Conclusions from the Belgian GP

Romain Grosjean might have deserved a ban but he didn't on the terms set out in the stewards' verdict, while Lewis Hamilton's telemetry is a head-scratcher after his trial by Twitter..

Last Updated: 03/09/12 12:27pm

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Grosjean's ban remains harsh on these terms
Though a very strong argument can be made for Romain Grosjean deserving a ban on account of his penchant for first-corner collisions and, more pertinently, the need for F1, as the pinnacle of motor-racing, to set an example for driving standards and the value of safety, the fairness of the verdict is far less compelling on the terms set out in the stewards' judgement.

Their subjective nature was made apparent on Saturday night when they opted to defy convention and demote Pastor Maldonado three grid places rather than the standard five on the basis that, although he was guilty of hindering Nico Hulkenberg, the Force India was still able to escape Q1. Hmm. Abandoning convention and objectivity is a risky business when meting out any form of justice - and so it continued to prove on Sunday night.

For Grosjean was not punished on account of his own penchant for risky business this season or the sport's overdue requirement to deliver a proper deterrent against recklessness. Instead, he was suspended because his error 'eliminated leading championship contenders from the race' - a curious and dangerously arbitrary criteria on which to base so swingeing a penalty.

For swingeing it certainly is. Ignore all the misapplied clich├ęd talk of his suspension being equivalent to a slap over the wrist; Grosjean's suspension amounts to a public flogging and will forever remain a permanent stain on his reputation. Not since 1994, when Michael Schumacher's reputation was at its most notorious, has a driver suffered a race ban.

Had Grosjean made a grudge move then it would have been different. But he didn't. Had he been given a prior warning to clean up his act then a suspension would be palpably fair enough. But he wasn't and it isn't. And had the stewards cited the number of first-lap incidents Grosjean has been involved in during his nascent career - seven in twelve races this season - then any assessment of their verdict would require a different perspective. But they didn't - and in any case, 'involved' does not constitute blameworthiness. The thought lingers that Grosjean has been punished because of the crash's aesthetic and circumstantial evidence; put another way, would he have been suspended had Hamilton simply been shunted into the grass or the drivers concerned piloted a HRT?

The stewards, surely, have lurched into dangerous territory themselves by making such a self-acknowledged subjective ruling.

None of this is to say that Grosjean was not to blame for triggering a horrible chain reaction which could have ended in a casualty and not just carnage. He left Hamilton no room and, by putting the right-front wheel of his Lotus between those of Hamilton's McLaren, gave his rival no escape; whether Hamilton speeded up or slowed down, a collision had already become inevitable.

Yet it was nonetheless a slight mistake, literally the width of a tyre wheel, and was transformed from the relatively minor to major by circumstance rather than degree. It wasn't, for instance, as blatant as when Pastor Maldonado returned to the Valencia track to ram Hamilton into the barriers. Not by coincidence is Valencia chosen for illustration because it offers a trenchant reminder in the shape of Alonso's pass around Grosjean's Lotus at the restart that the Frenchman is a fair driver; it takes two to tangle for F1 to dance like that.

This weekend, Grosjean made a mistake, but it's hard to make a defence of a punishment that only fits the crime of consequence rather than the crime actually committed.

Button pressed into title contention. Almost
So that's the title race crashed wide open. Having been subjected to a deluge of questions at the start of the weekend on whether he ought to play second fiddle to Lewis Hamilton, Jenson pressed all the right buttons on Sunday to put himself back into World Championship contention - though pressed is the one thing he wasn't in a victory made to look simple. When Jenson's good, he tends to be great.

Yet two large flaws remain in Jenson's title candidature and larger even than the 63 points separating the McLaren driver and Fernando Alonso is the number of drivers - five - between Jenson and the summit. He's a very long way back whichever you look at it.

Indeed, looked at through the prism of the championship battle, Sunday's clear victor appears to have been the reigning World Champion. Though the gut instinct remains that Sebastian Vettel hasn't had a great year, he's now within striking distance of Fernando's lead. Indeed part two, but for his engine failure in Valencia, Sebastian would now be leading the championship. With the Red Bull recovering Saturday's lost position to be as fast if not faster than both McLaren and Lotus on Sunday, it's a straightforward matter to suggest that Vettel is the new championship favourite.

For Hamilton, Alonso's exit made his own mildly palatable. He hasn't fallen any further behind the leader, although the number of races he has in which to remedy the deficit has been cut by a tenth. So perhaps the real loser of the day was Mark Webber who symbolically and literally lost the Red Bull initiative when passed by Vettel into the Bus Stop chicane on lap ten.

Since winning at Silverstone three races ago, Webber has collected a paltry sixteen points and has become a persuasive reason for team bosses to keep the driver market for 2013 firmly shut. Contract extensions, it seems, are bad for a driver's competitive health.

