Saturday 16 November 2019

Vettel proving hard act to follow for grid rivals

A high-risk strategy in Belgium paid off in style for the Red Bull team, writes David Kennedy

The hot spring waters in Spa are renowned for their restorative powers and folk have been dipping more than their toes in them since the 14th century. But many of Sebastian Vettel's opponents would have preferred water from above to provide a healing gift to boost a flagging career or a faltering title campaign last weekend in Belgium.

Rain did indeed play its part in shuffling the pack throughout practice and qualifying, but come race day, it was a dry run for Vettel and his runner-up team-mate Mark Webber. With the wind firmly in Vettel's sails, those drivers who continue to harbour championship hopes may well have stirred the spirit of Spa's famous son, George Alexander Krins, the 23-year-old violinist who played on as the Titanic sank in 1912.

A metaphor for what happened in Spa? You could say that. Red Bull won in controversial circumstances when Vettel chose an audacious set-up which propelled him to his seventh win in the 12th race of the season. A debate has opened up as to how much autonomy a team should be accorded. Here's why.

The two Red Bull drivers went into race day at Spa with the clear statement from Pirelli that the suspension layout on their cars was putting the tyres under undue strain and the rubber was in danger of disintegrating at any moment.

Pirelli 'recommended' that teams run a maximum figure for camber; however, in view of what happened in Spa, the word 'recommended' may well be replaced by 'instructed'. After looking at Red Bull's tyres following qualifying, the tyre-maker brought in a truckload of new rubber for the top ten runners on the grid, in case the FIA would ask them to supply different tyres to the ones they had qualified on, as the rules decree they should use.

But when Pirelli found out that Red Bull had been pushing the rubber to the limit by running extra camber on the front wheels, beyond those aforementioned recommended tolerances, the sympathy of tyre company, and indeed that of the FIA, evaporated.

Vettel and Webber could have changed their suspension settings and started from the pit lane but instead they screwed their courage to the sticking place and luckily for them that decision rewarded them with a one-two.

Was Red Bull playing Russian roulette with their drivers' lives? Spa is undoubtedly the most daunting circuit on the calendar and it provides more out-of-body experiences than you can shake a stick at.

You do not want to compromise on safety here, it really is dicing with death. To knowingly go out on tyres that could delaminate at any given moment is taking commitment to a new level. Webber, perhaps more mindful of driver safety, pitted for fresh rubber after three laps, Vettel after five. But there were lots of 'what ifs'. No one was hurt or injured in the making of this decision so luckily the post-mortem will just be about clearing up this anomaly.

Vettel's 92-point lead is just about as relaxed a position as any racing driver could ever find himself in. He doesn't have to win races to win the title from here on in which probably means the victories will topple his way like dominoes. Behind him, the pressure is obvious, not least on Lewis Hamilton who just lost out on pole position and then controversially clashed with Kamui Kobayashi. Five race incidents this season to none for Vettel doesn't make for a good school report but then Vettel isn't the one chasing the title in an inferior car. Lewis put his hand up over the Kobayashi clash that cost him another top result.

Still, his hand just might be going up automatically these days as he pleads mea culpa to whatever he's being blamed for. Let's hope Hamilton doesn't temper his style because he is providing the spark that gives this season an edge.

Team-mate Jenson Button gave us plenty of entertainment on his way to third from 13th on the grid, but impressive as that was, it was never going to be enough. Only wins have any value now.

Fernando Alonso failed to break his F1 duck at a circuit he made his career breakthrough at in Formula 3000 back in 2000. The Spaniard will know all about pressure heading to Monza as the standard-bearer for Ferrari next weekend. Having shaken off Button in a stirring battle in the leafy surroundings of Parc Villa Real 12-months ago, Alonso knows how to cheer the tifosi but he needs warmer temperatures than Spa if he's to get sufficient grip out of the harder Monza tyre.

It's a tall order to prevent Vettel from defending his title at this stage and nothing less than wins from now on will do his rivals. Compromise is not an option. They need to go forth and be as brave, as lucky, as talented, as technologically prosperous and as comfortable as Vettel. It's a hard act to follow.

Status GP goes into Monza for a last gasp attempt at the GP3 drivers' title, with no more than a mathematical outside chance of winning. With a few dismal results of late it doesn't take long to fall down the order. There are two races at Monza and it would be great to bow out with a win. The series has seen 11 different race winners over 14 races, one of them Status driver Alexander Sims. It is a fiercely competitive series. Derek Daly's son Conor enjoyed his best GP3 result to date at Spa when he finished sixth.

It was at Spa that we learned of the untimely passing of one of motorsport's stalwarts, Martin Hines. If one name is synonymous with Karting in the UK, it is Martin's. Apart from winning seventeen Karting titles, he was mentor to many drivers including Lewis Hamilton and David Coulthard. Our paths crossed frequently over the decades. He came into Grand Prix Racewear many moons ago with the then 11-year-old Lewis Hamilton and his dad Anthony. Martin was always hustling for and encouraging the 'young guns' as they were called. He was very proud to take over Grand Prix Racewear long after we had sold it, which he dubbed the 'Harrods of motorsport'. It was high praise coming from such a professional. He was one of the good guys.

David Kennedy is MD of Status GP Team

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