• The Final Stint - Belgian Grand Prix

Mercedes reaches point of no return

Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders
August 25, 2014
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As Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg approached Les Combes on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix, none of us could have predicted what followed. Contact between the pair was actually not surprising, but the fallout and post-race revelations were sensational and will leave a mark on this championship and possibly the pair's relationship forever. While Mercedes shot themselves in the foot Daniel Ricciardo took advantage, winning his third race of the year to do the unthinkable - make 2014 more than just a two-horse race. His chances of winning the title are still slim but the fact he is even in with a chance highlights just how close to imploding Mercedes is. Spa spoils us with classic races and this year it gave us the moment that might well define the season.

No going back

The 2014 Formula One season will never be the same again. Up until lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix, Mercedes had been papering over the cracks between its drivers quite successfully, but when Nico Rosberg's front wing end plate slit Lewis Hamilton's left rear tyre the delicate façade came tumbling down. The incident itself was fairly minor - had it happened further down the grid it would be forgotten by now - but the apparent motivation behind it and the consequences for the championship are huge. Only Mercedes top management and the drivers were in the team meeting that followed, but the media already has a fairly clear picture of what was said from Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff. To suggest the incident was deliberate is probably going too far, but Rosberg could have avoided it by taking to the run off area at Les Combes.

Wolff is on the record saying his driver was trying to "make a point", although it is not exactly clear what the point was. It's no secret that friction has existed between the drivers since the early rounds of the season, but even the team seemed genuinely surprised that it has turned sour so quickly. Rosberg was clearly not as happy as Hamilton following the team orders controversy in Hungary and while the team attempted to laugh it off, Rosberg appeared to be dwelling on the issue. Whether that was the true reason for his actions in the race is still speculation (the rift may run much deeper), but the result will be a clear change in the way the team is run. "We've probably not hit the self-destruct button yet but there is a lot at stake, and if you don't manage this properly now it could end up at that point," Wolff said. "It's one thing enjoying great races and letting them fight with each other, but if you look like a fool at the end of the season then you haven't won anything."LE

World champions in waiting

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It was harsh on Daniel Ricciardo that his superb race was overshadowed by what happened between Hamilton and Rosberg. Ricciardo may have inherited the lead when Sebastian Vettel ran wide at Pouhon and Rosberg pitted due to the damage from lap two, but the Australian did not put a foot wrong all race. What is clear is that Ricciardo has the lethal combination of a cool head under pressure, as we saw in the final laps in Belgium with Rosberg closing in at frightening speed, and the balls for all-or-nothing overtaking moves we saw in Canada and Hungary. Unless Mercedes continues to gift wrap victories for Ricciardo, a championship this year still seems a bridge too far for the likeable Australian. But Ricciardo is only going to get stronger at Red Bull and if the car is competitive from the outset next year the team will have two world class driving for the championship.

Valtteri Bottas was also superb. Hampered by a wet qualifying session, Bottas could arguably have been up there battling for victory at the end had more gone his way in Spa. But Bottas was once again faultless, with his pass on four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel through Les Combes on lap 31 a reminder to championship leader Rosberg how it should be done. Williams has made no secret of its opinion Bottas is the coming man of Formula One. A win this season would validate that - though Red Bull's new low-downforce set-up makes Williams' task at Monza more difficult. In an age when some pundits say F1 does not have enough stars and household names like the days of old, Ricciardo - if he isn't already - and Bottas are well on their way to F1 superstardom.NS

Rosberg lucky to avoid wrath of stewards

Perhaps the strangest thing about the clash on lap two is that the stewards did not investigate it. Ironically, Mercedes chairman Niki Lauda has been among those leading the campaign for the stewards to let the drivers race without investigating every little incident and that is perhaps why they chose to turn a blind eye. But had the FIA suspected at the time that Rosberg caused an avoidable accident - which is what he appears to have admitted to after the race - then under the sporting regulations it should have investigated and possibly punished him. The results are now official, but if new information can be brought to the stewards then they could still review it. The only thing is, all the new information of interest was said in a supposedly private meeting and none of the parties involved - including Hamilton - are likely to bring it to the attention of the FIA. Mercedes will be keen to move on, discipline their drivers and not suffer any further humiliation. The truth will likely come out through the media, but it is very unlikely to effect the result of Sunday's race.LE

Verstappen reaction all wrong

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The news in F1 did not always focus around the Silver Arrows out in front. Toro Rosso's announcement Max Verstappen will be making his debut for the team next year at the tender age of 17 dominated the build-up to Belgium. Some said Verstappen is too young, without much experience, while some are concerned he will be spat out into the wilderness in three years - at the tender age of 20 - by Red Bull and Toro Rosso. All of that may be true, but now the news is confirmed F1 fans should embrace young Verstappen with open arms. The Dutchman appears to be one of those talents that comes along once in a generation, the sort of can't-miss prospect who justifies jumping the tried-and-tested route to F1.

Fans should be excited by his potential. It is hard to buy into the idea that a 17 year old driving an F1 car means there is no longer a challenge to driving them - as Fernando Alonso said during the weekend, some achieve excellence earlier than others. Kimi Raikkonen had just 23 senior races to his name when he entered F1 in 2001. Granted, he was 22, not 17, but talent is talent whatever age you are and in F1 the truly great drivers always rise to the top. Verstappen may not be completely ready for F1 but it was interesting to hear what the rest of the field said when asked about the youngster - Jenson Button said it took him three years to feel properly ready for F1 after his debut in 2000. He is now the veteran of the paddock and a world champion to boot. Verstappen's age should not be held against him, let's judge him on the race track. NS

A wake-up call for Mercedes

Mercedes should have won the Belgian Grand Prix by a significant margin. The same is true of the Canadian Grand Prix and the Hungarian Grand Prix, yet things keep going wrong. If at the start of the season you'd told Daniel Ricciardo that he would have won three races to the championship leader's four by the 12th round, that now famous grin would have spread wide across his face. He is now 64 points behind Rosberg and 35 points behind Hamilton, which, given the pace of the Mercedes should be an unassailable advantage. But, given Mercedes propensity for drama and the 50 points on offer for a win in Abu Dhabi, it is also enough to focus the minds of Mercedes top brass. "With the interesting double points at the end," Wolff said. "I need to look from the team's perspective right now. Nico is 29 points ahead [of Hamilton] but it's one thing to look at the championship situation and say 'What does that mean for Lewis?' The other side is to look at how that incident interferes with the principle and the philosophy of management we're trying to have in the company. And it has functioned until now. Today we've seen the limits of the slap on the wrist. Maybe the slap on the wrist is not enough."LE

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