Any race weekend in Spa is about two things: the weather and that grey ribbon of tarmac meandering its way up and down and around the tree-coated hills of Wallonia. Both the weather and the track have combined time after time to create the legendary circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, the track that any racer who has competed on it automatically declares as their favourite circuit in the world. The entire paddock was looking forward to this one, and as usual it did not disappoint.
Free practice took place under overcast but dry conditions: the trees hold the moisture in the air close to the track, hanging overhead like a harsh word said in haste to a loved one and instantly regretted, constantly there against our wishes. The inevitable rain held for the session, with half of the field pushing for qualifying times and the other half running race set ups to perfect it before the event. Pastor Maldonado came out on top, with Giorgio Pantano and Vitaly Petrov less than a tenth off his pace, while title contenders Lucas di Grassi and Bruno Senna finished 15th and 16th consecutively, and Kamui Kobayashi and Karun Chandhok took a risk with Monza-style minimal aero just to see what they could do.
I bet that must have been a scary first run through Eau Rouge.
The long threatened rain broke just five minutes from the start of qualifying, with the teams swarming over their cars to adjust the set up accordingly before the green light came on at the end of the pitlane: Senna immediately set the best time while di Grassi fell off the track at Pouhon, destroying his chance of making an impact on the championship battle. When Maldonado also tripped over the edge and into the wall halfway through the session the marshals pulled out their red flags, with the rest of the field coming in to tweak their cars for the now drying circuit.
Senna had the whip hand in the session, although Pantano was pushing him all the way. Some of the other drivers pushed a little too hard, spinning off at various corners of the circuit with the session almost over: the title rivals and Chandhok were pushing hard on the last lap to see what they could do, with the sector times popping up on screen as follows:
Senna 36.9 65.6 Stop
Pantano 37.1 64.4 Stop
Chandhok 36.8 63.3 35.2
Yellow flags in the second sector were enough to force Senna and Pantano to abort their laps, but Chandhok stayed on track to take the top spot by less than a tenth over his teammate in the session, even though he knew it wasn't going to last given his ten place penalty picked up for the accident with Vitaly Petrov in race two at Valencia. Behind the iSport pair Alvaro Parente was best of the rest, six tenths off the pace but ahead of Romain Grosjean, Pantano, Andreas Zuber and Sebastien Buemi.
If there was any disappointment at the penalty, Chandhok wasn't showing it in the press conference: after keeping us all waiting as he returned from the stewards office, the Indian and his teammate were soon laughing all the way through it, correcting me with their grid positions after I announced their positions in the session ("Eleventh place!" "First place!") and going on to show they've got a future as a comedy double act if this racing lark doesn't work out.
"The track was getting quicker and quicker, but I had to wait because people were falling off all over the place," Chandhok noted. "Then they came on the radio and said 'this is the last lap, either you do a lap now or you start P12 plus 10!' And that was it: I pushed all the way through, the track was getting drier, and I hooked it up and beat Bruno by a tenth I think, and he backed off on the last lap. It just worked okay for us: obviously taking pole was the best I could do with a ten place penalty..."
Senna stated that discretion was in order on his final lap: "I had to back off on my middle sector: my first sector was very good and I took Eau Rouge almost flat, which was one of the scariest moments of my life! So I'm probably not going to do that in the race! But it was very fast, and obviously if I could complete the lap it would have been a good lap, but I saw the yellow flags and backed off, and Gav just told me to come in. I think regardless of the weather conditions we should be competitive, if nothing bizarre happens, like has been happening this year!"
What's that saying about a word said in jest?
The next morning we were running late for the signing session as the drivers were all stuck in traffic, including local Jerome D'Ambrosio: "I forgot the traffic gets so crazy here!" he stated as we walked down the paddock with Ho-Pin Tung. Standing around at the Bridgestone area in the merchandising zone we were eventually joined by Karun Chandhok, who had run all the way from the car park in his thick team jacket, but Vitaly Petrov didn't make it until it was all over.
To be honest it probably didn't matter: Belgium seems to have the shyest fans on the calendar, with few people willing to come up and talk to the drivers, who kept signing anyway as I attempted to drag people over and give them some signed posters. We called time on the event after a while, with the drivers heading straight back but Alastair pulling me over to an innocuous looking car next door: we jumped in and suddenly it started spinning over and over, the pair of us getting out red faced and laughing like drains, probably not the reaction the local police were hoping for when they set up the car to show what happens in a roll over accident. "We should have got the drivers to do that," I noted back in the paddock, "that would have made for some great photos!"
"Yeah, but you couldn't have put Maldonado in there," said a passing Marco, "compared to his races, it would have been boring!"
