crowd for this event – even TV pictures suggested that most of the Dutch nation had vacated their country in favour of the Ardennes – and yet again they saw their hero suffer an early exit.  All of his six retirements this season have come before Verstappen has reached lap 13.

Perhaps the unluckiest man in the race was Jolyon Palmer, who was seventh fastest in FP3 and outpaced Nico Hulkenberg in Q2, on a true drivers’ circuit and at a time when his Formula 1 future is subject to frenzied speculation.

Having reached Q3 for only the second time in his career, a gearbox failure left him unable to capitalise, before being compounded by a further five-place grid penalty, leaving him starting the race on used tyres surrounded by drivers on fresh ones.  While some of Palmer’s problems this year have certainly been self-inflicted, the Englishman is overdue for a change of luck….

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