2014 Belgian Grand Prix: Friday Analysis

Hamilton Fastest After Tricky Morning

Rain may have evaded the Spa-Francorchamps circuit but it certainly fell on some teams’ parade today, as Friday in Belgium was certainly a day of mixed fortunes. Mercedes will be happy with their efforts, particularly if your name is Lewis Hamilton, as the Brit ended the afternoon fastest despite suffering several excursions in FP1. Meanwhile, Williams seemed to be down on the pace they will need to mount a serious challenge to the silver arrows this weekend, while Sebastian Vettel suffered yet more electrical issues, as he was sidelined for the entirety of FP2. Hence, it will be a busy night for many teams up and down the pitlane, who will certainly know that the holiday is well and truly over.

FP1

The summer break came to a close this morning, as FP1 began at Spa-Francorchamps. It was certainly a complex session, with a number of talking points. Mercedes may have topped the timesheet, with Nico Rosberg leading Lewis Hamilton, but the team will certainly be busy in FP2, as the balance of both cars seemed to be below its usual standard. 
Hamilton in particular struggled with balance issues in the high speed corners, with two excursions at Pouhon, followed by an uncomfortable snap of oversteer at the top of Eau Rouge which certainly caught the attention of the Brit. For the moment, it seems that Rosberg is more comfortable in the W05, which contradicts the usual sequence of a weekend – Hamilton typically finds a set-up that works faster than Rosberg, who takes time to grow into a weekend. Hence, Nico’s narrow advantage in FP1 could mean that Lewis has to work even harder than usual to close the gap to his teammate, who tends to get faster. 
It was not just Hamilton who experienced issues at either Pouhon or Eau Rouge, with the latter being a point of particular interest in the session. It was believed that some teams may struggle to take the infamous uphill chicane at full throttle this weekend, even when on low fuel, due to the significant loss of downforce compared with last season. However, on the green track, Pastor Maldonado proved early on that the corner is still taken at full throttle, at least in a Lotus. Obviously, fuel loads will significantly influence this and the task seemed to be a much harder proposition for Romain Grosjean, who had to track extend at Radillion in order to hold firm on the loud pedal. Consequently, we can conclude that drivers can scale Eau Rouge flat, but circumstances may make it more challenging than in previous years – good news for those who want to see the drivers pushed to the limits. 
However, it was Marussia who were once again making the headlines, as it was confirmed that Max Chilton would retake his place alongside Jules Bianchi this weekend, with Alexander Rossi’s debut weekend not making it past FP1. The US youngster was set to race on Sunday, while Chilton’s “contractual issues where resolved”. Yet, in a remarkably rapid turn of events, money seems to have been brought to the table and Max will be back in the car from FP2 onwards. It is unquestionably a messy situation that the team have found themselves in, not to mention Chilton’s management. However, it does represent how lower-budget teams are on a political knife-edge in the modern era.
FP1 Timesheet

1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:51.577

2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:51.674
3 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:51.805
4 Jenson Button McLaren 1:52.404
5 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1:52.818
6 Sergio Perez Force India 1:52.903
7 Kevin Magnussen McLaren 1:52.922
8 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:52.937
9 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1:52.972
10 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:53.172
11 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:53.369
12 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 1:53.594
13 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:53.597
14 Adrian Sutil Sauber 1:53.703
15 Felipe Massa Williams 1:53.968
16 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:54.189
17 Giedo van der Garde Sauber 1:54.335
18 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 1:55.336
19 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:55.782
20 Alexander Rossi Marussia 1:57.232
21 Andre Lotterer Caterham 1:57.886
22 Marcus Ericsson Caterham 1:57.977

FP2

The second session of the day saw Mercedes back to their brilliant best, as Lewis Hamilton overturned Nico Rosberg’s minor advantage from FP1 to post the fastest time of the day. Meanwhile, the session was twice red flagged, with Pastor Maldonado suffering a bizarre accident on the exit of Turn Nine, while Esteban Gutierrez suffered rear instability which seemed to be caused by a harvesting issue, pitching him into a hair-raising spin at Blanchimont.
It could be said that Nico Rosberg was fortunate to emerge from the session unscathed himself, after drifting wide at Malmedy on his personal best effort. While the two-wheeled excursion cost him nothing more than a few tenths, it did alter the complexion of the final timesheet – Hamilton’s advantage of 0.6 seconds is very misleading as his teammate is much closer than this suggests. Regardless, Rosberg may count himself lucky that his excursion did not send him into the barriers, unlike Pastor Maldonado, whose trip onto the grass resulted in a nasty accident.
Mercedes’ short run pace may look excellent, but their long run pace was even more impressive. Both Hamilton and Rosberg were clear of the pack by a similar margin to at Silverstone, which is largely unsurprising considering the nature of the two circuits. What is surprising was the apparent lack of pace at Williams – it was not a disastrous day by any stretch of the imagination, but the team are certainly not about to challenge for a victory this weekend, if today’s performance is a reflection of their outright speed. 
Their much famed straight line speed seems to have evaded them this weekend and it was Fernando Alonso who was the only man to get within a second of the two Mercedes during their soft tyre, qualifying simulation runs. Considering Alonso has had to compensate for an underpowered powertrain compared with the Mercedes equivalent, it was no mean feat to finish the day in P3. This result may have flattered the pace of the Ferrari, as they typically run with a lighter fuel load on Friday’s compared with their rivals, but it is certainly a moral-boosting start to the weekend.  
While Williams were tipped for success but as of yet, have not delivered, Red Bull have lived up to their billing of entering a damage limitation weekend. In what is another reliability technicality to add to a long list, Sebastian Vettel missed the entirety of FP2, as what seemed to be a burnt exhaust was found to be an electrical fault, which had even damaged parts of the wiring loom, (although, not to the magnitude that it did on Friday in Spain earlier in the year.) Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo seemed to struggle to cope with a super-low downforce wing which has been fitted to his car this weekend, in order to compensate for the lacklustre Renault powertrain. A twitch under braking into Les Combes seemed to be a direct result of this skinny wing. While Sebastian Vettel was running a much higher downforce package in FP1, (comparable with the rest of the field), it remains to be seen whether he switches to Ricciardo’s wing for the rest of the weekend, since the Aussie was marginally faster in FP1. One positive that Red Bull can take away from today is that their race pace was significantly better than their qualifying pace, which may mean that the super-skinny wing comes in handy on Sunday when both Ricciardo and Vettel may need to commit to some overtakes.
Finally, Andre Lotterer enjoyed a great first day behind the wheel of the Caterham, as he consolidated his FP1 performance in FP2. The fact that he rarely appeared on the FOM broadcast told the story of a driver who has not made many mistakes and has quietly worked through a programme. If this is to be a one-off drive while Caterham resolve financial issues, then Lotterer is certainly making the most of his opportunity in the Formula One shop window.
FP2 Timesheet
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:49.189 
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:49.793 
3 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:49.930 
4 Felipe Massa Williams 1:50.327
5 Jenson Button McLaren 1:50.659 
6 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:50.677 
7 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 1:50.725
8 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1:50.977 
9 Kevin Magnussen McLaren 1:51.074 
10 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:51.077 
11 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:51.383 
12 Adrian Sutil Sauber 1:51.450
13 Sergio Perez Force India 1:51.573 
14 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:52.196 
15 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1:52.234 
16 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:52.776 
17 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:53.955 
18 Max Chilton Marussia 1:54.040 
19 Marcus Ericsson Caterham 1:54.050 
20 Andre Lotterer Caterham 1:54.093 
21 Pastor Maldonado Lotus
Sebastian Vettel Red Bull  
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