Belgian GP - Sunday - Race Report

Spa Treatment

Sebastian Vettel, Belgian GP 2013

Sebastian Vettel, Belgian GP 2013 

 © Active Pictures

Spa, the town in Belgium near the daunting Spa-Francorchamps circuit, is where "spas" where invented. People would travel to Spa – and they still do – to relax and recuperate.

Sebastian Vettel certainly looked relaxed as he cantered to victory in the Belgian Grand Prix in his Red Bull. Fernando Alonso fought his way from ninth to second in his Ferrari. Pole sitter Lewis Hamilton would end up third in his Mercedes.

The key to Seb's fifth victory of the season was the start.

When the red lights went out, Vettel passed Hamilton on the long straight up the hill to Le Coombs corner and took the lead that he would hold for the next 44 laps.

"It is very difficult around here to plan your start because first of all you need to have a good launch off the line and then there's a long straight coming," Vettel recounted. "I tried my best to line up behind Lewis and basically benefit from a massive tow through Eau Rouge. I think especially in the opening lap when the tires are not yet completely there and the fuel tank is full, obviously the cars are quite heavy up the hill and produces a lot of drag. I was able, in the tow, to make up a lot of speed and when I got side by side I had a lot of advantage over Lewis and was able to get straight ahead."

Hamilton said his start was "half decent."

"I felt like I got a good exit out of turn one but Sebastian just caught me massively, particularly through Eau Rouge. There was no defending really. I could only move once, so I moved once and just had to watch him glide by. After that it was very, very difficult to hold onto him."

By lap 2 Vettel already had a 2.8 second lead over Hamilton who in turn had a 1.9 second advantage over teammate Nico Rosberg who had a string of drivers behind him including Jenson Button (McLaren), Alonso, Mark Webber (Red Bull), Paul di Resta (Force India), Nico Hulkenberg (Sauber) and Lotus teammates Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.

Vettel and the Red Bull engineers had set his car's gear ratios and aerodynamics for running in clean air. And they got the mix just perfect because nobody got close to him even during his two pit stops.

"The car was much better than I think we expected going into the race," he said. "So we had a bit of pace on hand to control the race. I really enjoyed that a lot. I think the guys on the pit wall as well; it was not as stressed as at other times. Fortunately there was no rain, so in terms of critical calls there were none to make. It was a very good afternoon for us."

Rain had been predicted for Sunday's race, but Spa's weather is notoriously fickle and the rain didn't come until the crews began packing up that evening.

Alonso and Ferrari had got their strategy wrong during the wet/dry qualifying session and so he gridded ninth. He knew the car was better than that. And he proved that by vaulting from ninth to fifth on the opening lap. After that he got by Rosberg, Webber, Button, Hamilton to come through to second place.

"The weekend was more or less good for us with recovering some feelings that we lost in July with the car especially," he said. "We were a little bit more competitive – or we felt a little bit more competitive this weekend. Not for sure maybe for pole position but to be in the first four or five positions on the grid. We're extremely unlucky with the situation in Q3 with weather and the track.

"So we had to plan a perfect race from the start to the pace of the car, to the strategy and everything worked fine and we could recover some places and extremely important for the championship also to get some good points again after three races not so good."

This was Hamilton's fifth pole of the year and his fourth in a row. But he's only been able to convert one of those poles into a win – in Hungary – and had to settle for third and 27 seconds behind the winner Vettel in Belgium.

"I'm getting everything I can out of the car," Hamilton radioed in during the race.

After the race he said his Mercedes just didn't have the pace.

"I said (after qualifying) I don't think we generally have the same pace as these guys (Vettel and Alonso), or at least, not necessarily the Ferraris but more so the Red Bulls," Hamilton said. "But they were both too fast for us today. It's the best we could have done. Yesterday, the weather helped us to get up to where we were. At the end of the day, we just need to work a little bit harder. I think we can do a better job, hopefully for Monza."

Rosberg started fourth and finished fourth.

"The whole weekend hasn't gone perfectly for me and you are always slightly on the back foot in the race when qualifying doesn't go as well as planned," he said. "I had a great start but I wasn't able to go as long as planned on the second stint and I had to cover Felipe (Massa). But in the end, it was nice to keep Mark (Webber) behind me and get fourth place. We have a lot of work ahead of us now and we need to look into why we weren't as competitive as a couple of the other teams today."

Like his teammate, Webber had his car set up for clear air running. Unlike his teammate, Webber had a slow start as the clutch acted up once again. He dropped from third to sixth and eventually finished fifth.

"The two practice starts we did at the pit out (before the race) were absolutely diabolical," Webber said. "The clutch was like a tractor."

Webber was quick when running alone, but as soon as he caught up to Rosberg and got in dirty air his Red Bull lost that advantage.

"We tried our best," Webber said, "but lost a couple of rows off the line which is not good. We then had to try and clear people on the track, which was difficult, as we had set up the top gear to race in clean air, rather than to pass. The bad start put us out of position and it snowballs from there, as you use up the tires trying to getting to back into position."

Prior to the weekend Button had been optimistic about the McLaren's upgrades.

