September 2nd, 2012 (F1plus / Rob Myers).- Well, Formula 1 certainly returned from its summer break with a bang as the start of the Belgian grand prix saw two of the leading contenders for the 2012 world drivers’ championship taken out of the running at a chaotic first corner. Although we’ll never know what those two drivers – Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton – might have been able to do at Spa, it’s hard to argue that Jenson Button would have been remotely affected. Button produced an outstanding performance at Spa to take his second victory of the season, becoming the fourth multiple winner of the season.
Aside from Button’s win there was also some outstanding racing at Spa, most notably between Kimi Raikkonen, who took his sixth podium finish of the season by finishing third, and seven time world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher, who eventually finished seventh in his 300th grand prix. Raikkonen’s pass on Schumacher through Eau Rouge was, in particular, brilliant, and the best overtake of the race for me.
Some of the less experienced drivers on the grid could certainly learn from these two former world champions. I’m referring, in particular, here to Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado. Grosjean’s move at the start of the race triggered the truly terrifying first corner crash that ended the races of Alonso, Hamilton, Perez and of Grosjean himself, while Maldonado was again involved in incidents in both Saturday and Sunday.
Let’s start by looking at the first corner crash that triggered a safety car period and ended the races of a number of drivers. The incident was triggered by contact between Grosjean and Hamilton, which launched both drivers over the top of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. Grosjean appeared to be completely to blame for the crash as he moved sharply from left to right, cutting across the front of Hamilton’s McLaren. Hamilton, running along the inside of the track, almost completely up again the white line marking the edge of the track, was left with nowhere to go and there was contact between the right rear of the Lotus and the left front of the McLaren, triggering carnage.
This was not the first early race incident that GP2 champion Grosjean has been involved in this season, but it was certainly the most spectacular and dangerous, and it will certainly reignite the debate about safety in F1 and possibly accelerate the introduction of cockpit protection for the drivers. Certainly, Alonso can count himself extremely lucky not to have been injured in the incident as Grosjean’s car was launched into the air, dangerously close to his head. The Spaniard said after the race that the impact ‘felt like a train’.
The stewards deemed the incident so serious that they later handed Grosjean a 50,000 Euro fine and a one race ban. The stewards said that they ‘regard this incident as an extremely serious breach of the regulations which had the potential to cause injury to others”. Grosjean has shown some prodigious speed this season, but has also been involved in several incidents, suggesting that he still has a fair amount of maturing to do as a driver. His post race statement, where he admitted that he made ‘a mistake and…misjudged the gap with Lewis’ did, though suggest that it is certainly not beyond him to learn from such mistakes and convert speed into consistency.
The same cannot be said of Pastor Maldonado, who was once again the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons. Since his victory in Spain, Maldonado has failed to score a single world championship point and he continued this trend at Spa. It could have all been so different for the Venezuelan, who qualified a brilliant third, but, owing to his own stupidity, started only sixth. The Williams driver received a three place grid penalty from the stewards after holding up Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg in the first part of qualifying, despite being told not to hold him up over the team radio as the German closed up behind him.
Maldonado had said, before his grid penalty, that the team was “looking forward to making up for what we lost in the first part of the season”, after a number of lost points scoring opportunities. Perhaps his desire to make up for past errors caused him to be a little over eager at the start of the race as he clearly jumped the start. So clear was his jump-start that we witnessed race starter Charlie Whiting shaking his head in amazement as the Williams sped into second past a number of stationary cars.
Maldonado’s jump-start was subject to a stewards investigation and he would almost certainly have received a penalty during the race had he not crashed out of the race a few laps later following an incident with Marussia’s Timo Glock after the end of the safety car period. As it turned out, the steward punished the Williams drivers for both the jump start and the incident with Glock, handing him two five place grid penalties for the next race at Monza. Maldonado is certainly another driver that has shown some impressive turns of speed this season, but, as I’ve written about before, he is extremely hot-headed and has been involved in far too many incidents for anyone’s liking.
What is perhaps most worrying about Maldonado is that, unlike Grosjean, he seems completely incapable of acknowledging when he is at fault. We’ve heard a number of excuses from him, notably ‘cold tyres’ for his incidents with Sergio Perez in Monaco free practice and the race at Silverstone. This time Maldonado claimed that he ‘made a slight mistake at the start because the clutch slipped out of my hands before the red light switched off’. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Jenson Button was, though, completely untroubled by Maldonado’s jump-start or the carnage at La Source at the start of the race. Indeed, the Englishman was barely troubled by anything or anyone all weekend, having produced a completely unexpectedly dominant display in both Saturday qualifying and the race on Sunday to make the best possible start to the second half of the season.
The key to Button’s success seems to have been opting for McLaren’s new front wing after Saturday free practice, while his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, opted for an older spec wing and a higher downforce set up. While Hamilton struggled for pace in qualifying, Button was serene. We’ve often seen Button struggle with a car that was not to his liking while Hamilton has been able to somehow extract performance, but this wasn’t the case in Spa.
It’s well known that there’s no one better than Button when he’s got the car set up to his liking and there was no better demonstration of this than his performance in Belgium. Indeed, Button produced a qualifying performance that was reminiscent of his team-mate’s performance in qualifying at the previous race of the season in Hungary. Like Hamilton at the Hungaroring, Button’s time in set in Q2 would have been good enough for pole position had it been set in Q3, and like Hamilton in Hungary, Button followed a brilliant Q2 performance up with a further two searingly fast hot laps in Q3, both of which were good enough for pole.
Button’s qualifying performance was certainly impressive – surprisingly it was his first pole position for McLaren in his 50th race for the team – but so, too, was his performance in the race. Button became the first driver to take a lights to flag victory in 2012, having one stopped his way to victory by 13.6 seconds from Red Bull Racing’s double world champion Sebastian Vettel. Button was never challenged, pulling effortlessly away after the safety car pulled into the pits to record one of his very best Formula 1 wins.
Honourable mentions also go to Torro Rosso who, after a fairly dismal season, secured a double points finish with an eighth place finish for Jean-Eric Vergne and a ninth for Daniel Ricciardo. Force India will be similarly pleased after a double points finish of their own – the highlight being a brilliant fourth place for Nico Hulkenberg.
Certainly, though, it was not a good weekend for either Hamilton or Alonso. The latter saw Vettel move into second place in the world drivers’ championship just 24 world championship points behind him after his first DNF of the season. This, of course, means that Alonso would lose his lead in the world drivers’ championship if he fails to score on Ferrari’s home turf and Vettel takes victory. Who would have imagined that that would be possible before today’s race?
Button has clearly given his championship chances a huge shot in the arm with this performance, but the task of winning a second drivers’ championship still looks to be a massive challenge for him. He has, though, closed to within 16 world championship points of his team-mate and reduced the deficit to championship leader Fernando Alonso to 63 points. The 2012 Formula 1 season has certainly been full of surprises and a few more may yet be on the cards.