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GP Week : Issue 208
Ohmeohmy...Asallthepundits were saying, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and it happened at spa. On qualifying times, it was going to be a cakewalk 1-2 for Mercedes but a misjudged pass attempt by Nico Rosberg on Lewis Hamilton on lap two, into the esses, tore the team’s weekend apart. Opinion is, naturally, divided although post-race statements from even Rosberg’s strongest in-team supporters condemned his move as too risky. The Stewards probably saw it best, writing it off as a racing incident, but when title- contending team-mates are involved it just ain’t that simple. Pulling out of an outside pass a fraction too late saw Rosberg’s right front wing element fly high, with Lewis copping an instant left-rear puncture. Wing-to- tyre contact isn’t always that destructive (viz Alonso on Vettel late in the race), so no-one can say Rosberg was aiming for that, but it was ... clumsy given the circumstances. Rosberg would lose pace until a full nose replacement at the first stop, while Hamilton would sulk around down near the back of the field all day before engineering a retirement with a few laps to go. So, forget Mercedes, what was happening up front? Daniel Ricciardo, that’s what. The Aussie had slipped past a fast-starting Alonso on lap three and eased in on team-mate Vettel. A couple of laps later and the champ made a mistake, his Red Bull flicking sideways on the outside kerbs at the exit to Pouillon. It was enough for Ricciardo to power past and sneak up onto the tail of the aerodynamically-damaged Rosberg. What had raised eyebrows in that early, dry running, was the straightline speed of the Red Bulls – Vettel cruising up alongside Hamilton in the first burst down towards Les Combes (before overshooting and losing a spot) and the lower downforce set-up didn’t appear ton be compromising the cars as much as it had in the dry. With Ricciardo on his gearbox, Rosberg made his first stop early, at the end of lap eight, dropping him to what turned out to be fourth after all the key players had made their first stops. All that left ... Daniel Ricciardo out front, a few seconds up on .... Kimi! The Finn had been an early stopper too and, with some clearish road popped in fastest lap to date. Vettel was third, with Rosberg seemingly bottled up behind, from Bottas and Magnussen (Alonso had stooped late, on lap 12, and a not particularly fast tyre change had dropped him to seventh). The message, pit-to-car, from Mercedes to Rosberg was clear: “We will need to pass Vettel to win, we believe ...” Pressure, pressure. A couple of laps later and Nico blew it – locking up then left front in a failed outbraking move on the German. The flat- spot must have been big, as a lap later Bottas towed past. Three laps later and Nico was in for a fresh set – intriguingly still only Mediums. Others were to stick with Softs. In the end, both paths resulted in a third stop for several. But not Ricciardo, or Valtteri Bottas, both driving a smart race and looking after their Pirellis. Indeed, they stretched them out to laps 27 and 28 respectively, a key contributor to the final result. Rosberg did make a third stop, for some Softs, with 10 laps to go and started putting in some massively fast laps – two to three seconds quicker than leader Ricciardo on some laps. With his first two victories the result of late charges, this was role-reversal for the Aussie but, coping with some minor hydraulic issues in the car, he measured it perfectly. With a couple to go, the gap was still four seconds or so and the best had gone from Rosberg’s Softs. “When you lead the race, I guess, for that long it's more about composure, just looking at your lap times, just trying to be as consistent as possible and once I heard Rosberg came in for a third stop we knew he was going to be quick at the end, I just had to try to keep the lap times up and keep it clean.” Bottas’ fourth podium in five races was reward for a dogged pursuit of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, which he finally managed to pass later in the race: “I think it was a nice and fair fight. First I nearly had a go into Turn 5 but wasn't really quite as close, so then I just had to wait for a couple of laps to really prepare for it, then went for it and it was nice, clean racing with him. So, yeah, really enjoyed it ...” Fourth, a season best for Kimi, was encouraging: “We had decided to tackle this race more aggressively, making an early stop to get ahead of the cars that had yet to pit and that meant I was able to stay with the leaders for much of the race," he explained. The late highlight of the race was, undoubtedly, the fierce, frantic battle for fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth. It was heavy stuff – Magnussen, Alonso, Button and Vettel (on the fresher tyres) towing past each other, side-by-side, running around the outside, getting run off the track (Magnussen was eventually pinged 20 seconds for running Alonso clean off the track when the latter was all but alongside at Turn 5) ... It was a bunch of ex-kart racers getting back to their roots and it was entertaining. In the end, the gaps opened up for Vettel who gratefully took the points for fifth, while Magnussen’s penalty moved him from sixth to 12th. Countdown to catastrophe – when Nico nudged Lewis. Lap two, into Les Combes 28 GPWEEK.com // 28 GPWEEK.com // F1 >>> BELGIUM PARTNERS: