The first three quarters of yesterday’s Belgian Grand Prix were all about getting into the best possible position for the final stint. Tyre management was crucial throughout the race but there was the added tension that came with the Pirelli's tendency to blister.
This was more of a problem on the Red Bull car, and so going into Lap 27 we had Mark Webber on the medium tyres and Sebastian Vettel on the softs.
Vettel would have to change to the slower medium tyres at his final pit stop and Fernando Alonso would have to do the same. Having run the mediums already, Webber and Jenson Button would be switching to the faster softs. A thrilling climax to the race was in prospect, and the smart money was on Button and Webber making good use of their tyre advantage to pass both Vettel and Alonso before the finish.
First to pit was Alonso, on Lap 29, and he came out in fourth position. Next time around Vettel was in, and his very rapid 3.8-second stop saw him emerge in third position.
Next time around Webber made his stop after setting his fastest sector times of the race so far. This left Button in the lead of the Grand Prix, and this highlighted just what a great race he had driven. Starting 13th, he had clattered into the remains of Bruno Senna’s front wing on the run down to Eau Rouge on the first lap. The debris smashed Jenson’s right mirror clean off, and his front wing also took some damage.
A stop for a new nose left him 19th and set up a Canada-esque climb through the field. The McLaren is clearly a very fast car relative to its opposition and Jenson’s overtaking was sublime. He quickly dispatched Michael Schumacher, Felipe Massa and Nico Rosberg in a four-lap period.
Before he made his final pit stop, Jenson was overtaken by Vettel. This somewhat stumped the idea that perhaps Button and Webber would be fighting for the win, for there was simply not enough laps left in the race for Jenson to pit and then re-catch the Red Bull car. A combination of the low fuel load and the rubbering in of the circuit left Vettel’s Red Bull lapping very quickly at this stage of the race, seemingly out of touch of the chasing drivers.
On Lap 33 the order was Vettel, Button, Alonso and Webber. The McLaren driver made his stop and was stationary for just 4.4 seconds, coming out at the rear of that group. He and Webber were flying, with sixteen seconds covering the four of them.
Webber dispatched Alonso very easily, cruising through into Les Combes. The Red Bulls were now running first and second. Any previous thought that the team had lost their advantage was reconsidered, but perhaps a clear run from the front of the grid could have seen Jenson challenge strongly for the win.
Somehow it felt unlikely that Webber would fight Vettel. The gap reduced rapidly from 12.2 seconds to 10.7, then 9.6 and 7.9 in successive laps. But it then trailed off and the order was maintained to the finish.
Alonso gave way to Jenson just as easily as he had to Webber, the Ferrari lapping a clear second slower than the McLaren. The way the cars use their tyres has defined Grand Prix this season, and again we saw the Ferrari struggling to get as much from the medium as the Red Bull. After their pit stops, Vettel averaged 1:51.17 and Alonso averaged 1:51.76, a clear half-second difference. Right now the teams are laying out their 2012 cars and tyre usage will be their primary consideration, along with, as ever, aero.
So we were denied the thrilling climax, and Vettel held on to claim the 25 points when it had looked, as we entered that final phase of the race, like 15 points and third place would be his likely outcome. Vettel held on by using the strengths of the Red Bull car to get the maximum out of the tyres, enabling him to lap quickly enough to keep Webber and Button far enough behind.
Finishing fifth was Schumacher, who had driven a brilliant race from the back of the grid. Sixth was his teammate Rosberg, who had also driven a solid Grand Prix. He took the lead on the first lap and generally pushed his Mercedes to the limit throughout the entire race.
Michael was able to take advantage of the first-lap chaos to move up to 14th, briefly racing three wide with the Virgin cars on the run to Les Combes. This freed him up and allowed him to race close to his Mercedes’ true pace, rather than spending the first phase of the race caught behind the HRT, Virgin, Lotus and Williams cars as had been the likely scenario. He lapped very quickly after his final stop, putting in four laps in the 1:51 bracket, including a 1:51.1 which compares to Rosberg who never bettered a 1:52.2.
For all that Mercedes had a very good Grand Prix, Toro Rosso couldn’t have had a worse one. Jaime Alguersuari was taken out at the first corner by Bruno Senna and Sebastian Buemi was removed from P6 by Sergio Perez. Both Senna and Perez took drive-through penalties for their clumsiness but Toro Rosso will be hugely frustrated to have missed the opportunity to bag another haul of points. Their car had looked more competitive this weekend than it has since the end of 2008.
The season continues in 10 days at the legendary Monza circuit. The battle for second in the championship continues to fascinate, with Webber, Alonso, Button and Lewis Hamilton separated by just 21 points.