2016 Belgian Grand Prix Recap: 55-Place Grid Penalty Doesn’t Stop Hamilton
And we’re back! After a month-long summer break, the drivers have returned to their cockpits to get started on the second half of the 2016 Formula One season—and boy what a return it was.
The Belgian Grand Prix was held at Spa, one of the most popular circuits in the world and certainly one of the greatest on the F1 calendar, not to mention the longest. The famous Eau Rouge corner is just one of around twenty breathtaking corners (depending on how you count them), almost all of which are taken at high speeds, some in excess of 185 mph.
And it was a classic Formula 1 race: upsets, hard racing, crashes, and most important of all, copious amounts of drama. So let’s dive in.
We’ve known for a while that Hamilton would have to take a grid penalty for changing more engine components than is allowed over the course of a season, and Mercedes chose to do this at Spa. As a result, Hamilton took a 55-place penalty and, if you can believe it, actually didn’t start last because Alonso took an even bigger penalty after his car needed repairs because it simply refused to go. Mercedes’ choice to take the penalty at Spa made sense because running on an old engine can be detrimental at such a high-speed track—where, incidentally, overtaking should have been easy for Hamilton, allowing him to start from the back and still get some good points.
With his teammate out of the way, Rosberg might have thought taking pole position would be a breeze, but it actually turned out to be a close call. Verstappen and Räikkönen got quite close and even the Force Indias looked competitive. The race was shaping up to be a good one.
The first corner of the first lap at Spa was strangely reminiscent of the first corner of the first lap in China, even though the two corners have almost nothing in common. However, both did have two Ferraris on the outside and an optimistic Red Bull on the inside, and in both cases Sebastian Vettel accidentally collided with Kimi Räikkönen and damaged Ferrari’s race. Whether it was Max Verstappen’s fault for going for a small gap on the inside that would inevitably close or Vettel’s fault for taking too tight of a line on the outside, I’m not sure—what is sure is that once again, Räikkönen was the unlucky loser of the situation. All three drivers had to pit to repair damage and spent the rest of the afternoon fighting for championship points rather than the podium than had initially hoped for.
The biggest event in the race was Kevin Magnussen’s high-speed crash at the top of Radillion, where it’s not uncommon for cars to exceed 190 mph. Magnussen was fortunately able to walk away with nothing more than a fractured ankle and the race was then red flagged to repair the barrier. This played right into the hands of Hamilton and Alonso, as several cars in front of them had already pit and lost the time for nothing, because those that hadn’t pit were then able do so under the red flag instead. The fact that a top-speed-deficient McLaren Honda that started last was able to finish seventh really goes to show how lucky Alonso and Hamilton really were.
Ultimately, Nico Rosberg did everything he needed to do. He got away from the starting grid and from the post-red-flag rolling start cleanly, never made a mistake, and won the race after completing 44 laps totally unhindered. Despite this, there’s no doubt he left Spa disappointed, as Hamilton joined him on the podium and thus significantly hurt one of Rosberg’s big opportunities at catching or overtaking him in the driver’s championship.
Further back, Räikkönen and Verstappen once again had a dramatic tête-a-tête. On one lap, Räikkönen was overtaking on the outside of Les Combes when Verstappen pushed him off track and then failed to make the corner himself—yet Räikkönen was told to give the position back. A lap later, Verstappen very nearly caused a collision when he blocked Räikkönen by moving in the path of his fast-charging car. The Ferrari driver had to brake to avoid it, something he later said he “never had to do” at this part of the track against any other driver. It was extremely dangerous on the part of Verstappen and could have easily resulted in a 200-mph crash had Räikkönen been any slower to react—yet the incident was once again not even investigated.
Eventually, Räikkönen did manage to get past, but many were left decidedly disillusioned with Verstappen. It’s not that he was too aggressive and immature on the track—that’s something you’d expect of any ultra-quick 18-year-old—but that he refused to admit fault after the race was over and continued to be completely overlooked by the stewards, who seem to stubbornly ignore any of Verstappen’s wrongdoings while simultaneously being strict on other drivers for every little thing. I don’t think there’s a conspiracy going on, but this is the third race Verstappen gets away with too much and it’s beginning to get a little fishy. He even tried to justify his behavior by saying that Ferrari had ruined his race at the first corner, and that he thus felt entitled to driving them off the track; that’s not just an immature line of thought but also a frightening one when you consider the circumstances.
I was hoping that Hamilton’s 55-place grid penalty would help tighten up the title fight with Rosberg, but like the latter, I was disappointed. There’s no one to blame, though—Magnussen didn’t crash on purpose and these things simply happen. Still, Rosberg did reduce the gap to nine points and there’s no reason he can’t stay ahead at the next Grand Prix in Monza.
The constructor’s championship battles are shaping up quite nicely as well. Red Bull has increased the gap to Ferrari, Force India is catching Williams at an alarming rate (for Williams), and McLaren finally got past Toro Rosso, though none of those teams are likely to challenge Mercedes for a win at Monza, where top speed is king. Williams is quite good in that area, though, and might actually score good points for once. See you then!
Kurt Verlin was born in France and lives in the United States. Throughout his life he was always told French was the language of romance, but it was English he fell in love with. He likes cats, music, cars, 30 Rock, Formula 1, and pretending to be a race car driver in simulators; but most of all, he just likes to write about it all. See more articles by Kurt.