Changeable. Each commentator will use that word at least 6,072 times over the Belgian Formula One
Grand Prix weekend. It is almost always applied to the weather, because the Spa-Francorchamps Circuit – perhaps all of Belgium – resides in some sort of climatological Narnia, its ADD skies totally unable to settle on a reliable behavior.
A dry Friday turned into a thoroughly wet qualifying on Saturday. When Q3 had done, Nico Rosberg would line up on pole position for the fourth race in a row for Mercedes AMG Petronas, after teammate Lewis Hamilton had another brake problem, this time glazing on one of the discs. Infiniti Red Bull Racing engineered a low-downforce setup and Sebastian Vettel took the best advantage, lining up third and making us wonder if the magic was back. Fernando Alonso drove the first Ferrari to fourth, the Spaniard saying he thought a podium was possible. Daniel Ricciardo put the second Infiniti Red Bull Racing in fifth, Valtteri Bottas behind him in the first Williams, then Kimi Räikkönen in the second Ferrari, Felipe Massa in the second Williams and Jenson Button in the sole McLaren in the top ten.
But this weekend it wasn't just the weather that was changeable.
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Hamilton had said that starting from P2 on the grid might give him a better chance to get ahead of his teammate, remembering how last year he got passed for first position on the Kemmel Straight on the first lap. Turned out he wouldn't have to wait that long because Rosberg got a terrible start. Hamilton was in the lead by Turn 1, Vettel in second by Eau Rouge.
The Brit wouldn't stay at the front for long, though, and the reason will be one of the images that defines the year no matter who wins the Driver's Championship. Rosberg tried to drag his way past Hamilton on the Kemmel Straight on Lap 2, going two-up into the first corner at the end of the straight into Les Combes, Hamilton with the inside line. Pulling ahead of Rosberg through the right-hander, Hamilton took the racing line through the immediate left-hander and his left rear wheel clobbered Rosberg's front wing. Rosberg lost an endplate, Hamilton lost the race and any chance of points; flatting immediately, he drove the car around the longest circuit on the calendar, launching debris all over the track and taking on damage that would keep him in the backfield until he retired on Lap 40. He had asked the team to retire on Lap 20 and save his engine, but for some reason they kept him running until his engineer sent the message, "something's breaking apart on your car." According to reports, Rosberg told the team that he didn't back off through the corner in order to prove a point.
If Rosberg made a point, Ricciardo put the exclamation on it. The Aussie was even more in tune with the low-downforce Red Bull than his teammate, passing Alonso on Lap 4, swooshing by his teammate two laps later when Vettel made a mistake, then going after Rosberg. When Rosberg pitted for a new nose on Lap 9 and came back out in ninth, that unlocked all sorts of potential outcomes for everyone else.
Ricciardo had been busy setting fast laps, so when he pitted on Lap 12 he came back out in first and he never gave it up, but the mix of passing on track and pit strategies kept kept us guessing about the outcome until ten laps from the end. Ricciardo pitted for a second time on Lap 28 and emerged three seconds in front of Rosberg, but Rosberg had to pit again on Lap 35. The German was 20 seconds behind the Aussie on Lap 37 but lapping fast enough to give him the tiniest hope of victory. Ricciardo closed the door on it, though, picking up his own pace during the final rounds, taking the victory 3.4 seconds clear.
Another driver whose fate didn't become clear until four laps from the end was Bottas. The Williams driver stayed in the top five throughout the event, and we were treated to some top rate driving throughout the race from positions three all the way to ten, Bottas mixing it up with Räikkönen, Vettel, Alonso, Button and Kevin Magnussen. The Finn drove a clean race, passing his countryman and competitor Räikkönen on Lap 40 to take third place, which he'd hold to the flag. His teammate was undone by Hamilton's tire debris, some of it sticking to his floor and slowing him down by three seconds per lap.
After a tough opening to the weekend, Räikkönen finally got the reliable car and clean race he's been after. Able to keep out of trouble and keep his nose in the hunt, the Ferrari driver finally let his driving do the talking. If the F14 T had just a bit more pace, Räikkönen would have locked in a spot on the podium.
Vettel trailed him home, the German posting a very respectable result after more mechanical issues and a power unit change meant he didn't drive on Friday. In the closing stages of the Grand Prix, Vettel, Magnussen, Alonso and Button were all within a second of one another and trying to get fourth place, going into some corners in two-up pairs. Unsurprisingly, we did get a couple of blunders with all that great driving, Magnussen running Alonso off the track on the Kemmel Straight, followed by Vettel driving over Alonso's front wing on the entry to Turn 1 on Lap 44, Button passing Alonso on that very lap. Magnussen took a 20-second penalty applied after the race, dropping him from the top ten to 12th. His teammate Button finished seventh.
Alonso came in eighth, his race arguably toast well before those late-race antics. His engineering crew was still on the track when the bell rang to signal 15 seconds until the formation lap. That's a big no-no. The stewards hit Alonso with a five-second penalty to be taken at his first pit stop – wouldn't fining the team have been more appropriate? – and that sucked him down the order.
Sergio Perez in eighth and Nico Hülkenberg in tenth finally got another double points finish for Force India, split by Daniil Kvyat in ninth place. Elsewhere over the weekend and on the grid, the amazing Jules Bianchi qualified his Marussia in 16th. After scoring the team's only points in Monaco, even though a collision on the first lap took him out of the race the Ferrari junior driver continues to impress. Also impressive, substitute driver André Lotterer at Caterham. His race only lasted two laps, the car and its new, less ugly nose stopping on track, but he out-qualified his teammate by almost a second. Caterham now knows there's more potential in their car, but they'll have a hard time finding a way to pay drivers to exploit it.
So Mercedes drops the ball, again, and Ricciardo gets the steal, again – he's the only driver outside the Mercedes pair to win a race and that's the theme of all three of his victories this year. The win puts him just 35 points behind Hamilton, 156 to 191. Rosberg's second place gets him back to a lead that Hamilton can't erase with a single win, with 220 points.
Mercedes still dominates the Constructor's Championship, 411 points to Infiniti Red Bull Racing's 254 points. It's almost unthinkable that Mercedes could lose it, but Red Bull has outscored The Silver Arrows the last two races, something that hasn't happened all year. Ferrari put more space between itself and Williams, with 160 points to 150, and McLaren did the same with Force India, 105 points to 103.
The next race is on September 7 at Monza. Mercedes should probably choose this moment right now to break out The Big Book of Team Progress, turn to the chapter entitled "Stupidest Ways to Lose a World Championship," and make sure everyone's on the same page.