2013 Belgian Grand Prix analysis: Where Sunday's race was won and lost
Analysing the extent of Vettel's dominance and questioning whether Button could have finished on the podium...
By Pete Gill, James Galloway and William Esler. Last Updated: 28/08/13 8:58am
Just how dominant was Sebastian Vettel?
While some race victories in Formula 1 require a fair bit of explaining, and others can be flattered by fortunate circumstances, Sebastian Vettel's 31st career victory at Spa fell into neither of these categories: it was the ultimate tour de force. In plain statistical terms, the World Champion's 16.8-second winning margin was the largest of the season so far - and the biggest since last October's Japanese GP, a race also won with consummate ease by Vettel.
The really concerning consideration for the German's increasingly distant title rivals is the lingering feeling Vettel still had plenty more speed in hand if he needed it, given as early as lap three he was told by his race engineers to "save your tyres, we don't need any more than this" having by then already opened up a 2.8-second lead over polesitter Lewis Hamilton.
While Vettel's advantage over the Mercedes was pegged around the four-second mark from lap four until Hamilton's lap-11 stop, it was the second stint, when Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, in the race's second-fastest car, had by then emerged as the German's chief pursuer, that really underlined the superiority of the driver and car combination. From a seven-second lead on lap 17, Vettel regularly lapped between two to four tenths of a second quicker than the Ferrari to the point where he had a commanding lead of ten seconds by the time Alonso pitted for the second time.
If you need further evidence of the difference between the two cars, then you have it in the final stint: while Vettel never lapped slower than a 1:51.683s - even dipping into the 1:50s on four occasions - before cruising to the flag over the final two laps, Alonso only once lapped quicker than a 1:51.7. The fact that Vettel, as ever chasing the fastest race lap, suddenly upped his pace by four tenths of a second between laps 39 and 40 would appear to confirm he had plenty of spare capacity during what turned out to be a Sunday stroll in the Ardennes.
Could Jenson Button have finished on the podium?
For McLaren, Spa represented a missed opportunity as the team strive to secure their first podium of the year, with a lack of clear direction from the team's strategists arguably culpable for their failure to register a better result than Jenson Button's sixth place.
Having admitted the team had become "[too] excited" at the start of Q3 when Button was erroneously sent out with the rest of the pack, bar Paul di Resta, on slicks, the Englishman's race strategy was neither one thing nor the other as the McLaren pitwall continued to sway between a one-stopper and a two to costly effect.
"We stayed out longer in the first stint and were looking to do a one-stop but I think we got a little bit nervous when everyone pitted. We lost a bit of time and were overtaken by the cars that pitted already," Button reflected to Sky F1 afterwards. "So we pitted a little bit earlier than expected, went for a two-stop and then tried to go back to a one-stop at the end of the race. But it wasn't to be, so we pitted and came home sixth."
The lap charts bear out the muddled thinking: Button was still lapping in the 1:56s, where he had been since the start of the race, when he was called in for his first stop on lap 16. Although the late stop put him out of sequence with the frontrunners - Hamilton had pitted on 11, Alonso on 12 and Vettel on 13 - it was nevertheless not late enough to fix him to a one-stopping strategy. The upshot was that Button began his second stint in a strategic no man's land with McLaren only confirming they were reverting to "Plan A" on lap 32.
"I'm up for that," responded Button in the manner of someone who's just been invited by his mates for a midweek pint and has nothing better to do, but it's likely that the McLaren could have gone even quicker through that second stint if Button had known he needn't treat his Pirellis so leniently - leaving him with even less of a gap to recover against the fifth-placed Mark Webber when he returned to the track on lap 34.
But could he have achieved a podium finish? By the time of his second stop, there was only one strategic decision the team could make: Button was only two seconds ahead of the fourth-placed Lewis Hamilton with the Mercedes closing in at a rate of two seconds a lap. Had Jenson stayed out, sixth was the best he could have achieved whilst simultaneously running the risk of falling off the proverbial cliff in the final laps.
Yet a podium finish was possible if Button successfully ran a one-stop strategy - and, and, as stated above, judging by the lap charts, McLaren opted to call in Button on lap 16 even though his tyres were still delivering decent lap times. True, that's not to say that a one-stopper would have worked, and it's certainly possible that the strategy - and the Pirellis - would have unravelled in the closing stages had McLaren run Button on two ultra-long stints.
Nevertheless, given the team are yet to finish in the top three this season, the final reflection has to be that it's surprising McLaren didn't opt to roll the dice and pursue the only strategy which actually had the potential of securing their first podium finish of 2013.
