The king of corners

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Blind faith

When it comes to grand prix coverage, television can quite literally be a great leveller. The swoops and contours of many a circuit are often rendered strangely flat by the camera’s perspective.

But one circuit, and one corner in particular, resolutely defies the electronic eye. Daring the driver and spectator to ignore the challenge it represents, it thrusts its metaphorical chin out every time approached and says “so how brave are you?” The corner is Eau Rouge. The circuit Spa Francorchamps.

Of all the corners in Formula One, it is the daddy.

While the masters of the physical universe  (otherwise known as the aerodynamicists of F1 teams) appear to have tamed the corner, it still represents for the driver the ultimate challenge. And one that has to be conquered repeatedly over the course of a grand prix weekend.

This weekend we were given a new insight into the roller coaster that is Eau Rouge. At the top of the hill a new camera position captured in heart stopping detail the moment cars blastover the crest at blistering speed. And Formula One’s attempts to conquer nature were fully on view.

The roller coaster ride at Spa starts as the cars round La Source hairpin at the end of the start finish straight. They then careen down the hill, hitting 300kph as they reach the bottom and cross the Eau Rouge stream that gives the corner its name. They flick left,¬† right and launch upwards with only sky ahead at around 295kph, climbing 40 metres in a plus 4g, stomach renching, heartbeat. A blink later, at the top of the hill, they flick left again and that’s where the new camera position catches them.

ER hill

In today’s world it’s rare to see a F1 car on tip toes as the crushing forces of downforce perform their best to negate any lift at all. But for a split second you could sense and see nature battling to overcome the aerodynamicist’s art. Unsettling the balance, testing the blind faith of drivers to the very limit as they kept their accelerators flat, blasting their way onto the Kemmel straight and up to the highest part of the circuit, maxing out at over 330kph as they approach Les Coombes.

testing the blind faith of drivers to the very limit

On Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, the cars stormed Eau Rouge lap after lap. Each driver overcoming his demons and trusting that all would be well at the top of the hill. And all was. Until lap 43.

At that point of proceedings, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Rosberg had been resuming their dominant ways. Hamilton in particular demonstrating why, on his day, he is almost impossible to beat. A fact that his team mate tries desperately hard not to acknowledge, but in his private moments must realise is the harsh reality that faces him and why it is unlikely he will ever take the world title.

Behind them lay the Ferrari of a somewhat frustrated Sebastien Vettel. Having come to Spa with hopes high after the win in Hungary, the men from Maranello rapidly realised that the power struggle between engine suppliers would not be favouring them in Belgium. A fact laid painfully bare by Vettel who could only manage ninth place in qualifying, with Raikkonen languishing back in 14th.

So to counter the lack of speed a plan was hatched. A one stop strategy that would hopefully allow Vettel to leapfrog those ahead, as they pursued the more normal two or three stops strategies that seemed to be the received wisdom of the day.

It was a strategy that would be stretching the envelope of tyre performance, but all being well could rescue the day.

Unfortunately two factors intervened.

First was the resurgent Lotus team who, against a background of much speculation about their financial stability, bought to Spa a car that is looking ever more promising, and a driver in the shape of Frenchman Romain Grosjean, who could scent the possibility of a podium finish. And as the race wound down Grosjean went on the hunt with Vettel as the prey. It was a battle that looked like going to the wire.

Until lap 43.

With Hamilton and Rosberg some 30 seconds down the road, Vettel crested the hill at Eau Rouge as he had done 42 times before. But as he accelerated up Kemmel his right rear tyre disintegrated. Fortunately, unlike Rosberg who too had suffered a catastrophic tyre failure on Friday, he managed to keep control but, as we saw later, was clearly shaken by the episode.

Grosjean meantime swept past to claim third place and the first podium finish for Lotus since 2013.

While Hamilton basked in glory, Rosberg looked rueful and Grosjean plain chuffed. But Vettel was clearly not happy. The proximity of the failure so close to Eau Rouge left him in no doubt that he, and Formula One, had had a very lucky escape from what could have been an accident of catastrophic proportions. A quick visit to YouTube will give you some idea of what no doubt was replaying in his mind.

It may be some time before the dust settles and the reasons for the failure become apparent. Both Ferrari and Pirelli were robust in there summation of the situation and their respective responsibilities. And with Monza’s high speed corners looming large on the calendar, some sort of closure will no doubt need to be sought of the circumstances surrounding the failure.

On another circuit perhaps Sebastien’s reaction would have been more sanguine. But such is the nature of Eau Rouge, that even in this era of seemingly relative immunity from serious injury in Formula One, the corner still commands the respect of those who attempt to conquer it.

Tags: , , , , , Published on 24th August 2015