Reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel returned to winning ways at the Belgian Grand Prix to record his seventh victory of 2011 and his first since the European Grand Prix in late June. The Red Bull pilot overcame blistering tyres to lead home teammate Mark Webber for a solid 1-2, while McLaren’s Jenson Button demonstrated his dry weather overtaking prowess to complete the podium.
The early laps were full of action – the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg surprised everyone, not only billowing smoke before the lights but also snatching the lead of the race from 5th before the end of the first lap. Heading into La Source for the first time, several cars were involved in collissions, Bruno Senna clashing with Jaime Alguesauri and forcing the Toro Rosso wide. The Spaniard was lucky not to eliminate compatriot Fernando Alonso, who was forced onto the astroturf run-off but was able to continue. Further back, both Team Lotus cars came together in avoidance of a slowing Paul di Resta.
As the race unfolded, it was clear that the Red Bull’s option tyres were blistering quickly, and Vettel fell away from Rosberg and into the clutches of Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and a recovering Fernando Alonso.
As the laps ticked by the front runners were struggling on worn option tyres, especially Rosberg. Vettel and Alonso stopped on laps 5 and 8 respectively, with the Spaniard ending up leading. Many others stopped to make sure they didn’t fall behind, but others stayed out to capitalise on running fresher tyres.
While the order shuffled back into order, the main taking point came on the 13th lap between a fast charging Lewis Hamilton and Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber. The McLaren used the DRS zone to pass the Japanese driver, only for contact to occur braking into Les Combes between Kobayashi’s front right and Hamilton’s left rear. The Brit was eliminated on the spot and the Safety Car made it’s latest cameo appearance to help marshals clear the track of debris.
This played into the hands of Jenson Button, who had a miserable qualifying session to start 13th and elected to run the harder tyre to make positions. With the field under caution, the Hungary winner took on a pair of softs and was immediately on the pace, chopping past Massa and Rosberg to move into fourth place. It was an afternoon of excitement for the veteran driver – several overtakes in the race, such as passing Felipe Massa into the last chicane, were top drawer.
Up front, Alonso and Vettel were dicing at the front, with the German retaking the lead he would never relinquish. The Ferrari strategy was to take one less stop than the Red Bull to make the most of the fact their car was easier on the rubber, only for the Red Bull to make a mockery of that fact and extend their advantage. While both stopped for the prime on the same lap, Webber by then had caught up and passed the struggling Prancing Horse for second. Button then moved through to third place in the closing laps, with Alonso and Massa limping home 4th and 8th respectively.
The drive of the race was reserved for the celebrating Michael Schumacher, who produced a consistent pace to move from 24th and last on the grid to finish a stunning 5th at the flag. He was helped by the contacts during the first lap to make up 10 positions, and also benefitted from moving off the harder tyres and onto the softer variety under the safety car conditions to keep pace with runners in the top 10. Passing teammate Nico Rosberg for 5th in the final few laps capped a vintage display from the German on the 20th anniversary of his first drive in F1.
The final few points positions were taken by an impressive Adrian Sutil in 7th, Vitaly Petrov in 9th and Pastor Maldonado taking the 10th and final World Championship point, his first in Formula One and from a penalised grid penalty of 21st.