Saturday 25 November 2017

Motorsport: Only Monza remains in Hamilton's golden four

Smile is back on former world champion's face after thrilling Spa victory, writes David Kennedy

David Kennedy

To enjoy the Spa Francorchamp Grand Prix to its full, you must travel with excess luggage. Essential kit should include a brolly, rain-gear, ear-plugs, a fold-out chair, sandwiches, binoculars, a sun hat, suncream, sunglasses, shorts, a t-shirt, a fan, water bottles and more sandwiches.

And don't forget your mobile, camera, laptop, ipod, iphone, ipad and especially iron, for when you exit your tent and want to look respectable. Banner or national flag is mandatory.

In short, Spa can be as gruelling as the circuit's weather is unpredictable. But that pilgrimage is exactly what a great many Europeans, predominantly Belgium, Dutch, German, French and British commit to each year.

The hills and forests that line this undulating 7km circuit is home to a determined, experienced, faithful and hardened fan who come to Spa to pay homage to cars that are unleashed on a circuit that allows them to strike the high notes in the V8 symphony, and that my friends is music to their plugged ears.

Back down on planet paddock the contrast couldn't be more marked. Space stations masquerading as motorhomes, costing tens of millions of dollars, provide refuge for drivers from the incessant rain or scorching sun. But though they can hide inside these shuttle-craft they also have to run, and that means fulfilling their appointment with destiny, whatever the elements.

Every driver knows that this is where the vincible and the invincible part company. The fans await the arrival of their gods and expectations run high because Spa in the rain is even more daunting than in the dry.

Bernie Ecclestone may not be able to charge the fold-out chair brigade yet and I'm sure he eyes and laments the lost income from those grassy knolls while making a mental note to fill them one day with grandstands. But the great unwashed don't concern themselves with the unwritten future. They look down as the ringmeister cracks the whip and the gladiators file out in formation into an arena where racing man and racing fan become one. For Spa is nothing if not home to the spectacle.

The path to victory was a treacherous one but Lewis Hamilton delivered. He had wanted this trophy badly, it defines elitism and the particular cabinet he wants to fill is home to a select few: Monaco, Monza, Silverstone and Spa. Next weekend he gets the chance to complete the coveted quartet as Monza remains unconquered.

In Spa, the former world champion almost threw it all away nine laps from the finish when he slid into the gravel but he managed to extract himself, and wisely decided to change his Bridgestone slicks to intermediates when conditions worsened a couple of laps later. It was a brilliant victory and it puts Hamilton back in the lead in the world championship.

The fans, meanwhile, were loving it all and getting plenty of Spa-tisfaction. Sebastian Vettel possibly helped decide the future of the championship when he took himself and Jenson Button out. That collision cost him not just second place but rendered his own championship battle as steep as the climb at Eau Rouge.

If pole-sitter Mark Webber saw his own chance turn to dust with a pedestrian start, he also saw it re-emerge from the ashes thanks to his team-mate's generosity as luck was plucked from the fist of their misfortune. Runner-up was a nice 34th birthday present, even if in motor racing years that's about 99 years old.

Vettel was chastened, not by the harsh criticism he received, but by his own fallibility. "I made a mistake, mistakes make you a better driver," he said. I'm sure Webber hopes his team-mate gets to quote that mantra over and over again or at least until the Aussie secures the crown.

But before you start throwing away the calculator, there are still 150 points up for grabs with six races to go. Forty-one points separates first and fifth place and with 25 points for a win a contretemps between Hamilton and Webber would throw the whole thing wide open again.

Meanwhile, Red Bull and McLaren concentrate on the constructors championship and the single point that currently separates them. Robert Kubica in a Renault and Adrian Sutil in the Force India had terrific runs at Spa, finishing third and fifth respectively and even if they hadn't benefited from the demise of Vettel and Button, it would still have been very impressive.

The Monza circuit might be shaped like a racing boot and it's true to say it delivers some serious kick. Back-to-back with Spa it is like being spoilt for choice. Skill, sensitivity and sublimity mixed with a fanatical Ferrari Tifosi made this circuit enduring and endearing. Last year Button and Rubens Barrichello came in first and second for Brawn-Mercedes. Kimi Raikkonen was third for Ferrari, Sutil was fourth and Fernando Alonso was fifth in a Renault.

Of course much is demanded of Ferrari at Monza. Alonso is still in with a marginal chance of the title and being at home will be worth a few extra bhp. Felipe Massa could throw up a surprise too.

It's worth bearing in mind that this may not be the sixth last race of the season. Should the newly manufactured Korean circuit (third last race) not be ready in time it would change everything. The FIA have put off their final inspection for a month giving the organisers some breathing space. But the sport's governing body would never compromise on safety and it if doesn't tick the boxes it will be cancelled.

Spa didn't just put a smile on Hamilton's face. In GP3 Canadian Robert Wickens was once again the victor. In a rain-soaked race, using clever strategy that Ross Brawn would have been proud of, the team ensured that out of crashes, carnage, pace cars and panic, Ireland's Status GP3 team ruled the waves. Monza is the venue for the final two races of the championship and a possible title for the Mickey Finn-backed car, which is also sponsored by Marussia, who coincidentally have just become part owners of Virgin F1.

David Kennedy is Setanta's F1 analyst

Sunday Independent

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