Sunday, 24 August 2014

Belgian Grand Prix – Qualifying

How much have I missed F1? I am overjoyed that it is back in all its crazy, controversial, glorious technicolour. And not only is it back, but it is back at The Best Track in the entire calendar, Spa-Francorchamps. I have waxed lyrical about this stunning circuit so many times that I will resist doing so again this time. But as always Spa will do the talking for itself.

The normally interminable summer break has actually gone by really fast – it seems like no time since the Hungarian Grand Prix (and blogging that rather marvellous race while cruising down the Bay of Biscay to Bilbao). But rather unexpectedly this summer I was able to obtain my F1 fix elsewhere.

It is not every day (or year) you go on holiday and discover one of the most important, influential, knowledgeable and legendary figures in Formula 1 happens to be by the most wonderful of coincidences staying at the same place. According to my husband he has never seen me so genuinely shocked and lost for words (including even when he proposed!) as when he told me who he had just been chatting to. Rather amusingly, the husband was wearing his James Hunt t-shirt when Charlie Whiting (just before we realised it was THE Charlie Whiting) asked him if he was a big fan of James. And yes, it was the real Charlie Whiting not the fake one although we *might* have asked him what it was like to meet a fake version of yourself. Fairly surreal apparently!

To be fair its a cool t-shirt

We were very fortunate to have many fascinating conversations with Charlie about Formula 1. I have to admit we would have loved to have spoken non stop about F1 with Charlie and, while he was enormously willing to share his thoughts and insights, he was on his holiday just like us and entitled to some down-time!

Of course we had to ask about favourite races and while my mind was flitting between great Schumacher races and great Senna races and recent classics such as Canada 2011 and Interlagos 2012, Charlie put forward the European Grand Prix of 1999, won by Johnny Herbert. Just a brilliant shout – there was a delayed start, an aborted start, barrel roll crashes, a sequence of heartbreaking retirements from race leaders including title contenders and Fisichella in what would have been his first race win. It was the only race ever won by the Stewart Grand Prix team - and Barrichello made it the perfect day for Stewart by finishing 3rd (behind Trulli in the Prost). To see highlights of that epic race, click here. And yes, Johnny Herbert really is an all round top bloke.

Anyway thanks Charlie – it was an absolute pleasure!

Yours truly and Charlie W
The other guy is the husband!

And so the curtain lifts on Act Two of the 2014 season. Qualifying, here we come.

Good old Spa, the morning of qualifying had already seen torrential rain and hailstorms. But qualifying got underway under glorious blue skies and a wet but drying track, However, more rain was expected within the hour. Should drivers be pushing for their best time right from the start? Spa probably more than any other race is where the team principals and strategists really earn their money.

Dumped out at the Q1 stage were Maldonaldo (Lotus), Hulkenberg (Force India), Chilton (Marussia), Gutierrez (Sauber), Lotterer (Caterham) and Ericsson (Caterham).

Andre Lotterer, making his F1 debut at the age of 32. Sometimes dreams do come true!
(please no one crash into him on the first lap!)

It is quite unusual to only get one pair of cars in the bottom six. Well done to Grosjean, Perez, Sutil and particularly Jules Bianchi (who set the 14th fastest time in his Marussia) all of whom succeeded where their team-mates failed. I would stake a trillion pounds that Bianchi ends up at Ferrari in the next 2 or 3 years. But what happened in Q1 to the Hulk? He is normally so good in the rain.

There's a Ferrari in there somewhere

Depending on who you believe, it was either now raining again or it wouldl be raining again very shortly. Some race engineers were telling their drivers that this run (ie. the first of Q2) could be the fastest one of this session. Blogging Spa qualifying is always a bit of a crazy mindbending experience where you cling on for dear life and enjoy the ride.

It was looking a whole lot like we were going to get yet another Mercedes front row lock out. The next cars (currently Alonso and Bottas) were around a second behind. Unless they were all holding something back in reserve. But unlikely. Or not enough anyway to alarm anyone on the Mercedes pitwall.

Button was teetering on the edge of the dropzone along with Vettel. Interestingly the Red Bulls weren’t exactly storming around Spa and hearteningly the Ferrari's seemed to be much improved from the underperforming and quite frankly dire cars (and if that sounds harsh you have to measure Ferrari by the standards they themselves expect) we saw in the first part of the season. Both Button and Vettel squeaked into Q3 by the narrowest of margins.

Missing the cut for the top ten shoot-out were: 11) Daniil Kvyat 12) Jean-Eric Vergne 13) Sergio Perez 14) Adrian Sutil 15) Romain Grosjean 16) Jules Bianchi. All in all no real shocks there.

So which of Hamilton and Rosberg would take first blood and grab pole in Spa? Its not the kind of track where taking pole is imperative but in the context of the title battle and it being the first race since the summer break, it would be a huge psychological boost especially I feel to Hamilton who must be desperate to break Rosberg’s hegemony in qualifying.

Nico Rosberg - taking on all challengers and the Spa weather

With 5 minutes to go, Rosberg was sitting pretty on provisional pole, with Hamilton just behind him and then Vettel a whopping 1.8 seconds down the order in 3rd spot. To give Vettel his due, he was still much closer than anyone else to the Mercedes pair. 

Really Spa is like manna from heaven for racing photographers. Endless dizzying images of sleek, gleaming cars emerging from the mist and rain through the Ardennes forest. But please remind me never ever ever to book a holiday in Belgium in the summer. Unless of course it is to attend the Belgian Grand Prix!

Track perfection

And Lewis was chucking everything at his final flying lap to grab pole back from Nico. He was ragged beyond belief considering the treacherous conditions and incredibly was a few hundredths of a second ahead but at the death he couldn’t quite pull it off.

Nico Rosberg took pole to make it now four consecutive pole positions (the last time Lewis started on pole was amazingly at the Spanish Grand Prix in mid May) and Lewis will start in second place. But only 6 of the last 14 pole-sitters have gone on to win at Spa. I wouldn’t bet against anyone in a silver car (although it would be turn up for the books if Button or Magnussen were to clinch a sensational win!!).

The top 3 in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix

The top 10 will line up as follows:
  1. Rosberg – Fewest mistakes. Fastest lap. Job done.
  2. Hamilton – Who said “being second is to be the first of the ones who lose”? Ah yes the incomparable Ayrton Senna. Lets see who finishes where at the end of 44 laps.
  3.  Vettel – Is this a rejuvenated Seb? Strange to say about a 4 time world champion!
  4. Alonso – Great to see Fernando higher up to the grid and hope he has one of his electric starts.
  5. Ricciardo – Unusually behind his team-mate but one to watch.
  6. Bottas – A smidge disappointed not to see Williams higher. Claire Williams said before the race that ironically for once they weren’t wishing for rain and looks like she was right.
  7. Magnussen – A good result in tricky conditions.
  8. Raikkonen – Promised much more in the earlier stages of qualifying. Oh Kimi.
  9. Massa – Really just not convinced by Massa at Williams.
  10. Button – Can’t help but think (and I love Jenson) he might have been slightly higher up a couple of years ago. The sands of time and all that.

The stage is set and in around 30 minutes time battle will be rejoined. 44 laps of craziness coming up.

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