Monday, 31 August 2009

Kimi Raikkonen wins for Ferrari at Spa as Force India get their first ever Championship points

This year has seen the worst start to a Formula 1 season for Scuderia Ferrari in almost three decades, with the legendary Italian marque failing to score a single point until the 4th race of the season. That dismal start comes after Ferrari won their 16th Constructors' World Championship last year and their driver Felipe Massa lost out on the Drivers' World Championship by just 1 point. However, at the end of a remarkable turnaround that started with the season's first podium finish for Ferrari at Monaco, the Scuderia shines again as Kimi Raikkonen gets their first ever Grand Prix victory for 2009.

Spa-Francorchamps, set in the heart of the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, is a historic venue for motorsport with a history going back more than 80 years. It is a very high speed and challenging race track that demands the best from both man and machine, but rewards drivers highly for respecting and attacking it. Due to the high speed nature of the track, cars with a medium to low level of downforce generally perform better than higher downforce cars. Low downforce cars have less aerodynamic grip and more mechanical grip, and thus have a lower drag which enables them to reach a higher top speed than cars with higher downforce. That is why, although it was surprising to see some unusual names qualify at the top during Saturday's Qualifying, it was not totally out of the blue because the BMWs and the Toyotas and the Force Indias have all struggled for downforce at other tracks. But here at Spa, that lack of downforce played into their hands as Giancarlo Fisichella, shocking everyone on the paddock including his own Force India team, grabbed pole position. It is Force India's maiden pole position in Formula 1 and they achieved it on merit. They had a good car all weekend.

Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari was the only KERS equipped car to qualify within the top ten. He was in 6th place with a decent amount of fuel on board, behind Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld, Rubens Barrichello and Robert Kubica. Behind Raikkonen, Timo Glock, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg completed the top ten. For the first time this season, Championship leader Jenson Button qualified outside the top ten as he failed to go through to Q3, the final part of qualifying. He struggled to get the right level of grip and balance on his car and only managed to qualify in 14th place. Defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton also struggled as he qualified only in 12th place, ahead of Renault's double World Champion Fernando Alonso. Unsurprisingly, Ferrari's Luca Badoer was last on the grid.

With a Force India, a BMW and a Toyota as the top 3 cars on the grid, it was shaping up to be a phenomenal race on Sunday. BrawnGP's Rubens Barrichello was the lightest of the front runners on fuel load, so most people were looking out for Raikkonen with his KERS equipped Ferrari to challenge for the win. Being the only driver on the grid to have previously won a race here, Raikkonen had won three out of the last four races here at Spa-Francorchamps. So this track is clearly one of the most favourites for the Finn.

At the start of the race, Rubens Barrichello hit anti-stall and lost a lot of places by the time he got going. Kimi Raikkonen had a tremendous start though, and starting on the super-soft option tyres with good traction and the KERS, was immediately up to 3rd place by La Source, which is turn 1. Trulli and Heidfeld also made bad starts which enabled Robert Kubica to get up to 2nd place. However, Raikkonen overtook Kubica while coming out of Eau Rouge and heading into Les Combe, one of the fastest sections of the track. Coming out of Les Combe, Raikkonen was briefly hit by Kubica as the Ferrari took too much kerb and went slightly on to the grass. Both the cars were undamaged though.

As the top 3 cars of Fisichella, Raikkonen and Kubica powered out of Les Combe, all hell broke loose behind them. Renualt's Romain Grosjean, who was only in his second Formula 1 race, outbraked himself and hit Jenson Button and both cars went off and hit the barriers. Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari then took out Lewis Hamilton at the same time and all four cars were then out of the race. That meant absolute disaster for Championship leader Jenson Button, as he fails to score a point for the first time this season. During the race, Race Control said that the Stewards will be investigating both these collisions after the race. The final verdict, after the race, was that it was just a racing incident and no one was penalised.

Following this massive pile up, the safety car inevitably came out. As the safety car prepared to go back in at the end of lap 4, Raikkonen was right on the tail of Fisichella. At the restart, it was KERS into action once again as Kimi Raikkonen drove on the outside of Fisichella coming out of Eau Rouge to take the race lead. Immediately after that, Kimi Raikkonen set a string of fastest laps as he opened up a 2 second gap over Fisichella.

Meanwhile at the back, Barrichello made an early pit stop during the safety car period to go on a long middle stint and try and recover some positions following his disastrous start. Jarno Trulli also had to make an early pit stop to change his front wing, which was damaged when he hit the back of Heidfeld's BMW at La Source on the first lap. Trulli eventually had to retire on lap 22 as his car faced other problems during the race.

Meanwhile on lap 7, Kimi Raikkonen sets a new fastest lap of the race leading from Fisichella, Kubica, Glock, Webber, Heidfeld, Vettel and Rosberg. Barrichello was now up in 12th place after some overtaking. Kubica becomes the first of the front runners to make a pit stop from 3rd place on lap 12. Behind him, Timo Glock pitted at the same time as well but the German lost a lot of time in the pits as Toyota had a fuel rig problem. Out on the track, Mark Webber set a personal best lap time before he, along with Raikkonen, Fisichella and Heidfeld all pit on lap 13.

