After our mandatory two-week shutdown, MERCEDES GP PETRONAS was back at work last week. Only a few days to prepare everything for Spa, fill the trucks, take to the road again… it’s amazing how we can forget all about it in only two weeks - and how quickly the habits come back too. Travel kit, seat booking, shuttle, airport, security checks, flight, shuttle, hotel, track, hotel, track, airport, factory, home…
After a pretty harsh first day, the routine was back. And how much did we miss this routine! After what probably felt like an eternity for the fans, what better place could host a comeback to Formula One than Spa?
The Belgian Grand Prix, thanks to the amazingly unpredictable weather and the beauty of its seven kilometre track, is always an event drivers admire and strategists love to hate - and hate to love.
For the team, the nature of the track itself with its long straights, combined with the power of the Mercedes-Benz engine, meant that this weekend, at least on paper, was supposed to be a good one. But then again, the weather, the other teams, so many parameters can ruin what everyone expects to be a good weekend beforehand.
Another element to spice up our weekend obviously was Michael’s very special celebration… his Formula One career started on this very track 20 years ago! Suffice to say Michael was quite keen to make it an even more special weekend than it already was. What followed was probably one as the best fight backs of the season!
Friday turned out to be a very typical Spa day – rain joined the party quite quickly during the first practice session and all drivers had pretty limited dry running – four laps for both our drivers to be precise. The teams managed to cover little work on set-up but Michael was in a confident state of mind.
What followed on Saturday sadly is a race weekend fact. As someone described it during the weekend, the best athletes around the world train as hard as they can, be as fit as they can, but that doesn’t rule out injuries. The same rule can apply to Formula One, and training, practice, professionalism will prevent most incidents – but not all of them. When Michael left the pits to take part in Q1, his four wheels were on tight, but his right-rear wheel and tyre came off on his out lap after turn seven. It later emerged, after post session examination that the wheel had been cross-threaded… a racing incident that left Michael with no time and therefore the position of 24th on the grid for Sunday. Not the best way to celebrate his anniversary but on Saturday evening, during Michael’s small party in the motorhome, it was pretty clear from his body language, his attitude towards the team and everyone around, that we could witness something special on Sunday. And boy did we!
Michael’s not unfamiliar with amazing comebacks, especially in Spa. In 1995, he started from 16th on the grid and went on to win the race. Pretty much everyone had this race in mind when all the cars lined up on the grid for the race. Two minutes and eight seconds later, by the end of his first lap, Michael was already in 14th place. The decision to lstart on the harder tyres, a good strategy from the pit wall – and the Safety Car which came at the perfect moment from Michael’s point of view – meant that he was able to battle through the field and deliver one of those special races.
After his first early stop on lap four, Michael consistent lap times, averaging around 1.55.00, matched Jenson Button’s and Mark Webber’s, who stopped around the same time. His overtaking manoeuvres, combined with some nice defensive moves on the likes of Button made it one to remember.
With ten laps to go, Michael overtook Sutil for sixth place, just behind Nico. On the soft tyres compared to Nico’s harder set, Michael came back pretty quickly on his team-mate. The team instructed both drivers that they were “free to race”, as long as it stayed “clean”. With a one second a lap advantage over Nico, it wasn’t too much of a fight and on lap 41, Michael made a move on Nico and gained fifth place.
Michael maintained this position until the chequered flag and delivered one of his most solid results for the team… but also one of the most impressive races of his comeback! Twists, action, emotion – Michael’s face at the end of the race told how much he enjoyed this race and what it meant for him – not a bad way to celebrate an anniversary hey?!
Nico had yet another solid result on Saturday, qualifying in fifth place, 0.3s away from Massa’s time and ahead of two former World Champions, Alonso and Button. Good driving combined with good pit wall calls – Nico was on track at the right time in each session, in quickly changing conditions – meant that once again he got the best out of the car.
His start on Sunday wasn’t too bad either, and his reflexes combined with Webber’s slow start meant that Nico was running in second position by Eau Rouge. It is amazing to note that out of their combined 22 starts this season so far (remember, Canada started behind the Safety Car), Nico and Michael have only lost position three times!
But the best was yet to come for Nico, and Vettel had to look in his mirrors approaching Les Combes as the Silver Arrow number eight was getting closer and closer… until Nico made his move and took the lead. Nico lead the race for two laps until Vettel overtook him again, and retook the lead when the Red Bull driver pitted on lap five. His amazing first stage of the race, combined with a big push to make his two-stop strategy work meant that Nico used more fuel than expected – and the Safety Car period didn’t really help as drivers don’t save fuel here anymore – and therefore he had to conserve a little bit towards the end.
The more cynical of the Formula One fans jumped quite quickly on the “save fuel” radio message and described it as covert team orders, but in Sunday’s case, we were far away from the drastic kind of fuel-saving required on Nico’s car in China. Nico was instructed to lift at the end of the straights, which didn’t significantly compromise his lap times. By the time the message came to Nico, Alonso was already 15 seconds ahead and realistically, fifth and sixth places was the best result achievable by the team this weekend. The difference between our two drivers, as mentioned earlier, came from the different tyres the drivers were on, and Nico knew sixth place was a good result for the team.
Fifth and sixth meant that we secured our best result of the year so far with 18 points. The gap to Lotus Renault GP has increased to 30 points, but realistically, the gap to the top three is still present, as demonstrated by everyone’s pace in the middle part of the race.
A Formula One championship is a never-ending fight, and the next battle will take us to Monza, a track spent at 83% full-throttle. Vederti lì!