Saturday, 6 September 2008

Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying: Hamilton the class of the field in Spa

Lewis Hamilton secured one of the most important pole positions of his young career in Saturday's qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. At a track where Ferrari were expected to dominate, the McLaren drivers ended up in first and third leaving Massa and especially Raikkonen with plenty of work to do tomorrow afternoon. Nick Heidfeld produced one of his best displays of the year to come in fifth place ahead of Alonso, Webber, Kubica and the two Toro Rosso drivers.

The conditions were decidedly cool with dark clouds surrounding the circuit. Fortunately for the drivers the rain that threatened to throw a spanner in the works never arrived, and the whole session was run in dry conditions. The first session didn't really throw up too many surprises; all of the main contenders made it through comfortably and without incident, and the predicted strugglers went out of the first hurdle. Both Hondas looked pretty appalling, their blushes saved only by perennial back markers Force India and the terribly out of sorts Kazuki Nakajima.

The second session again saw the main title rivals get through without any real issues. There was a real surprise at the top of the timing screens though, as Toro Rosso's under pressure Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais was fastest of all. Fastest in Q2 doesn't really count for much in the end, but I'm sure it's a moment Bourdais will remember for a long time. Kovalainen was second behind the former Champ Car ace ahead of his team mate Hamilton. McLaren were looking extremely comfortable, with Lewis Hamilton running the fewest laps of anyone in the entire field by this point in the day. Were Ferrari holding anything back in store for Q3?

Felipe Massa was the first man out in Q3 and would be the man setting down the benchmark time for everyone to match. He made a bit of a balls up of the final chicane though, and lost plenty of time. Raikkonen was easily faster than Massa, but then both McLarens went faster still and looked very comfortable. Heidfeld continued his excellent showing from yesterday by getting ahead of Massa. Vettel did not bother going out for the first round of flying laps. He clearly was happy enough just to stay in P10 and fill his tank to the brim for race day.

Everyone came in and bolted on a fresh set of option tyres and went out to do battle again. This time around Massa held it together really well and went fastest so far. It looked an excellent lap from the Brazilian, and he seemed to squeeze out everything the Ferrari had to offer. Raikkonen couldn't match his team mate, a situation which has now become the norm for the increasingly beleaguered world champion. But behind Kimi on the road Hamilton was absolutely flying, and he crossed the line a full 3 tenths quicker than Massa. A brilliant lap from the young Brit, one which his team mate Kovalainen couldn't quite match. McLaren couldn't quite manage the front row lock out they would have hoped for, but Heikki at least managed to split the two Ferraris in third place. Heidfeld took a well deserved 5th place ahead of a strong performance from Alonso. Webber edged out the struggling Kubica by the slimmest of margins for 7th place, with Bourdais putting in his best showing of his F1 career in 9th ahead of Vettel.

So the run down to La Source on the very first lap will be a straight fight between this year's two main title contenders. Massa will be looking for a repeat performance of his brilliant first lap in Hungary two races ago, but may find it tricky given that La Source is a somewhat easier corner to defend from pole. It should be a great fight between the two, and a perfect test of their title credentials. Hamilton certainly looked a little faster here today, but the suspicion is that he's running a little lighter in the first stint. It should be fascinating to watch, especially if the Ardenne Forest throws up the kind of changeable weather it is famed for at any point during tomorrow's race...

Provisional Starting Grid

1. Hamilton
2. Massa
3. Kovalainen
4. Raikkonen
5. Heidfeld
6. Alonso
7. Webber
8. Kubica
9. Bourdais
10. Vettel
11. Trulli
12. Piquet
13. Glock
14. Coulthard
15. Rosberg
16. Barrichello
17. Button
18. Sutil
19. Nakajima
20. Fisichella
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Belgian Grand Prix: Saturday Practice

Nick Heidfeld was the fastest man in Saturday's final practice session before the action starts in earnest in this afternoon's qualifying. BMW have not looked competitive all weekend, so many will have been surprised to see the German pipping McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen to the top spot in this rain affected session. Title contenders Hamilton and Massa were 4th and 5th respectively, with Kimi Raikkonen a couple of places further back in 7th.

