We’re back! After a four-week summer break, Formula One has returned to Spa-Francorchamps. And it was overtake city, crazy qualifying and terribly gorgeous drives. Warning: spoilers.
It’s a cheeky little trick, Formula One’s summer break. Just when one is about ready to give up waiting for the season to return, it’s back, and it’s back with Spa-Francorchamps, which is electrifying motor racing perfection. This is how Formula One should always be. From the first qualifying laps, it was an ultra-speed roller coaster in the harsh forests of the Ardennes, on a track with elevation changes so extreme that the engines fluctuate in power a full one percent between the top of the hill and the bottom of the valley.
Then there’s the weather. Like the Nürburgring, its neighbor across the Belgium-Germany border, Spa-Francorchamps has got its own microclimate, which translates into meteorological theatrics that would shame Tierra del Fuego.
It’s funny, with all that crazy weather, that Jenson Button never won a race here. Not like he didn’t try. He was up on the top of the table in the first part of qualifying, which was on a drying track. Times were dropping lap by lap, and Button was set for an easy cruise into the top ten shootout for pole when he was erroneously told by McLaren to do no more laps and to cool off his tires. Bad call. Button qualified a lowly 13th. Meanwhile, his teammate Lewis Hamilton overtook Pastor Maldonado’s Williams during qualifying to ensure himself a spot in the shootout, and Maldonado then swerved across the start-finish straight to deliberately bump into his McLaren. Venezuela’s ill-tempered bad boy got a five-place grid penalty for his impulse-control issues, and Hamilton got a new wing and some duct tape.
Hamilton himself, his McLaren patched up (above, in an aquarelle-pencil-and-duct-tape departure from Crayolas), beat a flying Mark Webber to pole by half a second, a glory which lasted at least three seconds. Because last across the line was Sebastian Vettel, who in turn beat Hamilton by half a second for the 24th pole of his career. That’s a lot of pole positions. Vettel is now eighth on the all-time list, and as for percentage of pole positions, he’s behind Fangio, Clark, Ascari, Senna, and nobody else.
Red Bull had looked vulnerable in the past three races and what they did to fend off McLaren and Ferrari was to push yet another parameter, front camber,
beyond the limit. Pirelli recommends a maximum of four degrees of negative camber on the front wheels, which was translated by Red Bull technical director Adrian Newey, as quoted by the BBC, as “just a hair over four, four and an eighth, or something, just a tiny bit over”. Such ludicrous imprecision from Formula One’s resident rocket scientist probably translates to five. Just a hair over. Five and an eighth. Or something. Negative camber helps grip, not by a tiny bit, but it also puts extra strain on the inner sidewalls, and by the time qualification was over, blisters had formed on the inside edges of Red Bull’s front tires. Other teams were also affected by this to a lesser degree. Red Bull had the option of changing tires, but at the cost of starting from the pit lane, and you can guess what they did.
Vettel got away nice and clean, Webber stalled and dropped back to tenth, but it was Nico Rosberg from fifth who got the most incredible start. He was second already by the time they zoomed out of Eau Rouge, and cleanly passed Vettel for the lead on the Kemmel Straight. The Mercedes and its straight line speed at work.
Bruno Senna, back in Formula One as a replacement for Nick Heidfeld at Renault, had qualified a superb 7th, then promptly screwed up the braking zone into the first corner, and ran into the side of Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso. He managed to salvage 13th and avoided getting lapped, not bad for his first time ever in the car on a full load of fuel.
Up front, Vettel repassed Rosberg, and was followed by Hamilton and the Ferraris. On lap five, he came in for fresh tires and immediately upped his pace. In the midfield, Michael Schumacher was climbing his way relentlessly up the grid after losing a tire in qualification, posting no time, and starting from dead last.
Then it was time for the most spectacular pass of the race. Fernando Alonso emerged from the pits to find Mark Webber’s Red Bull coming at him in the downhill straight into Eau Rouge. Alonso was momentarily ahead, but Webber kept his foot in, and passed the Ferrari at the bottom of the corner with millimeters to spare on each side. It was fabulous stuff, aided by nothing but pure driver skill.
Hamilton was looking strong all weekend, running up front, until it was time for a display of his careless side, fairly well concealed since Monaco. After overtaking Kamui Kobayashi on the Kemmel, he moved to the left for the racing line, never bothering to look for Kobayashi’s Sauber. It was there. The two made contact, and Hamilton flew off the circuit, into a big Styrofoam barrier, and his race was over. “After watching the replay, I realize it was my fault today 100%. I didn’t give Kobayashi enough room,” Hamilton tweeted after the race.
Hamilton’s crash meant safety car time, and this meant a lucky pitstop for Vettel, who was comfortably in the lead by the time racing resumed after a few laps. He proceeded to run one of his signature races, when he does nothing but drive very, very fast up front. We will have to learn of his overtaking abilities on another day. Fireworks were the responsibility of Jenson Button—who scythed through the field with dozens of beautiful passes, including one on Fernando Alonso in the antepenultimate lap, to claim third from 13th—and Michael Schumacher, who celebrated 20 years in Formula One with a drive from 24th to fifth. Mark Webber finished second after he shook off his terrible start and made full use of his Red Bull.
The 2011 Belgian Grand Prix was a connoisseur’s race. It didn’t have unnecessary drama, it didn’t have politics, it wasn’t gimmicky, the weather didn’t play too big a part. It was racing, pure and simple racing, it had fantastic overtakes which owed little to artificial aids, it had inspired drives, great comebacks, and it had Spa-Francorchamps. Strange to think that after a century of science, Formula One’s most awesome circuit is still the result of a chance meeting between a newspaperman and the chairman of the Belgian automobile club in a hotel in 1920, isn’t it?
We have seven more races and three more fantastic tracks—Monza, Suzuka and Interlagos—on the calendar, and if Vettel keeps driving like this, the only question is, will he become double world champion in Japan or in South Korea?
Not that there’s anything to complain about. The championship may be the antithesis of last year’s nail-biter, but the quality of this year’s races is way up there, no doubt aided by the strongest field of drivers since the late 1980s.
Illustration by Peter Orosz. Gallery curated by Natalie Polgar. Photography by Vladimir Rys/Getty Images, Lars Baron/Getty Images, Tom Shaw/Allsport, Mark Thompson/Getty Images. Map of North-Central France and South Belgium from 1703 by Nicolas Sanson, scanned and uploaded by the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.