Monday, 3 September 2012

2012 Belgian Grand Prix Review

After the summer break, it was wonderful to resume the action at a proper circuit and venue.  There are many other great tracks on the calendar, but Spa has that extra special awe-inspiring sense of occasion and grandeur which lifts it comfortably clear of the mundane and the routine.  The setting, the history, the layout of the circuit and the feeling of foreboding induced by the weather all contribute to the tone and aura.

This year's event was no exception.  An almost effortless victory for McLaren's Jenson Button, and some vigorous and stimulating competition for the other points places.  Grand Prix racing for the purist, if such a thing is still possible in 2012.

However, much of what occurred has been overshadowed by the first-corner incident which eliminated Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean, and led to the latter incurring a one-race suspension.

The unusual dynamics of the crash, and the trajectory and attitude of the cars involved, were particularly unsettling and sobering.  The design and aesthetic of open-top single-seater racing cars is undeniably part of their appeal, but this also constitutes a potential Achilles heel safety-wise, notwithstanding the advances seen in recent decades.  Alonso in particular was fortunate.

One of the enduring images of the weekend for me was the mildly surreal sight of Lewis Hamilton walking back down the pitlane, on his return from the scene of the accident, clutching an errant piece of bodywork or debris.  A forlorn figure, surrounded by a frenzy of activity amongst the other teams.

I thought on balance that Grosjean was culpable in triggering the accident, by moving across and making contact with Hamilton's McLaren.  Some may see the ban as slightly harsh, and part of the reasoning given was less than convincing, but it may serve as a deterrent and a warning to others. 

And so on to events in the aftermath of the first-corner altercation.  This was one of those displays which Button is capable of producing, when he's in a well-sorted machine.  Smooth, unruffled, metronomic almost. In fairness, the signs were there in qualifying.  Never really threatened today, his post-race demeanour was far removed from the near-morose figure of not that many races ago. Today he seemed calm, measured and good-humoured, but far from complacent. 

There will naturally have been joy at McLaren, tempered by Hamilton's early exit.  Another team quietly ecstatic at today's results would have been Red Bull.  The cards fell for them today, with the disappearance of substantial competition further up on the grid, but both team and drivers grafted hard to ensure that they capitalised on this "fortune".  They were hindered in these endeavours by a lack of grunt on the straights.

Sebastian Vettel, in particular, executed some clean, decisive and precise passing manoeuvres, and afterwards was clearly relieved and quietly satisfied at how the weekend had turned out, from less than promising origins.  The points standings realistically promise a challenge for another title, but he will have to work hard for any further success, taking account of the level of competition, and the constant need to employ strategic measures to circumvent deficiencies in the car.

The prospects of Kimi Raikkonen were much trumpeted in the build-up to the Spa weekend.  In the event he, like everyone else, could not hold a candle to the imperious Button, and was hampered by a lack of straightline speed, and poor early speed on soft tyres.  Thereafter, the Finn tussled manfully for his podium place, and delivered one of the moments of the race, if not the whole season, with his clinical but devastating move on Michael Schumacher at Eau Rouge.  Lotus must be a touch frustrated by their inability to finally ascend the top step of the podium, and the races are running out. 

On the subject of Schumacher, he produced an admirable performance to mark his 300th Grand Prix. Maybe he overheard some of the pre-race conjecture concerning his supposedly impending retirement!  Although handicapped in the latter stages by the lack of a sixth gear, he made a point of sorts, and was non-committal about his future afterwards.

After the race, much sympathy was directed towards Sauber.  They had seemed on the brink of a major breakthrough, by virtue of their grid positions and form in previous rounds, but this was abruptly negated because of the first-corner dramas. Granted, in the final analysis they may have struggled to keep Button in their sights, but podium places seemed a distinct possibility.  Through the disappointment, they must realise that their pace and consistency augurs well for the remainder of the campaign, and Sergio Perez alluded to this when he spoke after the race.

Mention must also be made of the composed and confident fourth-place finish achieved by Nico Hulkenberg in the Force India.  Comprehensively outshining his team-mate, and holding his own for long periods in the illustrious company of Schumacher, Raikkonen, Vettel et al, this display will have enhanced his reputation no end.

And now swiftly on to Monza, which promises to be an absolutely pulsating spectacle....

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