Sunday 17 November 2019

F1: Button bypasses drama to throw title race wide open

Fernando Alonso (L) of Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton (R) of McLaren collide and crash out at the first corner at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix
Fernando Alonso (L) of Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton (R) of McLaren collide and crash out at the first corner at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix

Tom Cary in Spa-Francorchamps

IT started with a frightening first-corner pile-up which nearly took off the head of Ferrari's championship leader Fernando Alonso.

And it ended with McLaren's Jenson Button cruising, beneath lengthening shadows, to his first victory around this spectacular circuit in the Ardennes.

To think that Spa almost fell off the calendar for next year due to lack of funds. May that nightmare scenario never come to pass.

The Belgian Grand Prix is the race that keeps on giving, throwing up drama galore yesterday -- crashes, near misses, breathtaking passes.

It also threw the title race wide open.

Romain Grosjean's reckless swerve into the side of McLaren's Lewis Hamilton just seconds into the race triggered an almighty pile-up that eventually accounted for six cars, including those of Hamilton and Alonso, who saw his championship lead cut to 24 points over Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel.

The Spaniard was philosophical afterwards, posting a picture on Twitter of the airborne Lotus just inches from his nose and pointing out that he was thankful merely to be alive.

But the truth is those lost points could prove decisive in the final reckoning. Both Hamilton and Alonso -- who had been on course to equal Michael Schumacher's record of 24 consecutive points finishes -- would surely have challenged for a podium.

Stewards said they took that into account when handing Grosjean a one-race ban, which he will serve next weekend in Monza, as well as a €50,000 fine, describing the Franco-Swiss driver's actions as "an extremely serious breach of the regulations which had the potential to cause injury to others".

It is likely that previous first-lap incidents this season involving Grosjean -- of which there have been many -- also played a factor in his red card, effectively the first meted out to a driver since McLaren's Mika Hakkinen in 1994.

All of which should not detract from Button's achievement. The Englishman, who claimed his first pole position in more than three years on Saturday, was faultless again yesterday, adding another classic circuit to his increasingly impressive CV.

As he pointed out in the press conference later, it showed once again what Button can do when he feels comfortable in the car and puts it on pole, as he did repeatedly in the first part of his title-winning season in 2009.

If only he could put it on pole more often, it would mean avoiding incidents of the type which unfolded yesterday.

With Pastor Maldonado jumping the lights from sixth on the grid -- a blunder that earned the Venezuelan a five-place grid penalty for Monza, which he promptly doubled by causing a collision with Marussia's Timo Glock -- there was already plenty of movement off the start line.

But nothing could have prepared the thousands of fans packed into the grandstand at La Source for what they were about to witness -- Grosjean leaving Hamilton no room for manoeuvre, sending the McLaren into a brief spin on the grass and then back into the Lotus, who in turn took out Alonso and Sauber's Sergio Perez.

Hamilton was quickly out of his car to remonstrate with Grosjean, who also caused a first-lap incident in his only other race here in 2009 that accounted for both Button and Hamilton, but Alonso remained completly unmoving in his cockpit.

As replays were shown of the Lotus flying over the front of the Ferrari, there were briefly fears that the Spaniard might have been hurt, but thankfully he was soon stepping gingerly from his car.

With the chaos unfolding behind him, Button (pictured left) was able to collect his thoughts behind the safety car and when that retired at the start of lap five, he sped away from Force India's Nico Hulkenberg with a minimum of fuss, the characteristic economy of movement in his steering drawing murmurs of approval from those who enjoy such things.

Kimi Raikkonen, who had been expected to provide Button with his sternest challenge from third on the grid, was never able to get close in his Lotus, although the Finn did provide the race with its best overtaking manoeuvre, a sensational and hugely daring dart around the outside of Schumacher into Eau Rouge.

Raikkonen eventually took third behind Vettel, who surged from 10th on the grid to become the day's biggest winner, banking 18 crucial points as he closed the gap to Alonso. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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