Despite suffering from severe tyre blistering in the early stages, which forced him to pit twice for new tyres by lap 15, Sebastian Vettel won the Belgian Grand Prix ahead of Red Bull team mate Mark Webber and Jenson Button, who started 13th on the grid and survived a scare when his front wing was broken early on and he was forced to stop.
Given the problems he faced, problems which basically forced his team mate Mark Webber to run the whole race on the medium tyre, it was one of Vettel’s most impressive wins to date. It was greatly helped by problems for some of his rivals and by the Red Bull being more competitive here in Spa than it has been in recent years, but there was still a lot of work to do for him given the restrictions of the tyres. The Red Bull was set up at a certain camber angle which, combined with the vertical loads in Eau Rouge corner in particular, meant that the inside shoulder of the tyres was blistering on many cars, but especially the Red Bull. This doesn’t necessarily affect lap time, but does raise some safety questions as there is always the chance of a failure.
It was Vettel’s 7th win of the season and the 17th of his career and it makes his grip on the world title even more secure with Lewis Hamilton crashing out of the race. Vettel’s win extended his lead at the top of the championship to 92 points with only seven races to go. At this rate he could wrap his second world title up by the Indian Grand Prix in October. Surprisingly it was only Red Bull’s second one-two finish of the season.
There had been some behind the scenes action on race morning with some teams, including Red Bull, suffering from blistering problems on the front tyres in qualifying and asking the FIA for some dispensation to get new fronts for the start of the race. This did not happen.
“We had a lot of concern going into the race given the damage on the tyre so we took quite a risk,” said Vettel. “We (he and Webber) both stopped early and the target was to see how the tyres and not think too much about the outcome. It was more management than usual, but the car worked brilliantly. I’m very happy with how we managed the tyres.”
There were some fantastic performances throughout the field with Webber recovering from a poor start to finish second, Jenson Button making up 10 places from his grid slot and Michael Schumacher coming through from last place to fifth at the finish.
The track was dry at the start and everyone except Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button started on the soft tyre.
Nico Rosberg made an electric start, up to second on the first corner from fifth on the grid and then into the lead on the Kemmel Straight. Vettel slotted in second, with Hamilton under attack from Alonso who went past the Englishman on lap 2.
There was quite a bit of contact in the first corner, Alguersuari, Senna, Kovalainen all had some damage. Vettel retook the lead on lap four. Senna missed the corner and went straight on into Alguersuari. Senna hadn’t driven a race for a while and he was given a drive through penalty.
Webber and Button both pitted on lap 5, Webber’s tyres suffering already.
Alonso and Massa attacked Rosberg and we had a sequence of fantastic racing, as Alonso passed Massa and as the Brazilian tried to resist, Hamilton went through as well.
Vettel pitted on lap 7, reporting vibrations on his first set. He rejoined in 9th place. This early switch to new tyres was critical to the outcome of the race as he was able to lap very fast and build a margin, while others were still trying to make their qualifying tyres last.
Alonso passed Rosberg for the lead, great progress from his 8th place starting position. Meanwhile Hamilton was starting to see blisters on his front tyres. He still managed to pass Rosberg using DRS on lap 8, for second place.
Hamilton passed Kobayashi but then the pair collided with Hamilton having a big impact with the barriers and going out of the race.
The safety car was deployed on lap 15 and as some cars came into the pits, Webber found himself in second place behind Alonso, the difference being that Webber had got his medium tyre phase out of the way, Alonso had not.
Vettel pitted for the second time under the safety car. Behind the safety car the order of the top ten was Alonso, Webber, Vettel, Massa, Rosberg, Sutil, Perez, Petrov, Schumacher, Barrichello.
The race restarted on lap 16. Alonso held the lead, but Vettel passed Webber on the straight and set about Alonso, using his fresh tyres. He got ahead into the lead, but Alonso seemed to be managing the tyre wear, apparently planning to make one less stop.
Button was making great progress at this stage, having already got his medium tyre phase out of the way early on. He passed Sutil and Massa in quick succession.
Vettel was trying hard to avoid making an extra stop at the front on his third set of tyres. He managed it and only pitted for the medium tyre when Alonso did so on lap lap 30. He had coped very well with the compromise enforced by the blistering early on, a tough job but one he and the team managed superbly. Understanding and working the tyres just right seems to be one of his strongest traits, as he also showed in the final part of qualifying.
In the closing stages the main interest was Webber trying to catch Alonso, both on the medium tyres. The Red Bull was much faster on them.
Michael Schumacher had a great day to celebrate his 20th anniversary, starting at the back of the grid he used an inverted strategy starting on and running mainly mediums with soft tyres at the end to get into the top six and fight with his team mate Rosberg, who started fifth. Rosberg was told to “save fuel” in the closing stages and Schumacher passed him for fifth place.
Webber passed Alonso on the medium tyre very easily, the Red Bull a lot faster on it than the Ferrari. Meanwhile Button on the soft tyre was catching Alonso at a second a lap with six laps to go. He passed him with four laps to go for the final podium spot.
Webber closed on Vettel in the closing stages at around 7/10ths of a second a lap, but Vettel managed that gap too.
BELGIAN GRAND PRIX, Spa Francorchamps, 44 laps
1. Vettel Red Bull 1h26.44.893
2. Webber Red Bull + 3.741
3. Button McLaren + 9.669
4. Alonso Ferrari + 13.022
5. Schumacher Mercedes + 47.464
6. Rosberg Mercedes + 48.674
7. Sutil Force India + 59.713
8. Massa Ferrari + 1m06.076
9. Petrov Renault + 1m11.917
10. Maldonado Williams + 1m17.615
11. Di Resta Force India + 1m23.994
12. Kobayashi Sauber + 1m31.976
13. Senna Renault + 1m32.985
14. Trulli Lotus + 1 lap
15. Kovalainen Lotus + 1 lap
16. Barrichello Williams + 1 lap
17. D’Ambrosio Virgin + 1 lap
18. Glock Virgin + 1 lap
19. Liuzzi HRT + 1 lap