Nico Rosberg cost Mercedes victory in the Belgian Grand Prix yesterday when he collided with team-mate Lewis Hamilton on the second lap while challenging for the lead.
As the German controversially refused to surrender a corner that was clearly still Hamilton’s, his right front wing endplate slashed the Englishman’s left rear tyre. The resultant failure ruined Hamilton’s race, compromised Rosberg’s own because of damage to his front wing, and enabled a disbelieving Daniel Ricciardo to take a brilliant win for Red Bull on a track on which Mercedes had expected a cakewalk. The team’s hierarchy were deeply unimpressed.
Later, in the post-race conferences, Rosberg stonewalled every question with the line that he had not seen the incident and therefore could not express an opinion. But then, after elements in the crowd had booed him on the podium and his bosses had laid the blame squarely at his door, he admitted in an angry team meeting that he had done nothing to avoid the collision. According to Hamilton, Rosberg was still angry about Hamilton ignoring a team order to let Rosberg overtake him at last month’s Hungarian GP.
Here in Belgium, Hamilton jumped into the lead from second place on the grid, with Sebastian Vettel getting ahead of pole-sitter Rosberg. But after Rosberg quickly blew past the Red Bull driver, he was able to latch onto Hamilton’s tail and made his move at the top of the long hill after the famed Eau Rouge corner. Hamilton righteously resisted, as is the prerogative of the leader, but rather than concede the corner, Rosberg kept his car alongside Hamilton until a collision was inevitable.
Hamilton lost a lot of ground limping back to the pits and dropped to 19th. The highest he got after that was 15th on the 31st lap, but after he struggled with loss of downforce, Mercedes ultimately stopped him on the 38th lap to conserve engine life.
Rosberg, meanwhile, took the lead but had to pit on the eighth lap for a new nose. That handed the lead to Ricciardo, who had overtaken Fernando Alonso’s third-placed Ferrari and then team-mate Vettel, bringing Valtteri Bottas’s Williams with him.
The Australian and the Finn then traded the lead during their pit calls, as Rosberg had to battle in the upper midfield while his team were forced to juggle with his strategy. In the end, his final stop on the 34th lap for a set of soft compound tyres enabled him to resolve the battle with Bottas and a revived Kimi Raikkonen as his chase after Ricciardo enlivened the closing stages. He slashed the deficit to the Red Bull from 21.6sec to 4.3sec by the 43rd lap, but Ricciardo crossed the line 3.3sec ahead.
Rosberg was booed by some of the crowd, and his actions on the second lap were roundly condemned by his team bosses Niki Lauda and Toto Wolff.
Bottas beat Raikkonen comfortably in a race in which his numerous passes were spectacular and something Rosberg would do well to study, but the Williams was 28sec behind the Red Bull by the finish.
Behind them, Vettel waged a fabulous battle for fifth with the McLaren of Kevin Magnussen and Alonso, whose race was compromised by a five-second stop-and-go penalty because mechanics were still working on his Ferrari when the grid formation lap began. The Spaniard had been fighting Magnussen since the 36th lap, but the Dane resolutely resisted.
One incident, at Les Combes on the 36th lap, was investigated by the race stewards, who curiously elected not to do likewise with the Rosberg/Hamilton clash.
Alonso and Magnussen had another run at each other at the Rivage corner on the 42nd lap when Magnussen refused to be intimidated and left Alonso nowhere to go but the run-off area, and that enabled Jenson Button to get at the Ferrari. The Englishman’s final spurt took him past Vettel too, but then he lost momentum behind his team-mate Magnussen and dropped back again.
Going into the final lap Vettel got alongside Magnussen heading to La Source but the Dane was unfazed when the German weaved at him. But Vettel finally outfoxed him as they exited the corner and sped away to take fifth, a very long way behind his team-mate Ricciardo.
The McLaren drivers finished only 0.3sec adrift of each other as they took sixth and seventh. Alonso should have been with them, but hit the back of Vettel in La Source on that final lap and fell back with front wing damage.
There was a sting in the tail for McLaren when the stewards penalised Magnussen for not leaving Alonso enough room, adding 20sec to his race time to drop him from sixth to 12th.
As Rosberg opened his lead over Hamilton in the world championship standings from 11 to 29 points, the popular Ricciardo celebrated his third win of the year, the second on the trot, and the first at Spa for an Australian since Sir Jack Brabham in 1960.
“There’s definitely a few tracks on the calendar that stand out more than others and Spa is one of them,” Ricciardo beamed, “but any win is special in Formula One.
“When we were able to get into the lead we were happy with what we were doing and the consistency was there and we were making the tyres last. It was just up to me at the end to stay consistent and stay focused.”