Raikkonen and Fisichella were the first ones to come in from 1st and 2nd place. This was crucial because whoever came out of this pit stop ahead could potentially win the race. A great work by the Ferrari pit crew meant that Raikkonen came out ahead of Fisichella and maintained his lead. They came out in 3rd and 4th place respectively, behind Vettel and Rosberg both of whom were yet to make their first pit stops. Back in the pits however, Webber had a bit of wheelspin when he was released from his pit box and that lost him a tenth or two of a second. This meant that the Australian came just ahead of Nick Heidfeld, a bit too close in fact, and Heidfeld was forced to take avoiding action. Although Heidfeld later overtook Webber on the outlap, Race Control announced immediately that they were investigating that incident. Almost straight away, Webber was given a drive-through penalty for unsafe release from a pit stop. Although Webber's drive through penalty at the Nurburgring was deemed to be a bit too harsh, here at Spa it was undebatable.

Nico Rosberg pitted on lap 18 just before Mark Webber served his drive through penalty. Rosberg came out in 11th with Webber 13th. By then, Fisichella had closed the gap with Raikkonen to under a second and although the Force India was a faster car, the Ferrari was faster on the straights thanks to KERS. At around lap 21, Kimi Raikkonen was told by his race engineer that they need to open up a gap with Fisichella at about a tenth of a second per lap, as both him and Fisichella are on a similar race strategy and may pit at the same time. Force India also tell Fisichella about Ferrari's instruction to Raikkonen, and tell him to close the gap with Raikkonen at about a tenth per lap.
On lap 24, Fernando Alonso, running on one-stop strategy, pitted from 3rd place. However, his race was ruined when the Renault mechanics struggled to change his front left tyre due to an earlier damage caused to the wheel nut. Alonso then had to retire a couple of laps later due to problems with his car. Sebastian Vettel, after making his first pit stop, was down in 5th behind Kovalainen and ahead of Heidfeld and Barrichello.

Sebastian Vettel, now up in 4th after Kovalainen's one and only pit stop, was starting to close in on Kubica at about half a second per lap. He moved up to 3rd when Kubica pitted for the second time on lap 30. On lap 31, Raikkonen and Fisichella make their second and last pit stops, again at the same time. Once again, a brilliant work by the Ferrari pit crew meant that Raikkonen came out in front. On lap 35, Vettel was leading the race ahead of Raikkonen, Fisichella, Kubica and Heidfeld before he came in for his second and last pit stop. While Vettel was driving beautifully, his team mate Webber was not at all comfortable in the car struggling with a lack of balance and too much oversteer. A brilliant couple of laps before coming into the pits meant that Vettel came out just ahead of Kubica.

Nearing the end, Sebastian Vettel set a new fastest lap of the race on lap 40 and was starting to close in on Fisichella. Both Fisichella and Raikkonen then responded with personal best lap times. At this stage, behind Raikkonen, Fisichella and Vettel, the order was Kubica, Heidfeld, Kovalainen, Barrichello and Rosberg in the points scoring positions.

With just about 2 laps to go, smoke started coming out from the back of Rubens Barrichello's BrawnGP. Barrichello was then told on the radio by the BrawnGP pitwall that it was only an oil leak and that he needed to conserve the engine a little bit to make it through the final 2 laps.
At the end of lap 44, thousands of Scuderia Ferrari fans in the grandstand erupted with celebrations as Kimi Raikkonen took the Chequered Flag for Ferrari for the first time since Barcelona 2008. It was also the first time this year that a Ferrari has won a Grand Prix and all the mechanics and team personnel in the Ferrari garage went wild, and quite understandably so. However, it will be harsh not to congratulate Force India as they gain their first ever World Championship points thanks to their first ever podium finish. That podium finish was not a fluke because lap times suggest that the Force India was a genuinely quick car on this track.

As far as the Championships go, Ferrari is starting to consolidate the 3rd place it currently holds with 56 points ahead of 4th placed McLaren-Mercedes with 44 points. In the Drivers' World Championship, Sebastian Vettel is now up in 3rd with 53 points, just 3 points behind 2nd placed Rubens Barrichello. Button in 1st and Webber in 4th both failed to score any points at Spa.

Coming back to Ferrari, there is a lot of talk going on that Ferrari are apparently over with Badoer after his dismal performances in back to back races. Rumours also suggest that Force India's Italian driver Giancarlo Fisichella could be making a temporary switch to Ferrari until Felipe Massa returns. It has not been officially confirmed yet, but Ferrari say that they will be announcing a decision regarding Badoer's replacement over the next couple of days. Meanwhile, their injured driver Felipe Massa is recovering very well and is currently in Miami in the United States to do some more medical checkups.

So after a spectacular Belgian Grand Prix at the wonderful Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Formula 1 is back in a couple of weeks at Monza in the heart of Ferrari land for the Italian Grand Prix. The grandstands are going to be full of tifosi cheering their heart out for Ferrari, wishing that this winning form found in Spa continues at Monza. It is going to be another very exciting race. Until then, drive safely everyone!

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