The track was wet as the green light signalled the start of the session, and as a result there was very little running for the first half an hour. A few of the midfield runners and back markers came out early on to do a bit of track sweeping and getting a feel for the circuit. Several of the leading drivers like the McLaren boys didn't even come out of the pits until the final 10-12 minutes of the session.

Unsurprisingly, as the track cleared throughout the session the times dropped dramatically. The early times were up in the high 1.50s bracket, but by the end of the session were a full ten seconds per lap faster. The likes of Vettel and Bourdais started to up the pace with about twenty minutes to go in the session, being the first drives to dip under 1:50s. Raikkonen was the first of the big boys out to play, and he immediately looked quick. He went faster than the Toro Rossos, and could have gone faster still but for a huge lock up into the Bus Stop that put him right off the track temporarily.

The two McLaren drivers were next to show their hands. On his very first flying lap Hamilton knocked a massive 1.3 seconds off the fastest time, and Kovalainen wasn't far behind. Massa was the last of the main drivers to take to the track and he too looked quick, although not quite up to the times of the McLarens.

As the session began drawing to a close Nick Heidfeld put in a blistering lap to go P1 and the only man in the 1:47s. It was a real surprise as Heidfeld has been struggling all year with his one lap pace, and his team mate Kubica has been having a torrid time trying to get his tyres to work for him so far this weekend. Hamilton had a bash at taking the P1 slot and looked to be comfortably going to make it before he too locked up at the Bus Stop and had to bail out of going for the apex. Yesterday's fastest man Alonso put in a great lap at the death to slot in just behind Heidfeld, but he was quickly bumped down the pecking order by Kovalainen going P2.

There is probably not a lot we can learn about the relative pace of the lead cars. The McLarens were quickest on paper today, but none of the main drivers put any serious miles on their cars. I would still expect Ferrari to be red hot favourites to take the pole today, with the McLarens in close company.
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Friday, 5 September 2008

Belgian Grand Prix: Friday Practice Sessions

The first practice session of the Belgian GP weekend was run under dry but overcast skies at Spa-Francorchamps, and gave the F1 teams and fans a good glimpse of the genuine pace of some of the title contenders. As expected, it was Ferrari who led the way with a slight advantage over McLaren. And as with recent races it was Felipe Massa who had the edge over Kimi Raikkonen in the red cars, and Lewis Hamilton who had the edge over Heikki Kovalainen in the silver cars.

The session was fairly plain sailing for everyone with no major incidents on track. Behind the top two teams the best of the rest were Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, putting any fears about the Renault engine's reported lack of ponies to one side. It was also a good session for Toro Rosso who are enjoying a great few weeks, with the two Sebastiens 7th and 8th. Bourdais though did end the session with a broken car after it stopped out on track with a mystery fault.

It was a truly pitiful display from the Honda team who ended up last and second last. It really is amazing that a team with such massive funding can end a trouble free session over 3 seconds off the leaders' pace. I hope for their sake that they have just given up on this season and are just pouring all their resources into their 2009 challenger.

Session two included much more fun and games. The classic Ardenne weather materialized half an hour into the session, making the conditions highly treacherous as Mark Webber found to his cost. He was the first of the day's casualties as he put his Red Bull into the barriers at Beau Rivage, ending his session. After the heavy showers stopped the drivers started to venture out on track to get some valuable track time under their belts.

If this really is a make or break race for Kimi Raikkonen as some have speculated, he could have done without stuffing his Ferrari backwards into the tyre wall at Turn 9. He limped back to the pits, but minus his rear wing, bringing his Friday to a close earlier than planned. He wasn't the only driver having difficulties in the slippery conditions though, as Giancarlo Fisichella spun his Force India into the barriers quite spectacularly, bringing out a red flag. After the track re-opened it wasn't long before more drivers ended up struggling. Nelson Piquet managed to do a perfect imitation of Raikkonen's earlier shunt, becoming the fourth driver to go for an early shower.

