Belgian Grand Prix and Sébastien Bourdais - 08/09/08

The Belgian Grand Prix, at least on track, made amends for the deeply disappointing bore that was the European Grand Prix a fortnight ago. A wonderful race with surprises, lead changes, a number of superstar performances, heartbreak and plenty of excitement. There are undoubtedly numerous detailed reports on the race as a whole, so we'll focus on two key issues relating to Sunday's events.

2008 has been a season where miraculous results by underdog drivers have been within touching distance, and yet the bringing home of said result has been scuppered at the very last hurdle. One is reminded of Adrian Sutil and Force India's tragic loss of 4th place in the closing stages of the Monaco GP. Toro Rosso's Sébastien Bourdais has now suffered two similar occurrences, bookending his 2008 season so far. Bourdais was inches away from a debut 4th place finish at the season-opening Australian GP when his car suffered its retirement.

Staying on the subject of Sebastién Bourdais, ever since the introduction of the STR3 at the Monaco GP, he has failed to match the pace of the up-and-coming Sebastian Vettel in the sister Toro Rosso. If Bourdais had any hope of progressing in F1 and proving his ultimate worth in this pinnacle series, he had to get the better of his highly-rated teammate on a regular basis. Before the STR3, he was doing a good enough job of outqualifying Vettel and bringing the car home, something Vettel failed to do at the start of the season on a number of occasions. Since then, Vettel has deservedly owned the limelight at Toro Rosso with a few points finishes and marvellous qualifying runs.

However, Bourdais seems to have rediscovered some form as of late, undoubtedly a result of no longer making sweeping changes to the STR3's setup and instead focusing on smaller details to better adapt the car to his driving style. His first appearance in Q3 at Valencia was followed by a 9th place on the grid for the Belgian GP last weekend. His race form was superb, comfortably running in the top 5 all race after an excellent start, albeit via a trip up Jarno Trulli's backside. At the start of the final lap, Bourdais was 3rd! Could it be that despite all of Vettel's consistent performances, it would be Bourdais who would fulfil the promise of that first race and earn Toro Rosso's maiden podium?

The answer was to be no, on the final lap with the rain falling, Bourdais's luck ran out and he was passed by the intermediate-shod Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso. How could anyone ever count those two wiley competitors out of the reckoning? But to add insult to injury to injustice, teammate Vettel and BMW's Robert Kubica also passed him on that last lap having run behind him throughout the entirety of the race. So, what could have been the most glorious vindication of his transformation from Champ Car deity to simply Formula 1 driver, ended up as another near-victory for the underdog and yet another race where Vettel beat him to the line.

It is unclear at this time precisely what happened to Bourdais on that final lap, but it shouldn't overshadow what was a timely reminder of the skill he possesses with a racecar. This is the same driver who literally dominated the Champ Car scene for 4 consecutive years, setting numerous Schumacher-standard records on the way to his titles. In the same machinery as his competitors, one recalls that he was 1.5 seconds a lap quicker in qualifying than his rivals at the famous and majestic Road America circuit, a circuit not unlike Spa in its characteristics, challenges and length. Over the years his competitors have included Timo Glock, Cristiano Da Matta and Justin Wilson, the class of whom cannot be doubted. Hopefully, Bourdais's performance on Sunday will justify his place in F1 for next season just as a series of incidents and one near-fourth place at Monaco appear to have done for Adrian Sutil.

Speaking of incidents, true to recent 2008 form, the result of a GP was again decided off the track and after TV viewers would have enjoyed all proceedings. Lewis Hamilton was given a significant time penalty, relegating him from the position of victor to third place, behind Felipe Massa and Nick Heidfeld (could have been Bourdais...). Hamilton was adjudged to have received an unfair advantage by cutting across the final chicane in his chase of Kimi Raikkonen. Hamilton did lift off and let Raikkonen retake the lead, however he then outbraked him into La Source and regained 1st place. That's fine. He gave the place back and his move at La Source was a different corner and a different story, right? Wrong. Had Hamilton not shortcut the chicane, he would have had to stand on the brakes to avoid running into the back of Raikkonen (again), and would therefore not have been in a position to take 1st place at La Source.

From that angle, it would appear that his penalty was justified. However, what about Massa's post-race penalty at Valencia? That was relatively tame in comparison. The difference most likely comes from the fact that the Massa incident did not decide the outcome of the race on track, but Hamilton's move on Raikkonen at Spa did. Had Massa been released into Hamilton's path at Valencia instead of Sutil's, the outcome may have been different, although some would argue not.

Two weeks ago I argued that if Massa had been given a time penalty, therefore handing his well-earned victory to Hamilton, that would constitute using the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of the law. The incident at Spa is probably not entirely within the same vein. Hamilton would undoubtedly have passed Kimi sooner or later. However, the conditions proved that nothing is certain, and Hamilton himself handed the lead back to Kimi because of the prevailing wet weather and an attempt to avoid crashing into Nico Rosberg. So who knows what the outcome would have been had Lewis not cut the chicane. Apparently Ferrari did not go to the stewards initially concerning the incident, so had the Spa stewards not punished Hamilton, would anyone have complained?

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