The frustrating thing about the glorious circuit in the Ardennes forest they call Spa-Francorchamps is that it’s very difficult to move yourself around it. It’s big, it’s hilly and, these days, it’s full of plenty of “no admittance” signs. Watch at Eau Rouge and you can only imagine what they’re doing through Pouhon; spend the morning out at Pouhon and the mysteries of Blanchimont – and the hard braking zone after it – remain exactly that.
So forgive me if you saw otherwise: for my part, I can only say that not once – not in the wet on Friday nor in the dry thereafter – did I see Jenson Alexander Lyons Button even approach the zone we Philistines call “opposite lock”. He was again Mr On-Rails, light of touch, nimble of step. He was again the epitome of the racing driver’s art.
(Correction. Of course there was a moment. Silly me. He flicked the wheel from side to side in adulation as the chequered flag flew. For a millisecond, the rear of that beautiful McLaren broke lose. Jenson, by his pit wall, allowed himself a slide.)
I mention this because we need to find some way of explaining Jenson’s two exemplary pole laps at Spa – laps that left him free of any first-corner skirmishes. You can overtake at Spa – but you can also quickly run to ground at La Source if you qualify amongst the dross. Pole, then – or the front row – is vital at Spa – as vital as it is at Monaco.
I watched qualifying, as it happens, from the exit of La Source – a relatively boring location, you may think, given the menu of corners from which to choose. It was convenient, though – and there is always something about that run through the gears down the hill, towards Eau Rouge, grandstands to the left of them, GP2 and GP3 stars to the right, that makes the blood tingle.
What we saw there was Jenson feeding on the power in perfect proportion to the unloading left rear. We saw Jenson steering – not power-sliding – to the exit. We saw Jenson’s gloved hands moving hardly at all. We heard no ripples from the Merc engine as he reached the edge, for Jenson met the kerb; he didn’t ride it. And then we saw his McLaren, straight and true, barking its way down the hill.
What we didn’t see, of course, was what Jenson had been doing on entry and mid-corner. We didn’t see the decreasing brake pedal pressure against steering load; we didn’t see the actual substance of the corner from Jenson’s perspective – the moment when he felt that he could rotate the car with maximum benefit to the rear; where we were, we only caught the result.
Even so, the view was selective. Lewis looked as smooth and as seamless in the other McLaren. So did Kimi in the Lotus-Renault and Michael in the Mercedes. Fernando, though, came into view with one slide already under half-control. And then there was another – out there on the kerbs, as he gave it full throttle. His wrists flicked to the left as the revs peaked in first, rippling their complaint as the Ferrari fanned the kerbs. Romain was the same – perhaps more so. Felipe, too – although his movements, like Romain’s, were a reaction to what was happening to the rear of the car rather than actions in anticipation. Felipe’s and Romain’s exits were slightly more segmented than Fernando’s or Kimi’s. You could see the joins; the telemetry would show the spikes.
Then came Kamui Kobayashi. This’ll be fun, we thought. Not a bit of it. In Q3, with but a minute to run, Kamui looked to be Kimi. Car tightly wound mid-corner, when he burst into view, the throttle and steering were then released as one. Perfectly. It was Sergio Perez, in the other Sauber, who expended the arm energy. He was Romain – all reflexes and reaction. All tail-on-the-kerbs.
Out came Pastor Maldonado, having only just made it up from Q2 in the Williams FW34. Minimal movement. Wonderful release. Lewis-like. Paul di Resta had looked similarly poised (save for a last-millisecond twitch at the rear, nudging the Force India onto the exit kerb). Nico Hulkenberg used more opposite lock from mid-corner to apex. The flashes of steering correction quickly evolved into a di Resta exit, however, as if he was reminding himself of how it should be (rather than playing it how he wanted!).
Up there on the big screen to our left they were on-boarding with Mark Webber. And you could see why the FOG (Formula One Group) Director had selected him: Mark looked Fernando-quick were I stood at La Source; and, that morning, during Third Practice, his RBR8 had had seemed particularly stable through Eau Rouge (relative to the twitchiness of the Ferraris).
The lap time, though, was not there. As quickly as you can read this, the names appeared in order: BUT, KOB, MAL. No HAM! No RAI!
In this sense, my vantage point had mattered not a jot. My eye could discern no difference between, say, Jenson and Kimi.
It was only later, when we learned that Jenson had been running a lower-downforce set-up, that the quality of his driving came into focus. If he was able to make the McLaren look that good on corners like La Source, what was he doing over the full lap of Spa, where the long straights and fast corners would reward less drag? Lewis, it transpired, was using a higher-downforce wing that left him with almost zero feel for the road. Under the circumstances, his La Source work was also a piece of art. Kimi and Romain were not running the team’s new wing-stalling device (sadly) and were thus playing Lewis’s game. Fernando was on the limit of grip-versus-top speed wherever he went. The Ferrari was edgy, nervous. The Williams was again a major contender – and Pastor was again maximizing it. (Bruno didn’t make it out of Q2 but not for the want of trying: a half-lift into a fast corner left the DRS still open; a massive spin was the result.) And the Saubers were amazingly quick “through the air” thanks to the genius of Willem Toet. The job then for the drivers was to lose no time on the slower stuff. This they did not.
