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Soup of This Day #392: No Help From My Friends

August 29, 2014

 Eau Rouge - Raidillon
The fiercely brilliant Eau Rouge – Raidillon section at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. The low point of the racing tarmac marks the crossing of the Eau Rouge stream, while the Raidillon is the right hook up the opposing valley slope – Image: Vberger, 2005. Vberger is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

The 2014 F1 Belgian GP, held this Sunday just past, was a memorable race. True, the Belgian GP almost always is, due largely to the wonderful Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on which the race is held.

That historic track, with it’s undulating curves, requires technical skill, raw speed and a fair dash of bravery to extract the best times out of it. These balancing requirements are best illustrated by the Eau Rouge – Raidillon section – A sweeping series of curves up the side of a valley, culminating in a blind switchback. It is a testing stretch of track.

The rest of the circuit is scarcely less daunting – Relatively rapid changes in elevation and tricky corners, often with little or no assisting camber mean that this is a trip that demands respect.

Add in the unpredictable weather in the Ardennes region and sometimes this is a circuit that demands lives too – Wikipedia lists 48 driver deaths, with the most recent occurring during a 2013 F3 event. It’s just not a track you can afford to take your eyes off and not just for the drivers – Usually, even sedentary spectators will find themselves fixated on the action, unable to turn away and read that book they just borrowed from the library.

The book they have close to hand because in 2014, even the buzz generated by the thrilling Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps could easily be dulled.

See, this 2014 F1 season has been at times little more than a procession, with the powerful Mercedes team sweeping almost all before them. The two silver bullet cars have been posting lap times that sometimes exceed the best on offer from the nearest competitors by whole seconds, and this engineering dominance has been comfortably translated into wins and points – The Mercedes duo of Nico Rosberg (four) and Lewis Hamilton (five) have between them won 9 of 12 races so far. The current driver’s standings have Rosberg in first with 220 points, while Hamilton is in second with 191. The next best is a distant 156.

So the Mercedes, which on paper are even more dominant on the faster circuits, should have cruised to a one-two finish at Spa. They certainly qualified in that way, easily seeing off the rest of the field by almost two seconds. All they needed to do on race day was to keep their noses clean…

And by ‘clean’ I mean, ‘not burying a part of your car’s nose structure into your team-mate’s tyre.’

Yep. That happened. On lap two.

It was then that Nico Rosberg clumsily cut back in behind Lewis Hamilton, clipping the British driver’s left rear tyre with his right front wing. The results were not spectacular but they were dramatic. Hamilton’s tyre deflated, having been punctured. Meanwhile Rosberg’s aero package was compromised as half of the offending front wing flew off.

Neither outcome was catastrophic in of itself. Both cars were a pit stop away from being ok – They would lose some time for sure, but with their pace advantage they could each make that up several times over. Whilst most team officials would be pulling out hair at having a friendly fire incident so early in the race, they would at least be consoled by the realisation that almost the whole race awaited tantalisingly ahead for a recovery.

Except that Lewis Hamilton was seemingly fuming at Nico and probably running some conspiracy theories through his brain. Maybe this was why he drove on the ragged edge with his three remaining good tyres, trying to get back to the pits as ridiculously quickly as possible.

That’s not smart race craft. The carcass of Hamilton’s deflated tyre disintegrated under the excessive speed and the unbalanced car scraped it’s way along the track, damaging the under floor aero. A punctured tyre can be replaced mid-race. A damaged floor can not. Lewis Hamilton had unnecessarily turned a molehill into a mountain.

Nico Rosberg didn’t suffer anywhere nearly as much, possibly because he kept a cool head. He did lose a bit of time having the nose structure replaced, but this cost no more than 25 or so seconds. So while Hamilton laboured along in a car that was now clearly not right, Rosberg was able to cleave through the field, seemingly undaunted but for a comical piece of natural justice…

Some of the debris from Lewis Hamilton’s wrecked tyre, bizarrely flew up off the track some laps later at exactly the right moment to get caught on a radio aerial situated in front of Nico’s cockpit. It then fluttered in the face of the German driver, who was reduced to clawing at it for a number of laps while attempting to pilot his Mercedes along at full pace. Since it was Nico’s fault that Lewis had generated the debris in the first place, this was a fairly direct piece of Karma.

