Befitting a circuit of such grandeur, a wet Spa-Francorchamps threw up the best qualifying session of the season yesterday, and as the final top three placings changed with machine- gun rapidity, commentators could barely keep up.
Mark Webber, 2min 01.325sec. Pole! Sebastian Vettel, 2min 01.200sec. Pole! Lewis Hamilton, 2min 01.012sec. Pole!
Back in the pits, Jenson Button was just thinking that he had wrestled his hitherto recalcitrant McLaren to its best qualifying position of the season in third place when Webber, Vettel and Hamilton beat the chequered flag by seconds to squeeze in one more crucial lap apiece at the end of the final Q3 session for the Belgian GP.
The Red Bulls had been on the pace all weekend, whereas it took a lot of head-scratching and midnight oil before Mercedes could come up with a car capable of challenging them this time. Could Hamilton have taken pole had it been dry? Probably not, he admitted. But it wasn’t dry, and he made the most of the gift from the weather gods.
It was the 31st pole of his career and his fourth in as many races, but he said it felt as good as his first, in Canada six years ago.
“The timing was perfect. But I was so surprised when I came across the finish line because I was seventh or eighth when I started the lap, when I was thinking, ‘Oh God’, as it was actually raining more. I’d gone wide in the first corner and then my dashboard read-out was really confusing me [as to] whether I was up or down on my previous lap, because it was telling me at times that I was three, five or six seconds slower.”
The system was probably comparing his laps with his previous best from the earlier Q2 session, which had been dry.
“I didn’t understand what was going on, but I just kept pushing and was catching Seb towards the end,” Hamilton said. “I pushed quite a lot through the middle sector, and the car felt terrific.”
That was a big change from practice, the result of major set-up changes. “I think Red Bull are a little bit ahead of us in performance here,” Hamilton said, “but results like today make you feel better, like you’ve extracted the most from the car.”
Vettel is beginning to get used to Hamilton and Mercedes acing him in the final moments of qualifying sessions, and smirked cheerfully beneath his new peroxide hairdo. “There’s always something to gain, so I kept pushing,” he said. “In these conditions it’s difficult to know how fast you can go, and I saw Lewis catching up on that last lap. In the end it was quite close, and it’s a shame to miss pole once again, but I’m quite happy.”
Hamilton’s pole run comes at a good time for him, as he has risen above the obsession with the driver market for 2014 that has dragged Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen into endless speculation in the “who goes where” debates.
“I’ve never felt better coming into the second half of a season,” the Mercedes driver had said earlier in the weekend, still aglow after his surprise win in Hungary before the summer break. “I feel like I’ve been driving well for quite some time, and I really feel I’m getting everything out of the car at every opportunity, so I’m in a good place.
“And I can’t remember the last time I crossed the finish line in qualifying and had such good feelings. They were incredible. I could see it on the TV screens and the team were cheering, and my 31st pole felt like the first one.”
For a while it seemed canny tyre choice might have won pole for Force India’s Paul Di Resta, but he still equalled his best grid position with fifth place, and Button’s sixth was a fillip after a troubled season. Both start ahead of title contenders Alonso and Raikkonen.
“At the start of Q3 I knew that I wanted to go straight out on the intermediate tyres,” Di Resta said. “It was a brave decision, as others chose dries. I knew it was our best chance to get up towards the front of the grid and it paid off. It’s a shame that the rain stopped a bit too early because there were only a few cars that were quicker than us in the wet and they just got ahead at the end.”
A philosophical Button said: “We’re still lacking a little bit compared with what we’d hoped for, which we suspect is the result of an aero-efficiency issue. And our timing was just a little bit off at the end of Q3, which enabled the top three guys to put in laps quicker than ours. But three Brits in the top six is just great.”
Ferrari ponder driver line-up for 2014 as they continue to struggle
Formula One's bold new plans for 2014 deal everyone a fresh hand of cards and, perhaps, a chance to catch Red Bull. But Ferrari's team chief, Stefano Domenicali, agrees the merits are debatable and likely to increase budgets dramatically at a time when cost-saving is essential.
“For sure the level of investment needed for the new regulations is quite high,” he says. “Perhaps, yes, as much as 50 per cent more. It's not cost-saving, that's a fact.”
Some teams adhere to a resource- restriction agreement to limit cost at a time when only Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and McLaren have a degree of financial comfort and at least two of the remaining 11 operations have been teetering.
“For sure, it's correct for F1 to think of a vision of the future, and for manufacturers some of the advanced engineering required is a very good challenge from the technical point of view and more relevant to road-car technology,” Domenicali says. “But this moment is also very delicate, because we need to ensure that other teams have the money to invest. The magnitude of the changes is, as far as I remember, the biggest one. Incredible.”
A dyed-in-the-wool racer, Domenicali nonetheless accepts that F1 is a nicely wrapped package that doesn't always bear close scrutiny. It is approaching the end of the great Bernie Ecclestone era, which initially brought prosperity to many but of late mainly to the commercial-rights holder, CVC Capital Investment.
“In my view we need to rebuild the structure in a different way,” he says. “The mechanism that Bernie was able to consolidate over all these decades is going to be different. That is a fact, because of the situation of the world. The structure to keep all the actors – the teams, all the stakeholders in this business – to have more money, needs to be different. We need to have more, not just from the organisers and from TV. We need to look where the areas are where you can increase the revenue.”
Domenicali has more pressing concerns this weekend, not the least of which was a poor qualifying performance which saw Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa line up only ninth and 10th, amid speculation over 2014 driver choice. Insiders are adamant that former Ferrari champion Kimi Raikkonen's chances of a return are minimal; his last conversation with the company's president, Luca Di Montezemolo, was short, specific and of a very personal and Anglo-Saxon nature.
Ferrari are also unlikely to want to complicate a system in which the potentially psychologically fragile Alonso is the de facto No 1.
“I always believed Kimi is one of the fastest drivers for this team,” Domenicali says. “His consistency is incredible since his return. He has matured and no, he hasn't slammed the door. I rate him very, very high, but in the actual situation I don't know if he would be the right choice.
“We have been very transparent with Felipe and he knows we need good results. Before we make a change it's better to think twice.”
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