You know what happened on Sunday. Romain made a great start, headed for a diminishing gap…and didn’t back off, as young guys on big waves of expectation rarely back off. Spacial awareness didn’t really come into it: he was an arrow, heading for a tiny target. It was going to be up to the others to give him room. I think Romain will tell himself that he didn’t cause the accident because his right rear hit Lewis’s left front (ie, he was half-a length a head of the McLaren) and because he made just the one legal move to the inside; but that’s the problem, of course, with too much legislation: it takes away the common sense. Romain was the only driver out there in a position to prevent any sort of collision, given the dynamics and the positionings involved. He could have backed off. He could have given Lewis more room.
As it was, Lewis continued on his dead-straight, inside line from which he was under no reasonable obligation to back away – and inevitably the combined energies erupted. I predicted last Wednesday, on The Flying Lap, that Fernando was likely to DNF at Spa because of some sort of drama at La Source – but I certainly never imagined the carnage that would actually take place. Out went Lewis, Fernando and Sergio Perez – and Romain, of course – and we can all be thankful that no-one was hurt, even though Fernando’s shoulder was a bit sore afterwards (whiplash) and for a few seconds he was in the wrecked car motionless, unable to breathe because of the extinguishent.
Into the void, driving beautifully from mid-grid, rose Sebastian Vettel. The RBR8 was not a quick car in Sector Three on Saturday afternoon, but Seb belied its mediocre chicane grip with some gorgeous track craft and sumptuous passes on Sunday. So good was he, indeed, that he induced the worst from Michael Schumacher – incited Michael’s last-second dart into the pit lane entry from the wrong side of the track in the path of said Seb Vettel. It was appalling to see – not massively dangerous, as such, but clumsy and ugly and about as poor an example of track etiquette to which any well-meaning Formula Renault driver should ever be exposed. Yes, they were both playing a game of “After you, Claude” re pit stops. There’s no excuse for entering the pit lane from the outside, however – particularly if there’s a car alongside you. Seb, in protest – and seeing Michael diving into the pit entry, manipulated his Red Bull into a semi-donut and drag-stripped it down the finishing straight. His actions said a thousand words.
There were some great drives in this mangled race. Jenson continued to do what he did on Saturday for corner after corner, lap after lap. He stopped but once for Pirelli primes without losing the lead. His margin of victory was 13.6 seconds but it could have been much more. He wasn’t sweating when he climbed from the car; and Union Jacks flew in abundance in the packed spectator banks and stands. McLaren had won again at the venue on which it all began with Bruce back in 1968. Seb finished an excellent second for Red Bull Racing; and Kimi, frustrated by a lack of top speed (repeat: “Shame about the device!”) was third for Lotus-Renault. Nico Hulkenberg drove superbly, I thought, to finish fourth for Sahara Force India; and Felipe was fifth in the difficult Ferrari. Both STR drivers looked good – particularly Jean-Eric Vergne on this occasion – but poor Kamui could finish only 13th after suffering bodywork damage at the first corner. No matter: Willem Toet is as confident as experienced racers can ever be confident about the next round of “flyaway” updates for the Sauber C31. At Suzuka, particularly, the car should fly…and it shouldn’t be slow at Monza, either! I should also mention both HRT drivers – Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthekayan. Neither were out-classed by other back-of-the-griders. Pedro hit first corner debris and and Narain’s race ended when the left-front wheel came adrift as he turned-in to Stavelot (lose wheel nut after his second pit stop).
And so Fernando has had his first DNF since Canada last year. It had to happen eventually – and it was predictable that it would happen at La Source, where Fernando was always likely to be amongst the traffic. I’ve maintained since January, however, that Fernando’s biggest rival for the World Drivers’ Championship will be Lewis Hamilton – and so, from that perspective, Spa was by no means a disaster for Fernando. Now to Monza where, for the most part, the track is wide, fast and open. There’s just that pesky little first chicane to negotiate on the first lap of this tightest of tight F1 seasons, in the year in which the top runners are separated by paper-thin margins. Again, the pole is where you’ll want to be – where Ferrari and Fernando need to be if they are to insulate their hard-won half-season advantage. The Tifosi , I’m sure, are secreting their way to Monza even as you read this…
Lewis Hamilton posted this interesting telemetry overlay after qualifying, comparing his lap with that of Jenson Button. The annotations speak for themselves – although they should of course be seen in the context of a first-class F1 team opting for two different aerodynamic solutions to a very demanding lap