Which is wonderful but not why this Belgian GP went against 2014 type and was anything but dull – It’s not what I’ll remember the race for.

Instead I’ll remember it because of what Daniel Ricciardo did.

Sure I’m a little biased from the off in this regard – Ricciardo is an Australian. He’s even better than that for me – He’s a Western Australian, nominally at home in the leafy Perth suburb of Duncraig, not much further from where I live than a lap or two at Spa.

He’s also just 25 and in his debut season with Red Bull Racing (RBR). That team has won the past three Driver’s Championships via their German ace Sebastian Vettel. In 2014 though Sebastian, and his RBR team, have been significantly off the pace. For a start they use Renault engines, while Mercedes understandably use their own brand of power plant.

The Merc unit is better. It’s gruntier, faster and has tended to be at least as reliable as the Renault product. These discrepancies go a part of the way towards explaining why Vettel, so dominant across the past three years, has won nowt in 2014. He has a scant 98 points, good enough only for 6th in this year’s title race.

The engine mismatch though is not the full story. For while Sebastian Vettel has not been able to extract a competitive package from his RB10 car, Daniel Ricciardo has mined victory from his.

That goes to the heart of why I’ll remember the 2014 Belgian GP. Daniel Ricciardo didn’t have the best car. His car was in fact quite a bit less naturally adept around Spa than the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg. In fact, towards the end of the 44-lap event, Nico Rosberg was lapping at almost three seconds faster than Australian.

Yet Ricciardo was leading with a scant number of laps remaining.

He’d got to that position by simply being the better driver. While others, such as Lewis Hamilton, lost their heads around him, Daniel Ricciardo drove his car to the smartest limits he could find, coolly eking out advantages here and there, the whole adding up to a decent lead with that handful of laps remaining.

Even that might not have been enough – Crunching the numbers at that late stage showed that, at the rate that the Mercedes pilot was closing, Rosberg would be reading the manufacturer’s serial number off of Ricciardo’s tailpipe sometime just before the end of the race. For a time it looked like we were set for a thriller – Ricciardo seemed to not be able to find more pace, while Rosberg had that commodity in spades. The German was sure to catch the Australian on the last lap, before sweeping unstoppably past.

It didn’t happen.

Daniel Ricciardo had been honestly driving to the limits of his car. Limits calculated to bring him home in first. On the very last lap, with Rosberg charging, Ricciardo pulled out his fastest circuit of the race, more than enough to comfortably hold the German at bay. And so Daniel Ricciardo got to the chequered flag first, in the process notching up his third win of the 2014 season and his second on the burst.

That’s some serious race craft from a young driver – A cool, controlled and mature display of driving at the highest level and on one of the most demanding tracks in motorsport.

Though it’s not specifically what I’m remembering about Daniel Ricciardo’s actions at the 2014 Belgian GP. What’s on the top step of the podium of my mind is what the Australian did in the room the first three place-getters wait in before the trophy presentation.

Instead of partying down and getting wild about the win, Ricciardo took a long look at the timing board showing who had done what splits throughout the race. And then he asked Nico Rosberg and third place-getter Valteri Bottas what tyres they’d finished on.

He wasn’t celebrating the win at the 2014 Belgian GP. He was working out how to win the 2015 Belgian GP.

No Help From My Friends

  1. And thus likely lies the difference between the good athletes and the greats. The ones who continually strive to improve and visualize how to continue to win will often be more successful. Out working the opponent can often at least neutralize advantages the “slacker” athlete may have on the surface.

    • Yep, there’s talent and then there’s work. If you can produce both then you’re on to something great – I think Ricciardo might have a real shot at that.

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