Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, August 26th, 2013 (F1Plus / Graham Keilloh) - Spa is a place for the unexpected to happen, the unpredictable. And, while it might not have seemed that way, in a sense that’s what we got in the 2013 Belgian Grand Prix.
In advance of the race all held onto their hats, knowing that this was Spa, which routinely provides an entertaining Sunday afternoon. Further, all held onto their umbrellas: the consensus was that rain was to play a central role, and therefore this additional variable would ensure nerve-wracking fare. But we know that Spa’s weather likes to be mischievous, to do what we least expect, and in the event it gave us the greatest misdirection of all by staying away from the race altogether.
This, with Sebastian Vettel sitting pretty in second on the grid, only Lewis Hamilton ahead who self-confessedly couldn’t match Seb’s dry-running pace, and those expected to offer more of a danger to Seb starting further back, meant the Red Bull pilot was hoisted into the status of firm race favourite. And with good reason, as he indeed strolled to the win.
But even so the extent of his dominance surprised a few, including, apparently, Seb himself. On lap one he took yards out Lewis Hamilton through Eau Rouge and then took advantage of his hole in the air up the Kemmel hill to cruise into lead, almost as if Lewis was parked. And from that point the identity of the victor didn’t seem in too much doubt, bar the arrival of unreliability or freak weather. In that way of his, Seb was 1.4 seconds clear by the end of that lap, close to three seconds ahead after two, more than four after four. The race was already in the palm of his hand.
"First of all you need to have a good launch off the line and then there's a long straight coming. A bit like Korea," said Vettel afterwards. "I tried my best to line up behind Lewis and basically benefit from a massive tow through Eau Rouge. And after that I just tried to settle into the rhythm. I tried to open a gap to be flexible at the first stop and yeah, until the end we had incredible pace."
And, as mentioned, even if his pace advantage might not have seemed outwardly too shocking, it was to Seb: "We didn't expect that. We knew, probably, going in that, in the dry, we should be able to beat Mercedes on the track but we knew other cars – Lotus, Ferrari – they looked very competitive in the dry, so in that regard yeah, we had massive pace and could control the race until the end."
And so it was: come the end he was indeed still in control, and in first place, now with almost 17 seconds in hand – Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton next up unable to get near. In a way we've seen so many times before from Seb it was a masterful controlling of a Grand Prix from the front, the sort that Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark, Alberto Ascari, indeed just about any driver, would have been proud of. And from the outside it looked a lot like he was enjoying himself out there, which he indeed confirmed afterwards.
"It’s a fantastic track, and especially when the car works well you don’t want the race to stop…the car was just a pleasure to drive. I didn't think about the championship or points…(it was) another great memory today."
Indeed, while the race lacked wheel-to-wheel dicing, at least among the front-runners, seeing three of the greatest drivers of the age push their magnificent machines around this equally magnificent circuit isn't the worst way to spent a Sunday afternoon. That it wasn't an action-packed race disappointed many. But of course that’s not Vettel's problem.
And most pointedly of all, while Seb is making all of the requisite noises about not taking anything for granted, it all rather felt like a giant stride towards championship number four for the young German. With eight rounds left he in effect has two rounds in hand, with a 46 point lead. And we’re on the cusp of the part of the year usually that he and Red Bull really get into their considerable strides.
As Seb and others expected, his biggest race-day threat for as long as rain stayed away was from the Ferrari. And after starting from ninth, thanks in part to being out on the track at the wrong time in the wet-dry qualifying, Fernando Alonso on race day did everything that could be reasonably asked of him, and perhaps a little more. Like Seb, around this grand circuit he pulled off all of his well-rehearsed party tricks: an aggressive lap one wherein he passed four cars, and then he metronomically and tenaciously moved past Button on lap 3, Rosberg on lap 6, and having hauled in Hamilton he was past and into second, and with a run at Vettel, by lap 17. Seb was now seven seconds to the good however, and would take some catching.
But it turned out that even in clear air Alonso couldn't match him. As if to underline that, in terms of the win at any stretch, the chase was all an exercise in futility for Alonso, Seb continued to eke out his advantage over the now-in-clear-air Ferrari, usually by a couple of tenths or more per lap. The final lingering threat to Seb (aside from the elements) was seen off; there was no doubt who was the quickest guy out there.
Fernando nevertheless was upbeat about his weekend, particularly on the grounds that "finally" (Alonso's word) upgrades brought to the car had brought the benefits intended, and that meant that he and the Scuderia could be positive about the rest of the year: "Today we recovered some of the optimism we lost," said Alonso afterwards. "I feel it was a good weekend for the championship in terms of feeling and in terms of the points as well." Alonso nevertheless was under no illusions that there is still a way to go for Ferrari to match the Red Bull: "When you are the second fastest you deserve to finish second. We just need to congratulate Sebastian, Red Bull and try to do better for Monza."
Indeed, it may be that while Alonso's chance of hunting down Vettel at the table top is relatively slight, his is now the only credible chance. Lewis Hamilton, after dominating the Hungaroring round as well as seizing a brilliant pole in the wet here at Spa, couldn't keep up with Alonso let alone Vettel in the race, despite pedalling hard as always. And unusually for such an outcome, Mercedes couldn't blame tyre wear so far as anyone could tell. Finishing in third place, close to 30 seconds after Vettel, was his reward and it seems the Mercedes bubble has deflated ever so slightly. Hamilton suggested afterwards that this all was expected, and that the Merc should be back on form for the twistier stuff starting in Singapore. But by that time you’d have thought whatever vestiges of title hopes that he had will be as good as gone. In better news for the team, Nico Rosberg looked to have halted his recent run of patchy results, staying out of trouble and finishing just two seconds behind his team mate in fourth.
And Kimi Raikkonen's astonishing run of finishes – some 38 races, stretching back all the way to Germany in 2009 and via a rallying sojourn – came to an end. Having started in eighth, his brakes emitted smoke from an early stage, and their performance was clearly compromised as Kimi struggled to extract himself from the midfield mire. After 25 laps, when he found himself barely able to slow for the Bus Stop chicane when trying to pass Felipe Massa, he quit. And the current points system as we've seen punishes non-finishes mercilessly. From being in second place in the table and apparently a reasonable outside bet for championship honours, he’s now a full 63 points adrift of Vettel, and all of a sudden his title shot is an extremely long one.
The race day was one for records, as in addition to claiming his 31st Grand Prix win Seb become one of the few drivers (joining only Prost, Senna, Mansell and Schumacher – illustrious company) to have led 2,000 laps in F1 Grands Prix. Somehow that fact isn't as surprising as it should be. Races like the one just passed at Spa ensure that.