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Lewis Hamilton Wins at Spa, While Others Crash and Fume

Lewis Hamilton on the podium at Spa today

Pole sitters seldom win at Spa, and today was no exception.  No doubt Red Bull’s Mark Webber was well aware of this when he sat in the press room after yesterday’s qualifying sessions, and certainly the point was driven home when his clutch bobbled at the start and he pulled away from the grid in what must have seemed like slow motion.

Lewis Hamilton, never slow to seize an opportunity, launched his McLaren into the lead, and never looked back.  From that point onward, the plucky Brit was in control of the race.

As usual, much of the drama at Spa today was centered on the weather and tire choices.  Highly changeable conditions often makes Spa seem like a wager at the roulette table, at least from the racing engineers’ perspective. Conditions change so rapidly, that it’s easy to make the wrong choice at the worst time, thus destroying your strategy.

That said, it’s also true that Spa is a real driver’s race.  In different sectors, the track is often wet, damp and dry simultaneously, which poses a continual challenge to a driver’s skills.  It’s supremely easy to go from hero to zero at Spa in a heartbeat.

Three drivers who learned (or relearned) that lesson today were Rubens Barrichello, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.

Barrichello had his taste of embarrassment on the opening lap when he plowed his Williams into the back of Alonso’s Ferrari at the Bus Stop chicane.  Rubinho was celebrating his 300th F1 start today, and ironically some purists might end up quibbling with this statistic, as Barrichello failed to complete a single lap of the race.

If Barrichello had a bad day at the office, Sebastian Vettel’s was even worse.  The young  Red Bull pilot once again proved that he seems to lack either the judgment or skill to pull off tricky overtaking maneuvers at critical moments.  Earlier this year, he managed to collidge with team mate Mark Webber in a botched pass, taking himself out, and costing Webber the lead of the race.  Today, he lost control of his car while pulling alongside of Jenson Button’s McLaren, and plowed into Button’s sidepod, taking the Briton out of the race.  When asked later what he thought of Vettel’s overtaking attempt, Button characterized the move as “strange.”

And Vettel’s bad luck didn’t end there.  He later suffered a puncture when he came together with Force India’s Tonio Liuzzi, and he also was hit with a drive through penalty for his collision with Button.

While Vettel continues to be the golden boy at Red Bull, and surely Chris Horner and Adrian Newey are congratulating themselves that they’ve held onto Webber as the young German’s team mate.  Webber is often outclassed by Vettel in terms of raw speed and flashes of brilliance, but he’s an older and steadier hand, and he generally avoids the kinds of dust ups that are becoming stock in trade for Vettel.

With his blunder today, Vettel effectively hobbled both his and Button’s chances of winning the title this year.  Although the new points system allows gaps to be built or erased quickly, with only six races left in the season, it might be that the title race coalescing into a two-man contest between Hamilton and Webber.

On pure talent, you’d have to give the nod to Hamilton to get the job done.  But the McLaren was flattered today by the track.  Spa is quick, with long straights, which allowed the McLaren to make maximum use of their F-duct.  The next race at Monza is the quickest race on the calendar, and the cars will be running extremely low downforce configurations, which again will benefit McLaren, as downforce is their weak suit.

But after Monza, the series leaves Europe for the remainder of the season.  The five venues that follow are apt to favor the Red Bulls to one degree or another.  This could tip the scales in Webber’s favor, barring any major blunders by either the Aussie or the team.

And therein lies another question mark.  Collectively, Red Bull, at both the leadership and driver levels, has been making too many unforced errors this year.  It wasn’t so long ago that the team won its first race, and this year presents them with their first really good shot at the title.  But unlike teams such as McLaren and Ferrari, who have decades of title-contending years behind them, Red Bull is still rather new at all of this, and it will be interesting to watch how they manage things during the clutch moments that are bound to occur during the remainder of 2010.

Another driver who probably wished he had today to do over again is Fernando Alonso.  Not only was he clobbered by Rubens Barrichellon on the opening lap, but he subsequently made a premature switch to intermediate tires, and then almost immediately switched back to slicks.  He later crashed into a barrier in wet conditions, thus ending his day.

Renault’s Robert Kubica completed the podium today, alongside of Hamilton and Webber, and the Pole rightly felt lucky to be there, considering all the excitement that was taking place all around him.  Renault deployed an F-duct for the first time this weekend, and Kubica admitted that it had given the car an enormous gain in performance.

Kubica lamented that the F-duct will be of little use at Monza, however.  The whole point of the F-duct is to eliminate the drag that results from high downforce settings on the rear wing.  The device is most effective on tracks that combine a variety of turns with long straights.  Spa is just such a track.  Monza, of course, is predminantly long straights, and the rear wings are set with virtually no camber, which would render the F-ducts useless.

Also notable today were Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher, who started 14th and 21st respectively, and finished sixth and seventh.  Schumacher managed to sneak past Rosberg early in the race, in a close manuever that cost the younger German a front wing endplate.  Rosberg repaid the favor later on, however, overtaking Schumi at virtually the same place on the track, in a very similar maneuver.

While it was an impressive climb through the field for both drivers, especially Schumacher, the seven-time champ later admitted it wouldn’t have been possible had the weather been fair, and the race untroubled by driver errors.

But that’s part of the mystique of Spa, which makes it unique among tracks on the calendar.  As a close second, however, it’s rivaled by Suzuka, which we’ll see in about six weeks’ time.

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