Belgian Grand Prix: 'Hamilton third? What, seriously?'

By Andrew BensonChief F1 writer
Mercedes F1 drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg
Lewis Hamilton finished third at the Belgian Grand Prix, won by team-mate Nico Rosberg

"After the chequered flag I looked at the results," said Belgian Grand Prix race-winner Nico Rosberg. "I knew Daniel [Ricciardo] was behind me and then I saw 'HAM' in P3 and I was like, 'What? Seriously?!"

The German, still in his champagne-soaked racing overalls an hour and a half or so after the race, was smiling.

Rosberg took the comfortable win that seemed inevitable once it had become clear team-mate Lewis Hamilton would be dropped down the grid because of a series of engine penalties this weekend.

But few people - least of all Hamilton himself - expected the world champion to recover to third place on what was one of the more difficult weekends for Mercedes this year.

A combination of hot temperatures and fragile tyres run at what many drivers, including Hamilton, agreed were "ridiculously" high pressures ensured that this race was harder for Mercedes than anyone thought it would be.

So for the Briton to come back through the field to third from 21st on the grid was a remarkable achievement.

Nico Rosberg
Rosberg kept a cool head after the early chaos to secure his 20th win of his career

It was a weekend when Hamilton might reasonably have expected to come away with his championship lead wiped out. So to lose only 10 points, with his lead reduced to nine, was a "super-bonus", as he put it.

If Rosberg was disappointed, he hid it well. He joked with reporters during his news conference and brushed off suggestions that he might have been thinking about heading to this weekend's Italian Grand Prix in a better position.

"That's not what I'm focusing on," Rosberg said. "I came here to the Belgian Grand Prix and wanted to win it. The opposition was unusually close this weekend - not eventually in the race but leading up to that. I'm just happy it worked out. Perfect weekend for me."

He was "very surprised" by Hamilton's result, he said, but praised what he said must have been a "great job". And he cheekily brought up the controversial battle between Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, cleverly making his views clear without actually saying them outright.

All in all, it was a richly entertaining race weekend to start a hectic climax to the season, with eight races in 12 weeks.

It brought together narratives on the title battle, notably Verstappen's unsettling effect on his more experienced rivals, simmering discontent with F1's Pirelli tyres and what appears to be a clock ticking down on Jenson Button's future.

Hamilton's great recovery

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton recovered from the back row of the grid to finish third

Hamilton admitted that when he lined up for the restart following Kevin Magnussen's major accident, he briefly entertained thoughts of an unlikely win. At the same time, he was thinking: "Anything from here is a bonus. I am already in the points; let's see what I can get."

But a win was never going to happen. Hamilton cleared his old rival Fernando Alonso - whose opening stint had been even more impressive than Hamilton's, climbing to fourth at the red flag from 22nd on the grid in an under-powered McLaren-Honda - and Force India's Nico Hulkenberg but, by then, Rosberg was already 10 seconds up the road.

Snatching second from Ricciardo was perhaps a more realistic hope but even that was not feasible. Passing Alonso and Hulkenberg meant the one-stop, post-red flag strategy employed by Rosberg and Ricciardo was not open to Hamilton.

Rosberg could run two sets of medium tyres to the end because he had started the race on the softs. Ricciardo could do a soft-medium strategy because the Red Bull had better tyre wear than the Mercedes.

Hamilton had started on the mediums, and so had to run a different tyre, as the rules demand. Mercedes knew one set of softs and one of mediums would not give him enough laps, so two further stops it was. They gave him the best strategy they could, but in the circumstances, third was as good as it was going to get. No wonder Hamilton was so happy afterwards.

Why were the tyres such a problem?

Kimi Raikkonen
Tyre problems have caused concern throughout the 2016 season

Mercedes had these problems because they have the fastest car, which therefore works the tyres harder than many others.

The main problem here was the tyre pressures chosen by Pirelli for the weekend, which were so high that Hamilton said he had "never seen pressures like that my whole racing career".

Pirelli did this to protect against punctures following the high-speed failures suffered by Rosberg and Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in Belgium last year.

But it means the tyres run a smaller contact patch, which puts the tread under greater strain, which leads to blistering damage - as holes open in the rubber because it overheats. Following another car closely, as Hamilton was for much of the race, exacerbates the problem because the car slides more.

This means drivers have to go to extreme lengths to keep the tyres under control - lengths Button described as "crazy".

