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View from the Pit Lane: Spa

The might of Mercedes horsepower helped Hamilton home in Spa
By Karun Chandhok
C4F1 technical analyst

It was a really tense contest between Mercedes and Ferrari last time out at the Belgian Grand Prix. Actually, I think it ended up a lot closer than a lot of people, including me, expected.

This really should have been a Lewis Hamilton-Mercedes slam dunk but Ferrari seemed to be on much better form than anyone anticipated. All of a sudden, especially when we got to final practice, it became quite apparent that it was game on.

It’s interesting to see that on Fridays they’re all playing games in terms of showing their hand and using different engine cycles, particularly Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Eventually when we got to the second phase of qualifying, we saw Mercedes starting to wake up and they gained something like five kilometres an hour, which seemed to be just sheer power and it shows the difference in the power modes. The wind didn’t really change direction and I don’t think they changed a huge amount of downforce. 

It shows yet again that Mercedes’ extra horsepower makes a difference and that really came into play when we got down to the Grand Prix.

When you look at the opportunities that Sebastian Vettel had at the end of the Kemmel Straight, he had a great slipstream and a great tow, but he ran out electrical juice and ran out of power before he could make the move.

It was the superior horsepower of the Mercedes that kept Hamilton just enough in front as they went up the straight between Eau Rouge and Les Combes.

It was a stellar weekend for Hamilton, who was faultless throughout. He did a solid job in practice and then the lap he delivered in qualifying was stunning, I don’t think he left anything on the table.

On the other side of the Mercedes garage, Valtteri Bottas had no chance for whatever reason. He looked really off colour and didn’t look like he was anywhere close to where he needed to be to challenge his teammate.

For Mercedes it was opportunity lost not getting Bottas in between Hamilton and Vettel.
That was quite a key point for the championship.

Classic Hamilton Defence 

The key moment of the race was the safety car restart and how the duel unfolded between Hamilton and Vettel. 

Mercedes did a very good job of making sure the drivers had enough ERS energy from the electrical side left at the end of the Kemmel Straight in case they needed to defend. Hamilton was able to go to a higher power mode and change the mode. At some point Vettel had a bit of a de-rate whereas Hamilton could keep going.

But the Mercedes was still on the soft tyre whereas Vettel was on the ultra-soft, so that’s two steps different, and they thought the tyre warm-up was not as good on Vettel’s car. 

When Hamilton got to the Kemmel Straight you could see he picked one line, stuck to the middle of the road and was sort of going left and right. I thought he judged that braking to perfection, and that to me is one of Hamilton’s biggest strengths and always has been throughout his career. 

You know there’s very few people in the history of F1 who have been better on the brakes than Hamilton and I think we got such a good illustration of it on Sunday where he picked his braking point.

Psychologically that’s hard to do. You’ve got a guy on potentially better tyres right behind you in the slipstream but he picked that point, stuck to it, got to the apex and then he was away - that was a classic Hamilton defence. 

It’s those moments where championships are won and when you can compare that to Bottas who got mugged on the restart by both Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen, you realise again why Hamilton and Vettel are the A-listers in their teams.

Mixed Fortunes at Ferrari 

Vettel dug it out in qualifying and got lucky because Raikkonen gave him a slipstream but he didn’t look as comfortable as his Ferrari teammate through free practice. When he got to Q2 and Q3, it started to come to him.

Raikkonen seemed to have lots of vibration issues and lots of trouble with his tyres and he just didn’t seem as happy. But Vettel looked behind all through until the Finn gave him a slipstream back to the line and that gave him the front row spot.

In the race Vettel did what Sebastian Vettel does, you know he’s got tremendous ability to hammer all those laps - lap after lap after lap. 

He kept the pressure on Hamilton waiting for a mistake – the mistake never came. Equally he never made a mistake, they just sort of sat together all through the Grand Prix. As I say there was maybe one opportunity after the restart but the combination of Mercedes’ power mode and Hamilton’s braking kept him in front. 

It was a strong weekend from Vettel, he should be happy to come away from Spa losing only seven points, rather than 10.

On the other side of the red garage, it was a strange race for Raikkonen because he got a penalty for double-waved yellow flags.
As a driver when you see double yellows you know you need to back out of it but in fairness to him they were on the straight completely away from the racing line.  I think he got caught out because he did a personal best sector and it was quite harsh on him but rules are rules. 

Otherwise he had a good car in the race and would have been ahead of Ricciardo, so it was a shame for Raikkonen.

Dutch Drama

It was also a real shame for Max Verstappen because there were 80,000 screaming Dutch fans in the Spa grandstand. It was absolutely nuts!

When Lee McKenzie and I were driving to the circuit on Thursday, I don’t know how but after 16 years coming to Spa I still managed to get lost arriving at the paddock.

We ended up in the Dutch campsite somewhere out near Les Combes. It was absolutely insane. I’ve never seen so much craziness in one campsite in my life, maybe because I don’t camp enough but that’s beside the point…

Verstappen was ahead of his Red Bull teammate all through the weekend and that made it even more unfortunate for him to drop out after eight laps. 

Around the Grid 

There were plenty of usual theatrics from Fernando Alonso ranting down the radio and insisting “don’t speak to me” and all sorts. 

You can understand his frustration but with every week that goes along, you start to realise that his options are closing.

Vettel obviously re-signing for a further three years at Ferrari was the big news in the driver market coming out of the Spa weekend.

For Alonso, it’s getting to be a situation where if he’s going to stay in F1, he’s going to stay at McLaren, and I really hope Honda get it sorted on the engine because it’s not good for him and it’s not good for Stoffel Vandoorne either. 

Vandoorne is driving really well and the two McLarens did a great job of using slipstreams and getting Alonso up to seventh on lap one after a brilliant start. To see Alonso just fall apart was such a shame. 

Jolyon Palmer also looked good throughout free practice ahead of his Renault teammate Nico Hulkenberg and then the gearbox went ‘pop’ in Q3. 

He was ahead of Hulkenberg in various stages of qualifying and was probably on for his best qualifying of the year. Hulkenberg was able to go on to show that Renault now are genuinely the fourth best team with his sixth place.

Force India Feud

Finally, we get to talk about the Force Indias because clearly the gloves are off, well they have been since Baku…

First was the incident on lap one when they hit each other. It’s always tricky on lap one when you’ve got cars all over. Personally, just as much as Sergio Perez is a good friend of mine, I do think he could have given his teammate a bit more room. 

So the second incident… When you’re crowding someone up against the wall, I know what it’s like, the natural line is for you to come across La Source towards the wall and you see the wall coming and you think the ‘gap’s closing so he’s got to lift’. 

But when you’re driving for a team and you are in a situation where you respect your teammate you would give him, not a massive amount of room, but enough room for him to at least come safely out of it and then you sort it out at Les Combes at the top of the hill. 

After what happened there were comments coming out from both drivers. Esteban Ocon came out with all sorts of comments about Perez. The Mexican isn’t a bad guy, he doesn’t want to kill him, but it all imploded. We’ll see how it pans out when we get to Monza. 

Next up Italy

Monza should be an out-and-out Mercedes race.

Bottas has got to get his stuff together. He’s got to get there in between Vettel and Hamilton to help his teammate win the championship. 

Spa was a weekend that showed now that Bottas is heading towards the territory of being number two, unless there’s a DNF somewhere! So we will see what happens and I’ll see you in Monza!