|The moment Civil War erupted|
And so its all-out war. The ‘clear the air’ talks at Mercedes between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were about as successful in preventing hostilities as the ‘peace in our time’ Munich Treaty. And as angry as Niki Lauda was after the race, I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone quite as incandescent as the normally very mild-mannered Toto Wolff who was the very definition of seething fury.
As well Toto might be after the fragile ceasefire at Mercedes imploded spectacularly when his two drivers crashed in each other on lap two. As a result, Rosberg damaged his front wing and Hamilton sustained a puncture and further damage to the car floor as he nursed his car into the pits. It was pretty much race over for Hamilton after that. In a delicious piece of dramatic irony (and a nomination nod to the Guardian journo who referenced ‘Banquo’s ghost’ when writing about this moment in the race – surely a contender for this week’s Pseuds Corner in Private Eye!), Rosberg ended up with flailing streamers from Hamilton’s delaminated tyre becoming attached to his aerial and fluttering in front of him for a couple of laps. That must have made Eau Rouge interesting.
|Rosberg battling to remove Hamilton's tyre streamers. I think they call that karma.|
All of which played into the hands of the one driver who is always there to pick up the pieces when Mercedes self-destructs, the lovely Daniel Ricciardo. But it was by no means a gifted walkover of a win. Ricciardo had to overtake the supremely combative duo of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel (6 world titles cannot be wrong) and then withstand some significant pressure from Nico Rosberg in the closing stages to seal the deal.
Ricciardo has now won 3 of the last 6 races and lies just 35 points in 3rd place behind Lewis Hamilton in the title standings. And while it would be inconceivable to imagine a non-Mercedes title winner, Ricciardo’s superb form (harnessed to perfection by a brilliantly run team) could add a lot of spice to the title battle. What an absolute joy it must be for Christian Horner to have a driver like Ricciardo in the team – massively talented, hungry for success but composed and level-headed in the cockpit. Just a class act on and off the track. As and when he wins the title (as surely he will one day), he will be an enormously popular champion.
|Daniel Ricciardo. Class Act.|
Bottas took another richly deserved podium by coming home having raced his heart out with stunning moves to pass Alonso and Vettel (his balls of steel overtake of Vettel on the outside of Les Combes rightly brought a standing ovation from his mechanics!) and in the closing laps he overtook Kimi Raikkonen to secure 3rd place. But for the first time this season Kimi finished ahead of his team-mate and had his best result of the year so far. Whatever happened in the summer break, Kimi was like a driver reborn in Spa and just seemed like the Kimi of old – aggressive, focused and really enjoying himself. Maybe that is the Spa Effect. But more of the same in Monza please!
The next 4 drivers across the finish line were 5) Vettel, 6) Magnussen, 7) Button and 8) Alonso who treated us to a wild and thrilling four way scrap that in all honesty could have ended any one of 24 different ways (unless my extremely rusty A-Level in statistics has failed me which is entirely possible). If there is such a thing as a pure shot of ‘racing’ then this exhilerating sequence would be your poison.
|The calm before the storm|
And so lets pick over the wreckage of Mercedes’ weekend. The front row lock-out (their fifth of the season) had set the stage for double Mercedes glory and a fabulous battle round the greatest track in motorsport. Lewis had a stunning start to pole-vault himself into the lead and Rosberg initially dropped back to 3rd behind Vettel before quickly regaining his place. Perhaps Rosberg was slightly shaken by nearly throwing away his precious pole position advantage and his subsequent actions were borne more out of desperation to regain the lead than anything more sinister. But as Nico closed up on Lewis going into Les Combes, looking to make the pass, Lewis held firm to his racing line and Nico clipped Lewis’s rear left tyre which immediately suffered a puncture. Only the most stone-hearted fan would not have felt some small ounce of sympathy for Lewis as he staggered into the pits with a delaminated tyre and irreparable damage to the floor having been only moments earlier leading the race. But (and it’s a big ‘but’) this is motor-racing. Sometimes it is cruel and it is unfair. While undoubtedly Lewis has had more than his share of bad luck this season (although a far greater spotlight shines on his misfortune than retirements by drivers scrapping away for the odd point lower down the field), he is in exalted company with others who had the gods conspire against them (see Nigel Mansell, Johnny ‘bad luck’ Herbert and even the great Michael Schumacher at…oh yes… Mercedes).