How did Fernando Alonso go from ninth to second?
Answer: part fast start, part genius, part having a far faster car than his grid position first indicated.
As ever, Fernando was ultra-quick off the line and past the slow-starting Paul di Resta in an instant before hugging the inside line through the first corner to critical effect. While both Lotuses were pushed wide by Mark Webber, Alonso was able to blindside them both with an unimpeded - and thus faster exit - which had the additional benefit of setting up a pass on the Red Bull through Eau Rouge in a mirror-repeat of the Australian's breathtaking move on the Ferrari a year ago.
And as simply as that, ninth had already become fifth. "You can put this first lap of the race with Valencia from last year," enthused Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali.
Alonso's next victim was slightly less obliging, with Button holding up the Spaniard until lap four when the McLaren's defences were finally breached by the Spaniard's straightline speed along the Kemmel Straight. Nico Rosberg was then overtaken in identical fashion two laps later. It's worth noting that by this stage Alonso had already fallen over seven seconds behind Vettel - the German would cross the line 38 laps later 'just' another ten seconds ahead of the Ferrari.
And now for the final and most interesting act in Alonso's damage limitation act, his pass around Lewis Hamilton through La Source at the very beginning of lap 15. Curiously, it occurred immediately after Hamilton had set the fastest lap of the race up to that point. So how had it happened? The first thought was that Hamilton must have made a mistake into the first corner. In fact, judging by Hamilton's - albeit slightly muffled - comments to Vettel as the drivers waited for the podium ceremony after the race, the Mercedes driver deliberately gave up track position to Alonso in order to enjoy a tow through Eau Rouge and then repass the Ferrari along the backstraight with the aid of DRS. In other words, Hamilton meant to do to Alonso what the Spaniard had just done to Button and Rosberg and what Vettel had done to him on the first lap.
Full marks for the theory, just a shame about the practice: Despite closely following the Ferrari through Eau Rouge, Hamilton's Mercedes, even with DRS deployed, still didn't have sufficient speed to repass the F18 along the Kemmel straight as Alonso held the high line into Les Combes.
From that moment on, second place was all-but guaranteed, with the Ferrari's unexpected superior straightline speed also boding well for Alonso's prospects at Monza.
How much ground have Force India lost?
In the opening eight grands prix of 2013, Force India scored an average of 7.375 points per race. Since the changes to the Pirellis were rolled out in Germany, however, that figure has dropped to just 0.6667. This would seem to point to a team previously light on their tyres at the start of the season are now struggling having lost that advantage.
Look back the Bahrain GP - the high temperatures meant tyre wear was also high and we saw Lewis Hamilton suffer a blowout in the Mercedes that weekend. Force India had no such problems, however, and Adrian Sutil set the second quickest lap of the race - just 0.109 seconds slower than the fastest lap set by Sebastian Vettel.
Take a straight comparison of that with Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday and Sutil - who was again the quicker of the two Force Indias - was 1.470 seconds slower than the German. Significantly in the battle for fifth in the Constructors' Championship, that was also 1.403 slower than Jenson Button whereas Sutil had been eight tenths quicker the 2009 World Champion in the Sakhir desert.
Whilst the change of tyres has clearly had an impact, it would be unfair to cite that as the sole factor, however. Force India have far from the biggest budget on the grid and thus cannot continue to develop the VJM06 in the way McLaren have enhanced the MP4-28. With attention switching more and more to 2014, there seems little chance of a Force India recovery in Italy.
How quick was the Belgian GP?
Sunday's race was unusual in that it featured neither of the two variables which are habitual features at Spa: rain or a Safety Car deployment. The flip side of that was that in pure hours and minutes terms the Belgian GP took the least time of any race to complete so far in 2013 - a mere one hour and 23 minutes. For comparison's sake, that was 19 minutes faster than the previous race in Hungary and 17 minutes quicker than the total average race time across the opening ten rounds.
In more historical Belgian GP-specific terms, the race was over in the shortest period since the 2008 event and the fourth quickest this century. While the undulating Spa track may be the longest on the calendar in distance - some 7km - the fact that cars are on full throttle for 72% of the lap means that, without the traditional delay or two, there is the acute risk that the afternoon's racing action is over just a little too soon.
Nonetheless, the dash from lights to flag will likely be even more pronounced when the season resumes at Monza next week given the Italian GP is usually done and dusted within 80 minutes.
Although, of course, should that race witnesses a repeat of Sebastian Vettel's dominance from Spa then few people may feel particularly short-changed...