The Fast Lane – Red Bull back in front, Hamilton back in the wall

After a long summer break Formula One finally returned this weekend to a track which has consistently produced enthralling racing. From the first corner pile-up in 1998 to Giancarlo Fisichella’s stunning drive in 2009, Spa-Francorchamps has hosted many of the sports greatest moments and makes the Belgian Grand Prix one of the most anticipated races of any season.

A damp qualifying had produced a few surprises, Alguesuari and Senna had made it to the top ten whereas Schumacher had fail to set a time and started in 24th. But one thing never seems to change – Sebastien Vettel made his way comfortably to pole position.

However, for one Vettel didn’t have the easy start you would expect. A challenger came from right back on the third row. Nico Rosberg placed his car perfectly into La Source to jump from fifth to second. A great run out of Eau Rouge and a massive slipstream later and Rosberg was past Vettel and up into the lead of the race. I feel that Nico has always been a bit of a nearly-man since he entered the sport, so it was great to see such skill, race craft and determination in todays GP to take the German into the lead.

Although not as catastrophic as 1998’s GP, the start of the race did serve up a few incidents. The newly re-signed Mark Webber bogged down at the start for what must be the umpteenth time this season and fell back from third to eight almost immediately. Bruno Senna got a bit too hungry into La Source, outbreaking himself and taking Jaime Alguesuari with him. Disappointing to see the two bright sparks from qualifying have their races ruined so early on. Also getting caught up in it all was Jenson Button who ended up damaging his front wing and lingering around in sub tenth place for most of the race, but more on him later!

Despite making the faster start (as he often does) Massa was clearly the slower of the two Ferrari’s and had to yield to his team-mate Alonso, but not before a fight. That’s right, an actual race between the Ferrari’s! It was fantastic to see these two finally clash in a proper racing situation. Alonso steamed up the inside of Massa, but nearly lost it all as a wheel on the grass forced him wide. But the Spaniard held his line and showed why he is often the favoured driver within the Maranello team.

At the front, Rosberg was struggling with the Mercedes. His car was strong on straight line speed, but lacked in the corners. Despite some great defensive driving, it didn’t take long before Vettel, armed with DRS found a way past. And this was how it was to continue for Rosberg as both Alonso and Hamilton both made their way past easily.

Pit stops came early on, it seemed all were worried about their tyres and the extreme blistering the Pirelli’s were experiencing here. Red Bull were the most cautious, pulling Vettel in very early on. Perhaps there was no need to be though as later in the race, Vettel consistently pulled out blistering lap times, even on the damaged tyres – is there no stopping that man?!

It was shortly after the pit-stops that the ‘most-talked-about’ incident (particularly in the UK) of the day occurred. Hamilton had overtaken Kobayashi on the long DRS straight, but Kamui was fighting back. As the tow reached the following corner, they collided spectacularly sending Hamilton into the barriers with quite a large shunt. Once again his hopes had ended with disaster.

This incident went without any punishment and I can kind of see why. It’s quite had to place the blame. Kobayashi did start turning into the corner – on the outside – before Hamilton. However, Hamilton was moving over to the left to take his line. I don’t think Lewis had realised Kamui was as close to him as he was and was taking his line as normal instead of giving the Japanese driver room. This misunderstanding and the overconfidence of Kamui led to the incident. It’s unfortunate, but I think both drivers were slightly to blame. Hamilton obviously agrees as he has apologised to Kamui on Twitter earlier this evening. It’s pleasing to see how gracious Lewis is in defeat considering his more hot-headed opinions earlier in the season.

Unfortunately Lewis was gone, but the race went on. Through good strategy and some strong laps, Mark Webber found himself back in contention towards the end of the race. By lap 30, the Australian had caught and overtaken Alonso, who had now clearly lost Vettel several seconds down the road from him. Things were starting to look good for a Red Bull one-two.

But then, enter Jenson Button! From the middle of the race to the chequered flag, the last remaining McLaren came alive and started picking off his prey. With some stunning laps, a patient head and a little bit of DRS, Button blasted through the field and managed to dive past the faltering Ferrari of Alonso by lap 42. Suddenly he was in contention, especially bearing in mind he had already used the harder compound tyres and was now on the faster soft tyres until the end.

However, Vettel and Webber found something extra on the harder tyres and were comfortably able to hold the lead of the race. Alonso was never able to mount another fight, the harder tyres worked very poorly on the Ferrari and simply saw the Spaniard stuck in fourth. Just down the road from him we saw our second inter-team fight of the day. Michael Schumacher had managed to move from 24th on the grid to 6th on the track and was giving his team-mate quite a lot of trouble. Team radio confirmed that the drivers were free to race and despite great defending from Rosberg, Schumacher made his way past, again with DRS to take fifth. Surely one of the best drives of Schumacher’s second career and a sign that perhaps things are slowly turning around for the Mercedes team.

I’ve mentioned DRS a lot today and that’s because I feel it’s been a big feature. I’ve actually defended it a lot this season, but I think today it was a step too far. The die is to get drivers side-by-side by the corner, yet today we consistently saw drivers several car lengths ahead by the time they reached the corner. It’s disappointing to see the possibility of proper racing taken away by this device, the driver in front is a sitting duck frequently. Although I like the idea, I think a lot of aspects of DRS needs to be rethought and I really hope it will be for next year.

And that was the Belgian GP 2011, not a vintage year but still a top race. Red Bull have made it back to the top step of the podium after only three races off it. And lets face it, they do have this championship wrapped up, no-one will beat their constructors points and I can’t see anyone topping Vettel. They are a class act and that should be celebrated, but it also makes it all the more fun to see someone beat them. Maybe next neither Webber or Vettel will make the podium, or maybe I should stop hoping!

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