You asked for it, you got it, racing fans. For decades, Formula One has been dominated by a handful of teams. The world titles have been shared between Ferrari, McLaren, Renault (formerly known as Benetton) and Williams since 1984. And the fans complained: Not enough competition. The small teams stand no chance of winning. Bigger budgets mean bigger trophy cases. And so on and so forth. Well this season has certainly shaken things up. Teams that were once relegated to the back of the field have been winning races, while that quartet of formerly elite teams has been scrambling to keep up. But while Jenson Button and Brawn GP's dominance at the start of the season came as a huge, almost entirely unprecedented surprise to everyone inside or outside the world of grand prix racing, nobody could have anticipated what happened this weekend.
Those who tuned in on Saturday for the qualifying sessions at the Belgian Grand Prix were shocked to find Giancarlo Fisichella and his Force India car sitting on pole. Yes, Force India. The team that never scored a single point, never crossed under the checkered flag in any position better than ninth, and seems to retire from as many races as it finishes. Behind him on the starting grid came fellow Italian Jarno Trulli in his Toyota, followed by BMW's Nick Heidfeld. The big names, meanwhile, were scattered down the order: Rubens Barrichello, fresh off his victory in Valencia, qualified fourth. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, sixth. Red Bull's pair of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber – the main challengers to Brawn's title lead – placed eighth and ninth, while defending champion Lewis Hamilton, two-time world champ Fernando Alonso and title leader Jenson Button qualified twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth, respectively. That's one heck of a messed-up starting grid, especially on a circuit as universally loved by the drivers as Spa Francorchamps. But how the race would unfold would prove just as surprising. Follow the jump to read on.
With the wild cards up at front and the champions past, present and (presumably) future sitting at the back, the lights flashed green and the cars were off. Fisichella held on to his position leading into the first corner, while Rubens Barrichello stalled on the starting grid. Kimi Raikkonen once again proved his aptitude at using the KERS boost and ran up the outside of the field from his sixth spot on the grid up to fourth in one fell swoop and then moved up again to second. But while Kimi ascended in spectacular form, farther down the field it was all wheel-to-wheel action until disaster struck. Renault newcomer Romain Grosjean tapped Button's Brawn, sending the two spinning out and taking along with them defending champ Lewis Hamilton and Toro Rosso rookie Jaime Alguersuari. They were all out of the race almost before it started.
The four-car pile-up sent the safety car out for the following few laps, but once it came back in Raikkonen made his move, overtaking Fisichella for the lead and holding on to it for dear life. The Ferrari driver's leap in the opening laps of racing was impressive enough, but what surprised even more was Fisichella's persistence in staying on Raikkonen's tail. Lap after lap, Kimi pushed, but couldn't shake the Force India. Other cars jockeyed for position behind them, but Kimi stayed up front and Giancarlo stayed locked in his shadow, never relenting until the finish line.
Raikkonen's victory marked a first for both the driver and his team this season, which had up until now been a long dry spell for both. It also marked a relentless progression for Kimi, who took third place in Hungary, second place in Valencia and first place in Belgium, all in succession. Kimi started the race as the only driver present ever to win at Spa – having taken the Belgian Grand Prix four times before – and finished the race with the same accolade in tact, but with one more trophy to show for it.
But while there was plenty of celebration going on in the Ferrari garage, the day belonged to Force India. Sure, Ferrari won the race. In immaculate form, to boot. But as the old journalistic adage goes: "dog bites man" is not a headline, "man bites dog" is. In other words, Ferrari winning a race is nothing new. But in a reversal of the natural order of things, Force India taking pole and a podium finish very much is.
To put the accomplishment into historical perspective, consider that Force India has never even dreamt of doing this well. They'd never taken pole. They'd never taken a podium finish. They'd never even scored a single championship point before. In fact, with the sole exception of Adrian Sutil's eighth-place finish in Japan in 2007, neither had its predecessor team Spyker. Nor had Midland, the squad that came before them. In fact, the last time this team in all its incarnations had done this well was with – anyone want to take a stab at this? – Giancarlo Fisichella, who took the checkered flag for the Jordan team at the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix. The only two times the team (again, as Jordan) ever took pole position – Barrichello right here in Belgium in '94 and Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the Nurburgring in '99 – they failed to finish the race.
As victorious as the day was for Ferrari and Force India, however, that's how bad it turned out for both Brawn and Renault. After stalling on the grid and his team-mate's early retirement, Barrichello held on in the closing laps, in which he was zeroing in on McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen, until the second Brawn starting billowing smoke with less than three laps to go. Diagnosed on the fly as an oil leak, Rubens was instructed to back off the McLaren and hold on to position to cross the finish line. And he did, scoring two solitary points for his team, after which the car went up in flames.
Renault didn't fare even that well, however. Grosjean took himself out in that opening lap crash together with Button and the rest, leaving Alonso alone to fly the team's flag. The two-time champ advanced as far as third place up the grid before having to pit, whereupon a jammed front-left wheel (ostensibly caused by opening-lap contact) set him back considerably. He rejoined the field in 14th place, but weary of a repeat of the Hungarian incident that saw them temporarily banned from the European Grand Prix, the team called him back in for a voluntary retirement.
After a long succession of switch-ups, Sebastian Vettel took the third step on the podium alongside the jubilant Raikkonen and Fisichella and scoring vital points for Red Bull's assault on the Brawn-lead title. The BMWs of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld came in an impressive fourth and fifth, important for the team looking for a new buyer, with Heikki Kovalainen leading Barrichello across the line in sixth and Williams' Nico Rosberg for the final point in eighth place.
The results don't have much bearing on the world championship standings, with Jenson Button still holding on to his lead with 72 points in the drivers' rankings ahead of team-mate Rubens Barrichello with 56. Vettel and Webber are closing back in on Barrichello with 53 and 51.5 points respectively, but the 104.5-point Red Bull team is still far adrift of Brawn's 128. Tune in again on Sunday, September 13 for our post-race coverage of the Italian Grand Prix from Monza.