"I'm losing my efficiency." Michael Schumacher, August 29th 2010.
The most crucial contribution to the result of today's Belgian Grand Prix was the lobbying that McLaren and Mercedes made to the FIA four weeks ago.
To recall, the subject of their angst was the degree of front-wing deflection clearly visible under aerodynamic load on the cars of Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Ferrari. The FIA were at the time testing for such aeroelasticity by merely requiring that each front-wing endplate deflect by no more than 10mm under a load of 50kg. For this weekend's Belgian Grand Prix, however, the requirement was increased to a deflection of no more than 20mm under a load of 100kg. In other words, the FIA were testing for non-linear deformation of the front-wing under loads greater than 50kg.
"The front wings we have here are the same as we had in Budapest," claimed Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner on Thursday. "I can't say [the new test] will affect us any more or less than any other team."
Well, raw pace is generally best judged by the lap-times set in Q2 on Saturday, when the cars carry a low fuel load, and before they adopt race-distance settings in Q3. In Q2 at the Hungaroring, the previous race, Lewis Hamilton was 1.3 secs behind the Red Bulls; in Q2 at Spa, Lewis was 1 second faster than the Red Bulls. In other words, despite a two-week factory shutdown, there was a net 2.3 second swing between McLaren and Red Bull. Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, the closest challenger to the Red Bulls in Hungary, was down in tenth place after qualifying.
Thus, whilst the high-speed requirements of Spa were expected to suit McLaren to a greater degree, and whilst their F-duct clearly provided an advantage here, it's fair to say that the new deflection tests also seemed to play a significant role. McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh duly noted that "we can all see the wings are in a different stiffness and positional domain than they had been in previous races."
As Craig Scarborough explains, at 70mph - the speed of the slowest corner on an F1 track - each half of the front wing is already producing 70kg of downforce. Hence, one might hypothesise that prior to Spa, the Red Bulls and Ferraris were using non-linear front-wing aeroelasticity, triggered from about 70kg of downforce onwards.
Nevertheless, Lewis Hamilton's victory was no walk in the Ardennes, for it included an off-track "excursion" through the Rivage gravel track when rain began falling once again in the late stages of the race. As Lewis slid into the gravel, it was instantly clear that he needed to retain sufficient speed not to bog down, yet also faced the exigency of rubbing-off sufficient speed not to hit the tyre wall. For fractions of a second, either seemed possible, and there were momentary echoes of both China 2007, when he ignominiously bogged-down in the pit-lane gravel-trap, and Spain this year, when a puncture took him at a shallow angle into the wall. On this occasion, however, he just brushed the canvassed tyre barrier before rejoining, still in the lead.
A short time later, after a pit-stop for intermediate tyres, a couple of laps behind the safety car, and some relatively uneventful final laps, Lewis crossed the line to win at Spa Francorchamps for the second time.
The end of the race may have been uneventful, but the start was anything but, poleman Webber suffering clutch difficulties, and being instantly swamped by those around him. Into La Source it was Hamilton first, with Button attempting to snatch second-place on the inside of Kubica. Jenson, however, couldn't quite get the traction he needed on the tighter line, and although he got his left-front alongside Kubica's right-rear, he had to briefly lift and cede second on the drop to Eau Rouge. Vettel had been caught on the outside of Kubica and Button into La Source, and was fourth, with Massa fifth, and Webber sixth. On the Kemmel straight Sutil's low-drag Force India drove clean down the outside of Webber, but Adrian outbraked himself somewhat, and Webber swiftly reclaimed the place through the left-handed component of Les Combes.
As the train of cars tore a sinuous path down through the valley, light rain was clearly falling, but not to the degree which the drivers encountered when the reached the heavy braking zone at the end of the lap. Here, almost the entire field appeared to run wide under braking into the bus-stop chicane, Hamilton first, then Button and Kubica as one, Jenson initially attempting to out-brake the Renault down the inside. The McLaren and Renault ran wide in parallel, but here Button crucially snagged his left-front endplate on Kubica, a small detail which was to have serious repercussions for the Briton later in the race.