As the session drew towards a close it was Felipe Massa who was again looking the class of the field. However, the form book was turned on its head in the final moments as Fernando Alonso put in a stellar lap to go P1; a great way to bounce back after the massive disappointment of his Valencia weekend.After the chequered flag dropped there was still some drama as Robert Kubica's car broke down while he attempted a practice start, rounding off what was a pretty mediocre session all round for the BMW team.

Going into tomorrow's qualifying it certainly looks as though Felipe Massa's Ferrari is the car to beat, although with more rain predicted for throughout the day tomorrow who knows what kind of result the session may throw up...

Practice One Times

01 F. Massa Ferrari 1:47.284 25 laps
02 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:47.623 25 laps
03 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:47.878 27 laps
04 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:47.932 24 laps
05 F. Alonso Renault 1:48.104 25 laps
06 M. Webber Red Bull 1:48.428 28 laps
07 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:48.557 30 laps
08 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:48.958 24 laps
09 T. Glock Toyota 1:48.997 26 laps
10 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:49.068 24 laps
11 R. Kubica BMW 1:49.139 25 laps
12 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:49.185 26 laps
13 N. Rosberg Williams 1:49.611 30 laps
14 J. Trulli Toyota 1:49.625 14 laps
15 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:49.849 18 laps
16 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:49.986 27 laps
17 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:50.117 19 laps
18 K. Nakajima Williams 1:50.125 30 laps
19 J. Button Honda 1:50.464 24 laps
20 R. Barrichello Honda 1:50.905 25 laps

Practice Two Times

01 F. Alonso Renault 1:48.454 21 laps
2 F. Massa Ferrari 1:48.504 16 laps
3 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:48.740 19 laps
4 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:48.805 17 laps
5 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:49.328 10 laps
6 N. Rosberg Williams 1:49.405 17 laps
7 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:49.427 29 laps
8 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:49.585 22 laps
9 J. Trulli Toyota 1:49.715 23 laps
10 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:49.725 22 laps
11 R. Kubica BMW 1:49.875 22 laps
12 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:49.922 20 laps
13 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:49.948 20 laps
14 T. Glock Toyota 1:50.281 24 laps
15 K. Nakajima Williams 1:50.364 20 laps
16 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:50.740 11 laps
17 J. Button Honda 1:50.925 19 laps
18 R. Barrichello Honda 1:51.238 22 laps
19 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:51.334 19 laps
20 M. Webber Red Bull 1:51.640 7 laps
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Belgian Grand Prix Preview

This weekend sees the Formula One circus step into the final third of the season; the home stretch as the race for the title really heats up. Going into this weekend McLaren's Lewis Hamilton holds a slender lead over his main rivals from Ferrari, Massa and Raikkonen. However, on the evidence of the past couple of races Ferrari are the team to beat on pace, and Spa is traditionally a circuit that suits their cars. Hamilton may have his work cut out to still be top of the tree come Sunday evening.

Kimi Raikkonen is the current master of the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit, with multiple victories here in the past. If ever the Finn needed one of his great Spa performances, it's now. On his current form he is in danger of driving his way out of his lead driver slot at Ferrari. On the evidence of the past few races Felipe Massa is quicker, more consistent, and more able to produce the goods under pressure than Raikkonen. If Massa out performs Kimi again then Ferrari will surely be left with no choice but to focus all their efforts behind the Brazilian for the remainder of the season.

Of course, Spa is one of those magical places that has the ability to rip up the form book and throw it out of the window. Particularly so when it is wet, as it is predicted to be for much of this weekend. Many racing purists have complained that the unique challenges of Spa have been neutered somewhat by modern safety regulations, making it a tame imitation of what it once was. But when the rain falls (and by God it really knows how to rain in this part of Belgium!), Spa is as challenging and treacherous a circuit as you could ever wish to find. When water starts to flow down the slope of the infamous Eau Rouge corner you know you're going to be in for a wild ride! The lack of traction control this year could make things all the more spectacular, judging from the carnage of the last seriously wet race at Silverstone a couple of months ago.

On that day Lewis Hamilton reigned supreme, while Massa and Raikkonen both struggled in the awful conditions. If Ferrari prove to be on top again, McLaren and Hamilton may be performing a rain dance on the eve of battle to try and swing the race in his favour...
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