Soon enough it was time for the race, and the sense of anticipation in the pitlane was palpable, a living, breathing thing. Unfortunately so was the weather: the clouds seemed to noticeably lower as the cars went out on track, with the inevitable shower coming five minutes before the start: looking down the grid towards the Bus Stop it was as though the clouds had sunk down to touch the circuit. The decision was made to start the race behind the safety car, and though some of the drivers at the back later complained about it, none of the team members seemed too upset at the time.
The race went live two laps later, with Senna under attack from Parente but holding on to the lead as the pair slithered around the circuit: the rain soon stopped and it was just a matter of time before a dry line would emerge, with Zuber coming in for slicks on lap six, his first opportunity, and the rest of the field coming in over the next 2 laps. But the stop that everyone was looking at was that of race leader Senna, who was released just as Alberto Valerio was coming down the pitlane, with the Brazilian jumping on the brakes and narrowly missing the DPR mechanics who were waiting for one of their drivers.
"It wasn't the same as Karun's pitstop in Valencia," he later claimed, discussing the matter at length outside the hospitality area with Paul Jackson, Marco and myself. "That was dry and hot, this was wet and I had cold slicks, which meant the tyres spun for a long time before I could move. The distance to Valerio was much more: how can you expect anyone to work out how much more time it will take to get moving in those conditions?"
The note on the message screens came pretty quickly: Car 2 under investigation for a possible unsafe release. The next message was even quicker: drive through penalty for Car 2.
The radio traffic between Senna and the iSport pitwall was so frantic it was almost visible: coming out in the lead he had a great chance of taking the victory he had targeted, even with Pantano now up to second after the stops. It was while this heated exchange was taking place that Davide Valsecchi had his huge crash, bringing out the safety car and delaying the inevitable stop, as the penalty could not be taken under safety car conditions, a fact that clearly wasn't known to Pantano, who could be seen gesturing in agitation with his hands on the onboard camera.
It was at this stage that the Italian almost stopped, having engaged the anti-stall after driving too slowly for the gear he was in: the rest of the field briefly slowed with him before sliding past as he tried to regain a gear, eventually doing so and getting back past Diego Nunes as the race went live once more. Senna came in for his penalty one lap later, dropping to the back of the field for his sins, while Pantano was in tenth and desperately trying to get back up into the points.
Back at the front Parente was leading the race from Zuber and Grosjean, with the Frenchman trailing his rival all the way through Eau Rouge before claiming second place at the end of the long top straight, while the title rivals were pushing with all their might: Senna ultimately finished 12th while Pantano spun on the La Source inside kerb a few laps from the end in 8th position before plowing into di Grassi's sidepod on the last lap, dropping the Brazilian from 8th after a tremendous drive from last on the grid and losing his own front wing in the process, with the Italian finishing the race in 21st place.
At the happier end of the field, Grosjean blasted by Parente after a small error at the Bus Stop allowed the Frenchman to claim the lead on the inside of La Source, with Zuber holding on for third despite constant pressure from teammate Maldonado, who had overtaken a number of his rivals to put himself just half a second off the podium finish at the end of the race.
For Grosjean, it was as though the win was a salve for any number of invisible wounds: "We had six really bad races: I did some mistakes, we had some bad luck, and it has been really difficult for me at some points because when you have a bad result you go worse and worse. It's very important to jump again and go forward, to have a good result and be ready for the last three races, Valencia, Spa and Monza. Now we are here, we are third in the championship and it was obviously a very good operation today: I really wanted to win in Spa, and I want to win in Monza as well because they are two really good circuits."
Meanwhile Parente was left lamenting what might have been after changes made on the wet grid affected his race later in the day: "It was good for one part of the race, not so good towards the end: I think just a little bit more downforce at the end would have been easier and better. We've have some bad races, bad decisions, some bad luck with the technical and also fuel at the last one, but anyway it's good to have a good result, and we'll keep fighting for the next race."
Zuber was simply ecstatic at coming out on top of his teammate: "I knew that he has a very quick car, like me, but I was struggling a little bit with top speed and at Eau Rouge I always did it flat: I can't do more than flat, so he overtook me once but I overtook him back: it was quite good! He tried again to overtake me at the last corner: it was a bit crazy but he is like that, I have to live with it, but I finished third, he finished fourth, and that's it..."
Ominously Pantano had still not returned from the stewards office, who had previously handed Chandhok and Buemi 5 place grid penalties for their last lap efforts in qualifying: the longer it takes someone to come back, the more likely it is that they're receiving a penalty of some sort. Which didn't stop many in the paddock suggesting that a grid penalty in race two would hardly constitute a penalty with the Italian set to line up back in 21st the next day.
