Qualifying was all about timing today and whilst some gained hugely, others lost out to the same degree.
In Q1, with a damp track, most opted for intermediate tyres and it looked to be the right decision. As the session progressed, inters remained the optimum tyre selection, but the backmarkers with nothing to lose chose to gamble on a set of medium slicks.
The circuit’s so long here at Spa that the decision to change, if you’re going to, has to be made relatively early on and there came a point where it was clear only the Marussias and the Caterham of Giedo van der Garde were left out at the end on slicks as the track became quicker and quicker. All three progressed to Q2, van der Garde in P3 and Chilton escaping Q1 for the first time in his career.
Q2 began on a dry track, with the main players starting on hard tyres, before changing to mediums as the pace picked up. Sebastian Vettel, in typical style, left it late to leave the garage, but delivered a P1 lap on his medium slicks when it mattered. Kimi went quicker still with a lap that highlighted his high downforce set up, fastest of all in the slow, twisty middle sector, but nowhere near the top in the speed trap standings, something which may leave him vulnerable in the race.
Q3 went through differing phases of grip, starting with light rain and getting heavier. Almost all went out immediatley on mediums to try and get a banker lap in, but quickly realised it was too wet and had to abort the laps to return for inters. Paul Di Resta was the only one who waited and left the garage on inters to begin the session and as everyone else peeled into the pits, he got a clear lap when the track was at it’s quickest early on.
That lap stood as the fastest and looked like being the pole time, until right at the end when the track evolved again to become quicker as the rain began to clear.
As we’ve seen before in these conditions, the last to cross the line has the best shot and today that was Lewis Hamilton, pipping Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel moments before him.
Tomorrow’s another day and it’s still not clear how much the race will be affected by rain, but both Mercedes’ will be very happy with their starting positions.
Raikkonen and Alonso will be hugely dissapointed, they both had pace in the dry, but both suffered the fate of poor timing, not really through any fault of their own today.
No rain yet at Spa, despite the skies being overcast and temperatures low.
The familiar face of Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets again this morning, but only a tenth clear of Ferrari’s Fernado Alonso.
The times are a clearer indication of qualifying performance than yesterday’s running as teams now have limited time to adjust cars and therefore have them as close as they hope to run them in qualifying as possible. Drivers too, prefer not to get into a car this afternoon that’s drastically different from this morning if they can possibly help it, so it’s small tweaks only in the two hours before the cars enter parc ferme conditions.
With temps lower than yesterday afternoon, many struggled with tyres and that manifested itself in numerous lockups into turn five and the last chicane. Lewis Hamilton looked particularly unsettled under braking, something we’ve seen him have difficulties with at times since joining the Mercedes team.
It’s almost certain that the rain will come at some point this afternoon, so teams now face tricky decisions on how to approach qualifying, keeping one eye on tomorrow’s race, which could also be rain affected. Downforce levels are the key area of decision making, as the last thing you want on a wet track is a lack of it, but too much in the dry will seriously harm the crucial high speed sectors 1 and 3.
Ominously Sebastian Vettel, early in FP3, looked impressive on his longer runs on the harder tyre. Whilst others were tailing off at a rate of up to half a second a lap at the same point, his 8 lap old hard compound tyre delivered his fastest laptime of that run.
Mercedes still have work to do, but despite both cars finishing well down in the session, they still have the capability to pull something out of the bag for qualifying. Ferrari looked better on the medium compound tyre and if the track does remain dry, they could be in contention too.
The afternoon brought higer temperatures and bright sunshine and so attracted everyone out for lots of laps. The medium compound tyre showed considerably more performance than the hard compound, delivering over a second of laptime gain for many.
Whereas this morning the Red Bull looked to be struggling a little in the low grip, damp conditions, they excelled in their low downforce configuration this afternoon. Both cars topped the time sheets and also the speed traps, which isn’t normally the case as their car often seems inherently slower than some others in a straight line.
Not only were they fast over a lap, but the high fuel, long run pace on the medium tyre also looked decent and consistent.
The worry for the team might be that conditions aren’t likely to remain like this for the rest of the weekend, with rain predicted at various points over Saturday and Sunday, but at least they have lots of data to work from.
What could turn out to be the biggest story from today, was the right rear tyre failure on Sebastians car. Although we haven’t seen close up footage of the moment it let go, it resulted in a partial delamination and Pirelli, along with everyone else, will be desperate to know the cause as quickly as possible.
Lotus ditched the passive DRS for FP2 and didn’t look to be quite as happy as we might have predicted here. It’s still early days, but although Kimi did a lot of laps, his comparative long run to Sebastian’s on medium tyres didn’t look quite as impressive.
Lewis Hamilton struggled throughout and hasn’t yet found the right balance for the car, however we’ve seen that before recently and Saturday’s another day. He finished the session down in 12th position.
A very tricky first practice session for all teams and drivers here in Belgium after the four week summer break.
With the weather being the dominant factor during the ninety minutes, teams were limited with the amount of meaningful work they could undertake, as the circuit changed from damp to dry and back again, but varied greatly between its different sectors.
Teams have an extra set of intermediate tyres to use on Fridays, but with rain set to play a part right through the weekend, most were reluctant to use over and above that extra allocation in FP1.
Points of note were both Lotus drivers, running the team’s passive drag reduction device, doing by far the most laps early on as they worked to set up the tricky system for this long fast track. If they can optimise the kit and get it working consistantly, they stand to gain more here than at other circuits because of the extreme difference between the fast and slower sectors.
If succesful, the E21 can run a higher downforce level to cope with the demands of the middle sector of the race track, yet shed the drag that goes with it in the high speed sections at the beginning and end of the lap.
There are an interesting array of aero set-ups up and down the pitlane, but notably a striking difference between Red Bull Racing and Ferrari. The RBR has a rear wing similar to the skinny units deployed at Monza, whereas Ferrari are running a more medium downforce rear element.
Visually the difference is clear and it looks like an attempt by RBR to defend against the speed of the likes of Mercedes and co. However, after FP1, mixed though the session was, Fernando Alonso topped the times and both Red Bulls were by no means the fastest through the speed traps around the lap.
We might see them play with this more this afternoon.