Free Practice, FP1/FP2/FP3:
The return of Formula 1 after the summer break didn’t have any surprises in store; it was all the same at the top. Mercedes duo shared the top step during the Friday sessions; Bottas topped FP3, but it was under mixed track conditions. Other than Mercedes, the likes of Ferrari, Williams, McLaren and Sahara Force India enjoyed a good long run pace on Friday. Although, Red Bull looked dodgy with their pace but no one can count them out under any circumstances. At the back of the pack, Kamui Kobaysahi was replaced by Le Mans racer Andre Lotterer for the weekend.
It was usual program for Sahara Force India, as they focused on the long run pace and push for a two stop strategy for race day. The team’s qualifying pace was once again in question and the team acknowledged the problem and insisted that they will do whatever they can to qualify well. Both the drivers were happy with the pace shown on Friday, they were actually surprised by the good balance. The team hasn’t brought major updates for past few races but there had been some visible changes on the car; they have been trying different designs on the car for the past few races. Once again, getting both the cars into Q3 was the aim but it was more likely that, they will have one car in Q3 and other in Q2.
The damp track made the qualifying session an interesting watch; tyre choices and a clear cut strategy were the key points during the session. Rosberg made no mistake whatsoever, to clinch another pole position, whereas Hamilton only managed P2; his quick lap was compromised because of the cold brakes. Vettel recovered from his time loss during FP2 to qualifying a brilliant P3. Bottas, on the other hand only managed P6, behind Alonso at P4 and Ricciardo at P5. Lower down the order, Bianchi once again made it to Q2 while Lotterer in his first qualifying session beat his teammate Ericsson, fair and square.
Qualifying wasn’t going to be a strong point for Sahara Force India, and they suffered a major jolt when Hulkenberg, missed out on a Q2 run. The German only managed P18, and admitted to making mistakes on his quick lap; the last time he missed out on a Q2 run was in Monza in 2012. Perez made it through to Q2 but couldn’t advance to the final shoot out. He qualified a good P13 which gave him a strong position to fight for points and a free tyre choice. The race pace shown on Friday meant that the team were upbeat about a double point finish on Sunday.
Drama at the start
It didn’t take long for the drama’s to begin in Belgium, once the race was a go. Hamilton took the lead and fended off the Vettel threat, midway through lap 1. But, his luck wasn’t to be with him for long, he was hit by his teammate Rosberg, immediately in lap 2, causing a puncture, which ultimately ruined Hamilton’s race. It created a stir post race, this was always coming. With Hamilton out of equation and Alonso receiving a 5 second stop/go penalty; Vettel, Raikkonen, Ricciardo and Bottas were very much in the equation to win the race, along with Rosberg. Both the Sahara Force India drivers gained places in the opening lap, as Perez was up to P11 and Hulkenberg was up to P14; both gained a couple of places more by lap 3, as Perez moved to P9 and Hulkenberg to P12. At the back, both Maldonado and Lotterer suffered a DNF, at the end of lap 1, for the former, a dream debut turned into a disaster debut especially on race day.
Out of nowhere, Ricciardo leads
In the middle stages of the race, Ricciardo was leading from Raikkonen and Bottas. Rosberg lost some time due to change of the front wing, but the pace of Mercedes helped him to fight back for a podium finish, if not a win. Both Vettel and Alonso were fighting in the lower half of the top 10 with the two McLarens. Meanwhile, Hamilton was not in the mood to race, after losing chunks of time and positions; he was always on the radio stating, that the team should save the power unit and retire. While all this was happening, Chilton and Ericsson were in a fight of their own for grid positions.
For the Sahara Force India drivers, it was a pretty straightforward race, with little action to keep them on their toes, for most part of the race. Both drove a clean race, without any incidents until, towards the end of the race, when Kvyat was all over Perez, while Hulkenberg was all over Kvyat. Perez was always inside the top 10, while Hulkenberg was in and out of the points; in fact, he was fighting for the last point scoring position with Kvyat in the end.
Ricciardo wins, Rosberg greeted with boos
Ricciardo, was comfortably ahead in the end to win his third race of the season and second in succession. Rosberg, made the gamble of pitting and pushing for the win, but the gap was too much and thus, he ended at P2. He was greeted with the special “boos” on the podium; the tussle didn’t go well with the fans. Bottas, continued the impressive run for Williams, to finish P3, after overtaking Raikkonen, towards the end of the race.
It was a mighty close scrap for the lower half of the top 10, it was won by Vettel (P5), after he overtook Magnessun, Button (P6) and Alonso (P7). Magnessun, was handed a 20 second penalty which dropped him from P6 to P12 and promoted Button, Alonso, Perez, Kvyat and Hulkenberg. The race ended with only Perez in points, but it soon became a double point finish for Sahara Force India; Perez finished at P8 and Hulkenberg at P10. It was a close fight between Perez, Kvyat and Hulkenberg; the German was in a good position, to not only overtake Kvyat, but also Perez, if only there was a lap or two remaining, in the race.
On to Monza
Rosberg has managed to stretch the gap to 29 points, after Hamilton failed to finish the race and score any points. The rivalry took an ugly turn and surely has caused a strain on their relationship. This fight, is giving Ricciardo a good outside chance to challenge for the championship; if things continue to go this way, then the Australian could be the one to challenge Rosberg and not Hamilton. The Ferrari and Williams fight, too is taking a good shape, especially, with Raikkonen scoring points again but Bottas’ good run of podium finishes, is keeping them well, in contention for P3. McLaren, moved ahead of Sahara Force India in the championship, both are evenly matching each other on race pace and the fight is certainly on, once again this season. SFI broke into the, 100 points bracket in the 12th race itself (the only time they scored more than 100 points in a season was in 2012 when they scored 109 points); this shows that the team is constantly improving year after year.
It will be interesting, to see where this, Hamilton and Rosberg rivalry goes, and how Ricciardo fits in the battle. Apart from this driver battle, the team battle in the constructors’ championship, is heating up too for P3-P6 positions, the pack now moves to Monza which is the last race of the European leg, see you in two weeks time.