|This tyre blow-out in Adelaide cost Mansell the title. I could still sob at the very memory.|
Of course deliberate accidents can and do happen between team-mates but I would definitely interpret this as more of a clumsy manoeuvre than any deliberate attempt by Rosberg to destroy Hamilton’s race. Firstly, Rosberg is leading the championship and there are still 7 races to go; secondly, nine times out of ten both cars would have escaped unscathed from that small sliver of contact; and thirdly, Rosberg has to answer to Toto Wolff who is Very Scary. While he might have misjudged and miscalculated the situation on lap 2 in Spa, and possibly acted a bit petulantly (but its one driver’s word against the other’s on that score), it was IMHO nothing more than a racing incident that even the FIA did not see the need to investigate. That it unfortunately cost Hamilton far more than it cost Rosberg is harsh and unfair but doesn’t mean Nico acted with malice aforethought.
There was another sub-plot in Hamilton’s race story that I found almost equally intriguing. From even before the half-way stage on lap 20, Hamilton implored the team to let him come in, retire from the race and save the engine. Mercedes rightly resisted his overtures at first by pointing out there could be the game-changer of a safety car. Always a distinct possiblity in Spa. But Lewis kept on and kept on pleading and the team clearly felt with 5 laps to go there was no point in him continuing and called him in to retire from the race.
|Lewis retires on lap 39|
Now this is a tough one. Lewis was obviously struggling without downforce to overtake far inferior cars and clearly his car’s performance deteriorated as the race went on. Probably by the time he did retire, there was little point keeping him out as his car was getting slower. But when he first begged the team to come in, he was still over a whole second faster than Grosjean. So to me it smacks of being a little bit precious and more importantly it shows that Lewis doesn’t have the same degree of fighting spirit out on track when things go wrong. He talks a good talk off the track but his head often goes down far too easily. He is so used to having a blindingly fast car but a Formula 1 grid is made up of 22 cars, most of which don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell in winning a race but all the drivers see the race through (if they possibly can). How much would Andre Lotterer, making his F1 debut at the grand old age of 32, have given to race around Spa for 44 laps as opposed to the one lap before his car conked out with mechanical failure? And what of the fans, Lewis? Its one thing to throw in the towel on lap 39 but did you not really owe it them more than to try and quit the race on lap 20?
The fall-out from the race was seismic. Rosberg was given the Full Vettel Treatment on the podium – a deafening chorus of boos. Mercedes then convened an emergency team meeting, details of which Hamilton ‘helpfully’ passed on to the media.
"We just had a meeting about it and he basically said he did it on purpose. He said he could have avoided it, but he didn't want to. He basically said, 'I did it to prove a point'.”
Rosberg’s initial response was to say:
"As drivers we are here to entertain and to show the fans a good time, our duels are always on the limit. I regret that Lewis and myself touched but I see it as a racing incident – just as the stewards did. I was quicker at the time and there was an opportunity, so I gave it a go around the outside as the inside was blocked. The opportunity was there and, for me, it wasn't a risky situation.”
And Puncture-Gate shows no signs of going away anytime soon. Mercedes has issued this statement today saying they have taken disciplinary action against Nico Rosberg following his collision with Lewis Hamilton in the Belgian Grand Prix.
‘Toto Wolff, Paddy Lowe, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton met today in the boardroom of Mercedes AMG headquarters in Brackley to discuss the events of the Belgian Grand Prix.
During this meeting, Nico acknowledged his responsibility for the contact that occurred on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix and apologised for this error of judgement. Suitable disciplinary measures have been taken for the incident.
Lewis and Nico understand and accept the team's number one rule: there must be no contact between the team's cars on track. It has been made clear that another such incident will not be tolerated. But Nico and Lewis are our drivers and we believe in them.
They remain free to race for the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship.’
Fair play to Mercedes for allowing their two drivers to continue to race although it will be fascinating to see how that plays out in practice. All I can say is BRING ON MONZA!
|Stirling Moss driving for Maserati leads the field at Monza in 1956|
|Michael Schumacher wins at Monza for the 5th time in 2006|