"I understand why Pirelli does it," Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff said. "We are on the last season of those tyres, we had failures last year and integrity is super-important for our tyre supplier and that is why we are blowing them up like balloons.

"All our simulations are being hurt by a tyre that is completely different in its behaviour than we were expecting. If you have a contact patch half the size of what is expected, it is very difficult. Hopefully next year it will be completely different."

Will the tyres improve next year?

Pirelli tyres
Pirelli have been asked to make tyres that allow drivers to race harder rather than prevent them from wearing

For 2017, F1 cars are being made four to five seconds a lap faster with a series of aerodynamic changes. In tandem, Pirelli has been required by governing body the FIA to produce wider tyres that drivers can push hard throughout races without them degrading thermally in the way they do now.

But it is fair to say there is scepticism within F1 as to whether it will happen.

Testing started earlier this month, with Ferrari and Red Bull each doing two days with modified cars aimed (unsuccessfully so far) at simulating 2017 downforce levels.

Sebastian Vettel conducted Ferrari's test, which was mostly on wet tyres but which did involve some running on the development 2017 slicks. He chose his words carefully in Belgium when asked about progress.

The test was was "interesting", he said, adding: "There is a lot of homework still to do, for Pirelli and the teams." It was "difficult to say" whether he could push harder on the tyres than this year until he had tried them on a more representative circuit than Ferrari's Fiorano test track.

Red Bull did try them on a more representative track. Two sources close to the situation said Pirelli's first attempt at the new tyres in a months-long development programme were better in terms of degradation, but still not close to what the drivers want.

The drivers are all hoping more progress can be made before the start of 2017.

Button heading for the F1 exit?

Jenson Button
Button has declined to say whether he wants to stay in Formula 1 next season

Whether Button will get a chance to race on those tyres is an open question.

It is well-known that McLaren are to choose between the 2009 world champion and their reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne as Alonso's team-mate for 2017.

The decision has not yet formally been made and, despite a report to the contrary on Sunday, Button has not been informed of it.

Nevertheless, there seems at this stage next to no chance for Button - Vandoorne is as sure a bet as there can be.

That would leave Button with the choice of a potential opening at Williams or retirement from F1.

He is keeping his cards close to his chest, and has been keen to present it as his decision. But this last weekend, he did admit that he would only stay if he could get a competitive car.

"I always said that if I feel I can be in a car that is fighting for wins, definitely I will stay," Button said. "I think any racing driver would. If I am not, and I feel I am not, there is nothing else I want to achieve. I will go and play darts or something else instead."

Williams have slipped down the field this year - they lost fourth place in the constructors' championship to fellow Mercedes engine customers Force India on Sunday - and few would predict they will be race-winners in 2017. McLaren-Honda could be, if they improve as much as Alonso believes they will.

Given that, the most likely scenario is that Button's illustrious career is heading into its final eight races. If so, bowing out with dignity would be the very least he deserves.

The Verstappen problem?

Max Verstappen fans
Thousands of visiting Dutch fans showed their support for Max Verstappen

Back to Rosberg's news conference, and his decision to bring up the controversial defensive move Verstappen pulled on Raikkonen up the Kemmel straight, moving over very late and forcing the Finn to brake to avoid an accident.

"There were some good battles out there I saw," Rosberg said. "I just watched them now. Some crazy stuff going on."

I asked him for his opinion on the incident.

He said: "I don't want to have an opinion on that. I won the race. I'm happy. Let them have the opinions. I'm sure Kimi will have something to say. I look forward to that one actually."

Raikkonen had already expressed his views, I said.

"He already said something? Are they best friends or not? What did he say?"

That there's going to be a big accident if Verstappen doesn't change his driving.

"If Kimi says that…"

You didn't have to be Einstein to work that out.

Rosberg's view echoed one expressed by Hamilton on a previous incident between Raikkonen and Verstappen in Hungary in July.

"Kimi doesn't make too many comments," Hamilton said, "unless it's a serious thing. So if Kimi says it is not right, then it is most likely not right."

On Sunday, even Verstappen's team boss Christian Horner admitted the move was "on the edge" and that the Dutchman had "got away with it".

"I'm sure he'll have a good look at it and maybe learn a bit for future races."

Verstappen's fellow drivers, who are likely to give him a going-over in their briefing in Monza next weekend, will be hoping he heeds his boss' advice.

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