As all hell broke loose, Jenson was just about the only driver who decided to double-back on himself and rejoin the road at the apex of the corner, the others taking the same expeditious short-cut which had got Lewis Hamilton into so much hot water back in 2008. By so doing, Kubica, Vettel and Massa all rejoined ahead of Button.
At about this moment, Rubens Barrichello demonstrated the benefit of 300 Grands Prix worth of experience, by pile-driving his Williams into the right-rear of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, who was at the time carefully traversing the perimeter of the track on the outside of Sutil. Whilst Rubens cleanly severed the left-front of his car from the chassis, it appears that the driveshaft and rear suspension of the Ferrari are made of carbon nano-tubes, for Fernando's car was unscathed, and he merely trundled into the pits to attach a set of intermediates.
Button, meanwhile, retook Massa down the start-finish straight, and slipped inside Vettel into La Source. Whether this was due to excessive caution on the part of Massa and Vettel, or because they were voluntarily ceding their places back, is unknown. Whatever, Jenson was back into third, and as the cars tip-toed through Eau Rouge in the damp conditions, Kubica had a tank-slapper through the left-kink on the incline, opposite-locking his Renault onto the tarmac run-off. As Robert lifted off and rejoined, Button was past into second. Vettel then tried to follow the McLaren through round the outside of the right-kink onto Kemmel, only to find Kubica putting him onto the grass. Sebastian lifted off, and whilst still partially alongside the Renault, furiously gesticulated at Kubica.
Into Les Combes on lap two, then, it was Hamilton, Button, Kubica, Vettel, Massa and Webber. As the rain continued to fall, Webber took Massa on the outside going into Rivage, and was right behind team-mate Vettel when the pace car was triggered, without, it seems, any clear justification.
The slick-shod field gratefully accepted the opportunity to spend a lap behind the pace-car while the rain passed, and as the race re-started on lap 4, Kubica was forced to take a tighter line into La Source to defend his place from Vettel. The Renault slid marginally wide at the apex, however, and Vettel was into third.
The rather intemperately tempered Mr Vettel was thence able to close on the McLaren of Jenson Button, who was suffering a handling imblance due to his first-lap front-wing damage. Sebastian struggled for some laps to find a passing opportunity, hitting the rev-limiter in the McLaren's slipstream on the climb to Les Combes. Finally, however, on lap 16, Jenson was rather tardy through Stavelot, and Sebastian was tucked indecently close to the McLaren's rear-end through Blanchimont, preparing to make his move into the chicane.
When the moment came, however, Button predictably covered the inside line, and after briefly contemplating a move permissible only in Batman Begins, Vettel tried whipping across to the outside, only to loose control "over a bump". Presumably, this was the same bump over which Vettel had lost control trying to pass Webber in Turkey, for the Red Bull slewed sideways in a similar manner, punching a hole through the flank of the McLaren, which steamed into retirement. Vettel, meanwhile, plunged into a spiral of drive-through penalties, pit-stops, punctures and post-race inquisitions.
Beyond the main storyline, we also had an exciting battle between the Mercedes drivers, Rosberg and Schumacher. Rosberg had led initially, but after losing an encounter with Vitaly Petrov on lap 11, found his team-mate slicing across his bows, removing a small part of the left front-wing in a trail of golden sparks. On the final re-start, Rosberg outbraked Schumacher into Les Combes, and as Schumacher tried to hang on into the left-hander, Rosberg calmly drove him off the road. Tasty.
The final word, however, goes to Michael, who in comparing the fourteen places he made up in today's race, to the sixteen he recovered to win the 1995 race, reflected that "I'm losing my efficiency."
Losing My Efficiency was, of course, the less well-known B-side to REM's 1991 hit, Losing My Religion.