Photo: Getty Images.
Qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps showed that the month-long summer break hadn’t done a thing to dampen the 2012 Formula 1 season’s competitiveness. Bottom, middle, and top; surprises were evident everywhere. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) failed to make it out of Q1, while Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) mired in Q2.
And at the top? Jenson Button (McLaren) won his first pole in 61 races (Monaco 2009). Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) became the first front row qualifier from Japan since Takuma Sato in 2004, and Pastor Maldonado (Williams) gave his team its best start as Spa since 2001.
At the end of it all, the frustration of the part of some was crystal clear. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren, P8) who entered the weekend fourth in the championship standings after winning the prior race in Hungary tweeted: “Damn. WTF!! Jenson has the new rear wing on. I have the old. We voted to change. Didn’t work out. I lost 0.4 tenths just on the straight.” “Nothing I could do. Now it’s about picking up every point I can from there. Jenson should win easy with that speed.” “PS. Can’t change the car once qualifying starts. I hope @JensonButton brings home maximum points. I’ll try & support him.”
As the grid began its formation lap Ferrari voiced concerns that tire degradation was a large question mark given the lack of practice data from Friday (a complete washout). Kobayashi was smoking heavily from his rims while waiting for green, suggesting badly overheated brakes. A huge crash opened the race at the first corner, taking out Hamilton, championship-leader Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Sergio Perez (Sauber), and Romain Grosjean (Lotus), who had triggered the mess by pushing Hamilton off course to the right.
Kobayashi, Maldonado, and Pedro de la Rosa (HRT) pitted for hard tires during the caution period. Button, Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus), and Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) were the top 3 on restart, with Hulkenberg taking P2 once the cars were running again. By Lap 8 Raikkonen was struggling with grip.
Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), who started 13th, took P3 from Raikkonen on Lap 11. Hulkenberg pitted from P2 on Lap 14, while Button was still setting fastest laps on his first set of tires. Button’s lead was nearly 13 sec by Lap 18 and nearly 15 one lap later. Button came in on Lap 20 of 44, with McLaren nailing a 2.4-sec stop.
Lap 22 saw Button, Raikkonen, and Hulkenberg holding down the top 3. Button rebuilt his lead to 8.5 by Lap 24 and was running 1 sec/lap faster than P2. Lead stretched to 11 sec on Lap 27. Following pit stops from Raikkonen and Hulkenberg, the Lap 30 running order was Button, Vettel, and Schumacher. Raikkonen briefly took Schumi two laps later, but Michael engaged the DRS to take P3 right back.
Raikkonen took P3 on Lap 34, passing Schumi going into the DRS zone and thereby able to use his system after executing the pass. Hulkenberg took P4 from his fellow German one lap later, with Schumi taking it right back. Lap 35 Top 3: Button, Vettel, Raikkonen. In the meantime, Felipe Massa (Ferrari) had moved up to P5 from P14.
Schumacher had sunk to P7 by Lap 40, having lost sixth gear. Button’s lead on Lap 41 stood at 14.3 sec, with he and Vettel having successfully executed one-stop strategies. In the end, Button took his first-ever victory at Spa (and second of the year), followed by Vettel, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, and Massa. Hulkenberg’s P4 was a career best. Vettel’s finish moved the two-time defending champion into second in the season standings, 24 points behind Alonso, with Button’s win moving McLaren into second in the manufacturer’s championship.
Driver standings - Top 10
164 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) - Ferrari
140 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RBR-Renault
132 - Mark Webber (Australia) - RBR-Renault
131 – Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) – Lotus-Renault
117 - Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
101 - Jenson Button (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
77 - Nico Rosberg (Germany) – Mercedes
76 – Romain Grosjean (France) – Lotus-Renault
47 – Sergio Perez (Mexico) – Sauber-Ferrari
35 – Michael Schumacher (Germany) - Mercedes
Constructor standings - Teams scoring points
272 - RBR-Renault - Vettel, Webber
218 - McLaren-Mercedes - Hamilton, Button
207 – Lotus-Renault – Raikkonen, Grosjean
199 - Ferrari - Alonso, Felipe Massa
112 - Mercedes - Rosberg, Schumacher
80 - Sauber-Ferrari – Perez, Kamui Kobayashi
59 – Force India-Mercedes – Paul di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg
53 - Williams-Renault – Pastor Maldonado, Bruno Senna
12 – STR-Ferrari – Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne
Next event: 2012 FORMULA 1 GRAN PREMIO SANTANDER D’ITALIA – Monza – Sept. 7-9, 2012
This race report dedicated to the memory of my mother-in-law LInda H. Bennett, who passed in her sleep while the race was underway. A very dear woman and the closest thing to a second mother one could ever have.