Maldonado in danger of turning a profit into a loss
Williams' predicament has turned uncomfortable. Likeable though the South American is, and as quick as he might be, Pastor Maldonado is lurching towards becoming a liability. The Williams driver almost certainly made unwanted history this weekend in receiving three separate penalties, a bounty which rendered his qualifying pace - where, lest we forget, he outpaced team-mate Bruno Senna by fourteen places - utterly meaningless. He let himself down, and his team.

Since winning in Spain, Maldonado has received six more penalties than he has points, a problematic pair of facts which no team in a business-based sporting industry can ignore. This weekend was probably not a decisive tipping point, but his vulnerability is now certain and the crux of his future may rest on the team's opinion of Senna. If the team accept Bruno's modest pace as an accurate yardstick of their car's capabilities then Maldonado, on account of his superior pace, will be flattered towards certain retention. Alternatively, if the team does not consider the Brazilian to be a worthy barometer then they might be minded to replace both of their highest-profile employees.

Given that both drivers, but especially Maldonado, provide such valuable sponsorship, that scenario remains less than likely. But Williams' patience is being sorely tried and with the impatient Valtteri Bottas in reserve it's not as if they are short of alternatives.

Moreover, their loss of position to Force India in the Constructors' Championship this weekend is bound to have focused minds towards weighing up the value of Maldonado's sponsorship money against the potential financial losses being accrued from his inability to avoid official trouble. The best answer would be for Maldonado to belatedly learn a lesson; after all, no matter the size of the financial dividend he pays up, he must realise that no team can afford this amount of costly hassle.

Lewis gets himself into an unseemly muddle
So just what would the telemetry of Lewis' thinking on Sunday morning tell us? The McLaren driver certainly told his million-odd followers too much as he published the technical intricacies of his qualifying lap traced alongside the pole-sitter's; McLaren's demand for the tweet to be deleted was immediately heeded but even by then the genie had long since left the bottle. Social media doesn't do second thoughts.

Hamilton's first glaring misjudgement - for which he subsequently apologised - was the thing itself: revealing sensitive information for which rival teams would pay a small fortune to leak. It was plainly a silly thing to do. But what of the detail itself? Though the chart supported Hamilton's lament on Saturday night in another tweet swiftly consigned to recycling that he had been far slower than Button along the straights, it also revealed that his high-downforce setting hadn't provided much timely compensation through Spa's relatively windy middle sector either. Throw into the mix the reminder that Hamilton had been half a second slower than Button when trying out the new low-downforce unit that McLaren had specially packaged for this weekend during Practice Three on Saturday morning and it's fair to conclude that Hamilton was neither on his game this weekend nor a match for Button regardless of whatever configuration was on the back of his McLaren.

Away from the track, Hamilton has suffered a difficult couple of weeks. Perhaps that difficulty manifested itself in his torment by Twitter and his below-par showing on Saturday. We will never know how Sunday would have played out had the first-corner not produced mass mayhem, but the relative struggle Kimi Raikkonen endured with his near-identical high downforce setting is highly suggestive that Hamilton would have been unable to keep up with Button in any case.

The McLaren is a funny car. When its sweet-spot is found, it's the class of the field. But it's a capricious bugger too - as evidenced by the failure of the team to find its sweet-spot for both drivers in the same race since Melbourne and their decision to split configurations this weekend. They know the speed is in there, they just don't always seem to know the easiest way to find it.

The Hulk makes his move as Sauber crash out of luck
To borrow the prescient line written out elsewhere on this site: if what Bernie has been saying this weekend is true, then Nico Hulkenberg will be very pleased that he's put himself in the front of F1's shop window.

Not since Monaco has Paul di Resta finished a race weekend with more points than his Force India team-mate and, courtesy of his fourth-place finish this Sunday, Hulkenberg has forced his way past to head the queue waiting on news of Schumacher's future intentions.

The old boy himself had another feisty afternoon and though his seventh place sounds a modest matter it still amounted to an important result for the Mercedes team given they started the day fretting about losing position to Sauber in the Constructors' Championship. They dodged a bullet as their nearest rivals suffered a literal battering.

Poor Sauber. Through absolutely no fault of their own, Saturday's success had turned sour within one corner on Sunday. Though aesthetic and airborne focus centred on the demise of Grosjean, Alonso and Hamilton, it was the collateral damage done to both Saubers which made them the hardest hit. But for Sergio Perez's premature retirement and, as a belated result of the first-corner smash, Kamui Kobayashi's trip to the pits for repairs, Sauber could have defied their flyweight budget by swatting aside one of the sport's true heavyweights this weekend. Instead, they slipped further behind and will fret for at least another week that their opportunity has gone. Ouch indeed.

Pete Gill

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