Conclusions from the Belgian GP
F1 braced for Sebastian the Fourth as Belgium fails to deliver the Spa treatment while time is running out for Felipe Massa at Ferrari...
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 27/08/13 4:06pm
Vettel deprives his rivals of hope
It was the sort of day when even the weather disappointed by behaving itself. The 2013 Belgian GP wasn't merely underwhelming, it was utterly deflationary, sucking the life out of a World Championship campaign which had previously promised so much. Perhaps the helter-skelter epic drama of Saturday's thrilling qualifying hour played a part too; either way, Sunday's race will surely only be readily recalled when the annals of history are explored to compile a list of great sporting anti-climaxes.
Sebastian Vettel didn't just win the Belgian GP, he destroyed the opposition to such an extent that he deprived his title rivals of hope in the process as well. While the Red Bull sped off into the distance - 1.4 seconds clear after the first lap, four seconds after four, and in a race of his own after that - the rest of the field were left to suffer slow torture. Consolations? Crumbs of comfort? Well, there's always next year.
For all the brave and defiant talk of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton afterwards, the sharp reality made plain in the Ardennes is that Vettel, with a points-advantage almost the equivalent of two races victories with only eight still to run, already has one hand on the World Championship again. The rotund lady booked in for November isn't yet urgently required but she'd be well advised to clear her diary and her throat for October; after the devastation wrought at Spa, it's nigh-on impossible to see how Vettel will be stopped from winning a fourth consecutive title.
The good news for those still hopeful of a shift in the narrative is that there is still a long way to go this season. Alas, the bad news for those suffering from a sense of dread after Vettel's Spa dominance is that there is indeed a long way still to go this season. Judging by Sunday, the remainder of 2013 could be slow going.
Hamilton and Mercedes at least continue to deliver small mercies on Saturday, while Ferrari and Fernando made the fight respectable this weekend on race day, with the successful introduction of new upgrades finally delivering the belated reassurances that the team's new wind-tunnel is delivering on its promises. That itself is promising, and there's always the chance of a DNF or two for Vettel between now and Brazil. But beyond that, any attempt to downplay the strength of Vettel's position would be an exercise in straw-clutching. Even after running in cruise control on Sunday from approximately lap four onwards, he still won by a country mile.
So what does F1 do about a problem like Vettel? It could start by accepting that Vettel is not the problem. The clear reality is that Red Bull's rivals are under-performing, including Ferrari but particularly McLaren, whose shocking regression shines an impressive spotlight on Red Bull's unrelenting level of outstanding consistency. For four years, stretching back to midway through 2009, they've been the number one team in F1 and it's high time that achievement was adequately acknowledged.
It can't all just be due to Adrian Newey - and it demonstrably isn't. Mark Webber is, by universal consent, a very handy racing driver. But if Red Bull had two Mark Webbers in their car this season then they would be second in the Constructors' Championship (and most probably third given that Ferrari would likely hoover up some of the excess points to be deducted from Red Bull's current tally).
Sebastian Vettel is an enigma easily solved: he's simply far better than the cynics and critics have hitherto accepted. Those in denial face a difficult few weeks and months - and perhaps even years because at his current rate of progress, Vettel will leave F1 as the most successful driver in the sport's history and the most willfully under-rated.
Time running out at Spa and Monza
In the circumstances, with Vettel's win as good as confirmed after the first lap, the brevity of Sunday's action was something of a welcome relief. But even if few will have mourned the chequered flag falling, it is surely indisputable that grands prix - a test of endurance for the drivers as much as their machinery - ought not to be as concise as this weekend's. A snoozefest? Not at one hour, 23 minutes and 42 seconds. Weary armchair viewers barely had time to get snuggled in before Vettel was leaping around on the podium.
What Sunday's race thus highlighted is that F1 is currently struggling to marry the twin requirements of race distance and time elapsed when it comes to calculating what its main event actually is. According to the sporting regulations, a race can only be considered a grand prix if it has a race distance in excess of 300km and a grand prix should consist of the least number of laps exceeding 305 kilometres. Which is fine when running at venues with the slow-down twists and turns of the Hungaroring, but an inevitable shortfall at power-hungry, ultra-fast tracks like Spa and Monza - the next port of call on F1's 2013 roadtrip and a venue that Lewis Hamilton mastered in a blink-and-you-will-almost-miss it time of one hour and nineteen minutes a year ago. Even both of Friday's practice sessions go on for longer.
F1 has some thinking to do - and some acting. If it wants to keep its classic venues on the calendar, and pay them due and proper reverence, updates to the F1 dictionary are required. Otherwise, F1 will be too quick for its own good in failing to move with the times.
Ferrari need a strategic re-think
First, the context. According to reports in the build-up to Spa, Felipe Massa had been given two races by Ferrari in which to secure his latest reprieve from the axeman, starting with this weekend's grand prix. One down, half an opportunity already spurned then.
The pity is that Felipe is just so very likeable. The world, you rather sense, would be an altogether better place were he to succeed. But popularity counts for little or nothing in F1 compared to pace - and a lack of pace is the reason why Felipe is inexorably losing his grip on his seat at Ferrari.
When the chequered flag fell on Sunday, the Brazilian was half a minute down on his team-mate, a lifetime equivalent in a sport timed to fractions of a second. Easily overlooked, but readily highlighted by Alonso in his trenchant response to criticism of his qualifying form, was the fact that Felipe was also over half a second slower than the Spaniard in Saturday's top-ten shoot-out. Monza will host another shot at redemption, but for Felipe the game is almost up.
Where will Ferrari look to next? Given that the team have made just two changes to their line-up since the mid-2000s - Kimi Raikkonen succeeding Michael Schumacher before the Finn was in turn replaced by Alonso three years ago - there is scant past behaviour on which to base a prediction for their future intentions. Nico Hulkenberg certainly remains the likeliest choice as a talented driver who will not disrupt Ferrari's established dynamic of concentrating on a clear number one. But where's the logic in maintaining a status quo which is not delivering the desired results? Ferrari have fallen to third in the Constructors' Championship behind a Mercedes team which is focused as much on Nico Rosberg as it is on Hamilton.
Heading into the great unknown of 2014, and departing an era best forgotten, re-hiring Raikkonen is an option which makes emphatic sense.
Appointing Ricciardo could prompt Webber's early exit
And could the game be up for Mark Webber earlier than expected as well? After a flying start that culminated and then fizzled out with the uproar of Malaysia, the Australian's season is now merely limping along towards retirement and a new life in sportscar racing.
There is an awkward question begging to be asked: why doesn't he quit now? The obvious answer is he still has a contract to respect and while there's a mathematical chance of winning the World Championship then, no matter how improbable, Webber will not contemplate an early exit. But the tide is only heading one way; eleven-nil down to Vettel in qualifying, plainly disgruntled, and holding scarcely half as many points as his dominant team-mate, the case for an earlier-than-scheduled exit may soon become overwhelming if Ricciardo is announced as Webber's replacement around the Monza weekend.
In that scenario, Webber can gracefully depart ahead of schedule, ostensibly to give his compatriot a head-start in bedding in alongside Vettel. Toro Rosso wouldn't be unduly affected either; in fact they might also prefer an early look at Antonio Felix da Costa. But best of all, Webber would be able to depart the scene with dignity; after all, he won't want to still be on the premises when and if Vettel is crowned Sebastian the Fourth.
Which, after Spa, he surely will be.