Christian left his kitchen to come upstairs in the bus for a bit of fun: after finding out a few races ago that my wireless microphone for the press conference works from anywhere in the area he had started using it to annoy certain drivers, generally Andi Zuber, with Christian whispering "Zuberman, Zuberman" whenever the Austrian appeared down below. But he nowhere to be seen at the time, and with Grosjean talking to a collection of Renault people downstairs a new plan formulated.
"Paging Romain Grosjean," I said in my most officious voice, "Romain Grosjean to the steward's office please..." No reaction. "Romain Grosjean to the steward's office please." Romain was too engrossed in conversation to notice, but Rosana went over to him and, deadpan, said she heard someone paging him. "This is the last call: Romain Grosjean to the steward's office please." Suddenly he looked all round the area with a look of sheer terror, before he a glance upstairs showed Christian and I laughing fit to burst, and he shot us an indiscreet hand gesture. "No death threats please, Mr Grosjean..."
It was not long afterwards that we found out about Giorgio's exclusion from the event, and the paddock was in uproar. Except for the man himself, who had left the circuit for the casino in Spa in search of a change in his luck, and Zuber, who had lost a hard fought podium because of illegal repairs to his nosecone carried out by the team, handing third to Maldonado. It's hard to know what he was more upset about: the loss of the podium, or the recipient.
The next morning Zuber was still upset, playing the martyr card to anyone who would listen: "Look, there's only 25 guys in this race, but they've put me 26th on the grid!" he laughed when the official grid was released, and sure enough he was right. He probably had other things on his mind when he was sitting on the grid (in the 25th spot) though, as once again it rained just five minutes before the start of the race.
This time the rain was less heavy that previous showers, and the entire field took the risk of starting on slicks, with everyone getting away slowly but surely behind local hero D'Ambrosio, who had been promoted to the reverse pole after Zuber's penalty was announced: with Mike Conway very slow to get off the line the Belgian led them easily into La Source, with Andy Soucek and Sebastien Buemi following him through while Luca Filippi and Lucas di Grassi made incredible starts from the back to bookend Senna in 11th by the end of the first lap.
Almost inevitably though the safety car made another appearance, this time on lap 5 after Conway, Valerio and Parente all found the wall in separate incidents, compacting the field once again: Filippi was taken out by Nunes just before the restart at the Bus Stop, while Grosjean tried to take advantage of a slow restart by Buemi to sneak through at Blanchimont before touching the kerbs and almost spinning, allowing Senna to get a run at the Swiss driver too: Buemi was overly robust in his defense and the pair came together, with Senna's weekend coming to a premature end almost immediately.
Maldonado had turned up the wick and was all over Soucek by this stage, with the pair banging wheels as neither was prepared to give an inch: unfortunately for the Spaniard the rain came back towards the end of the race, and a white line that had previously been harmless suddenly pitched him off the track and into the wall when wet, destroying a wonderful drive in the process. With nothing to stop him the Venezuelan was soon on D'Ambrosio's rear wing, and on the last lap Maldonado blasted by him on the top straight, just as he'd done to so many other drivers over the weekend, to claim his first win of the season.
"The race was really, really difficult," he laughed afterwards as he grabbed some lunch, "rain at the beginning, rain at the end, so I was looking to stay on the track and watch the people in front of me: I saw they were so slow, and my pace was unbelievable today. We improved the car so much from yesterday, and it was really constant. In the rain I could really push a lot, and I was incredibly quick on the straights. We decided to go completely to the dry set up to be quick on the straight lines and to overtake, and I was a little bit worried because of the rain, because very low downforce in the rain is so difficult: I just tried to not lose in the second sector, to keep the same gap, and in the first sector and the third one I was incredibly quick."
D'Ambrosio was in a reflective mood after the race, noting: "I'm happy, because we are second here after a disappointing qualifying, we came back yesterday and had a good race, so starting from pole today we were one of the fastest today apart from Pastor, who was simply faster than everybody else: he overtook me, which was very fair and there is nothing much else to say about that. I have mixed feelings because I am happy, and we have to be happy about second in the race and progressing. We are improving all the time, so I hope the team are just going to enjoy tonight. There is a little bit of disappointment, but I take that disappointment as a positive because everybody believes we can do it, we can win, so we just have to continue pushing."
It was just before we left the circuit that we found out that Kamui Kobayashi had been penalised for cutting the last corner on the last lap and stealing sixth place from Valsecchi, who had done an amazing job to come back after his big crash the afternoon before. The Japanese driver had had an awkward weekend after finding the wall in free practice and pushing Luca Filippi off track at the final corner in race one, so there weren't many dissenting voices when Valsecchi was given his point back.
And with that we walked to the car park talking about the decision, but it was only a couple of hours before another decision on a move at the same location would firmly displace it from our minds.