"If we finish fifth and five seconds behind third I think I would be reasonably happy," he said on Thursday, "but I don't want to be fifth or sixth and 30 seconds behind third. That's something that we would say we haven't made an improvement.

But, after qualifying, knowing that the McLaren did not have the speed to challenge for a podium finish, Button and McLaren tried to go for a one stop strategy. Pirelli's hard compound slick was durable and the medium held up as well, but two stops turned out to be the best way to go.

"We gave it a go," said Button who won at Spa last year in his McLaren and finished fifth (and seconds behind) this year, "but our pace still wasn't quite as good as that of the cars in front of us, so we couldn't really chase them down at the end of the race. Having said that, it was decent race for us. Moreover, as always, it was really fun to race around this magnificent circuit – I really enjoyed driving the car today."

Felipe Massa had a solid race as he climbed from 13th to seventh.

"That was a difficult race for me right from the early stages," Massa said, "because after managing a good passing move at the start, I then had to slow and drop back four or five places, to avoid a collision with Grosjean at the exit of the first corner. From then on, things got complicated because for a few laps I had a problem on the steering wheel linked to the KERS operation and I wasn't able to communicate well with the team.

"When everything was back to normal again, it wasn't easy to catch up, because even if the decision to bring forward the first pit stop allowed me to get past several cars, the pace wasn't good. In the final stint on the hard tires, the car was very competitive and I managed to gain some important places, with a nice passing move on Grosjean. I definitely can't be pleased with seventh place, because today, our car deserved better."

One year ago, Grosjean caused a multi-car pile-up at the first turn at Spa and earned a one race ban at the next grand prix in Italy. He had a more subdued race in 2013. He started seventh and finished eighth after being pushed off the track at one stage while fighting with Sergio Perez.

"We had a difficult first lap where we lost a few positions and then dropped back a couple more places in the incident with Sergio," Grosjean said. "We decided on a one stop strategy today and with the new tires I felt that the grip was much higher than before but I knew that it would be difficult to get the time back. We tried something different and you never know; had it rained in the middle of the race we could have been well-placed to take advantage. It is good to finish the race without any mistakes, even if eighth place isn't what we were hoping for this weekend."

Adrian Sutil brought his Force India home ninth.

"At the start I didn't make the best getaway and lost a few places," he said, "but after that I settled into the race and was able to get ahead of a few cars and move into the top ten. I always enjoy driving here at Spa and I had some exciting overtaking moves today, which felt very nice. The two-stop strategy was the best way to go and it worked out well because I think we achieved the maximum that was available to us."

Daniel Ricciardo (Force India) overtook Perez (McLaren) with four laps to go to round out the top 10.

"We ran a long first stint on the Herds and I think that helped us build a good base to have a strong pace in the final stints on the Medium," he said. "I felt much more comfortable on the Option tire and that's when my race really started. With the last set of tires I was knocking out maybe ten or so qualifying laps and managed to pick off some cars in front to bring home that crucial point."

Only three drivers failed to finish: Raikkonen, di Resta and Charles Pic.

Raikkonen had finished a record 27 consecutive races in the points, but that streak came to an end in race 28 at Spa. A discarded tear-off helmet visor got lodged in a front brake duct on his Lotus and caused the brakes to overheat.

"I had a brake failure so there was really no point in trying to continue," he said. "(Grosjean and I) both got good starts off the line but there wasn't enough space into the first corner where I went over the curb and lost some time, but after that I was pushing as hard as I could. There were some brake issues at the beginning of the race but we were managing them and it was going okay until we had to retire. We've finished a lot of races and had some good reliability; one day your luck has to run out and today was that day."

Di Resta almost got his Force India on pole. Indeed, if qualifying had ended two laps earlier the strategy he and the Force India team had would have put him in the prime spot. But he still ended up fifth on the grid. A bad start dropped him to 10th but he worked his way back up and was having a fierce four-way fight with teammate Adrian Sutil, Pastor Maldonado (Williams) and Hulkenberg when his race came to a crashing halt when Maldonado slammed into his car.

"Pastor went in deep and missed the apex so I tried to get the cut-back and was going around the outside of him," di Resta said. "He then decided to try and enter the pit lane, which was impossible given his track position. He hit me, which took the rear corner off my car."

The Stewards gave Maldonado a 10-second stop and go penalty for causing the collision.

"I was touched by Adrian (Sutil)," Maldonado said. "I was trying to recover my line and he crossed my line in a very aggressive way and touched my front wing. My car jumped and I lost control, lost the steering wheel. Part of the wing went under the car and I lost traction at the front."

Pic, the only other retiree, stopped on lap nine because of in oil leak in his Marussia.

Out in front, Vettel had been unstoppable. It's doubtful that he stopped off at Spa on the Monday after the race for some rest and recuperation. He has now a 46 point lead over Alonso. Vettel says 2013 is similar to 2011 where although he had a healthy points lead he never relaxed.

"What I remember from 2011 is that we had a fantastic season," he said, "but we were working very hard, step by step, race by race and surely not working towards a certain race to seal the championship with a couple of races to go. I wasn't relaxed at that time; I was as nervous as I am today, hopefully. Therefore, as I said, it's really step by step and not trying to be too smart, too clever and think too far ahead."

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