By jove, he’s back in the lead

 

Well, there we are then. The tifosi were fuming, hence the booing but Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton turned his record-braking pole position into his fourth win at Monza to take the lead in the Drivers’ Championship in Ferrari’s back yard. Team mate Valterri Bottas finished today’s Italian Grand Prix in P2 – his first F1 podium in Monza, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in third.

Hamilton delivered a perfect weekend – from the impressive pole position to a faultless race drive. Bottas bounced back from the disappointment of Spa in a great way; racing hard against Kimi Raikkonen, then picking off Williams’ Lance Stroll and Force India’s Esteban Ocon, before pulling away from the field for a very strong second-place finish.

“We have made the most of our opportunity this weekend and it was important to do so because we know Singapore will be more like a case of damage limitation for us (where Ferrari is expected to dominate). We will approach the next race with healthy scepticism, leave no stone unturned and aim to deliver every bit of performance that we can. If the Team delivers another perfect performance like this weekend, that will be a very good starting point,” said Toto Wolff.

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo put in a cracking performance. Qualifying third but starting 16th after being given a grid penalty for using too many engine parts this season, he put in a brilliant recovery to 4th.

 

What a cracker

 

Lewis Hamilton claims the all-time record – beating Michael Schumacher – with the 69th pole of his career at Monza. Williams’ Lance Stroll starts in second, with Force India’s Esteban in third.

Conditions were terrible – the first session was stopped after just one lap for seven drivers and didn’t start again for more than two hours because of rain.

Lewis Hamilton: “It’s very hard to find the words to explain how I feel, I’m trying to figure it all out. It probably won’t sink in for a long time.

“It was an epic day, I feel truly blessed. The Red Bulls really made me work hard for the pole today, which I’m grateful for. The weather has obviously been incredibly tricky for us all. What a day to come here in this beautiful country with the English weather and to be massively challenged.

“It was very difficult to see out there, and very easy to make mistakes – as always in the rain. The second to last lap was OK at the beginning, but then I backed out of it, hoping that I’d get one more lap. There was a lot of pressure for that last lap – there could have been a red flag, there could have been a yellow flag. There was a lot of risk, but I gave it everything.”

 

The big one’s next

Italy’s Autodromo Nazionale Monza hosts Round 13 of this year’s Formula One World Championship and serves as the final stop on the European leg of the 2017 calendar.

The story of the Italian Grand Prix is also the story of Monza, even if statistics show that the first race was held at Montichiari, with the Brianza track ready a year later in 1922 and that the 1980 race was run at Imola.

The history of Scuderia Ferrari is inextricably intertwined with that of the “Autodromo.” It’s impossible to tell the tale in just a few lines: the triumphs and the tragedy of Ascari, the world championships with Hill, Lauda, Scheckter, the epic achievements of Schumacher…

Then there’s the 5.8 kilometres of track within the Park, the amphitheatre grandstand at the Parabolica, they have all witnessed and created the legend.

There was a time when there were 10 kilometres of track, when the layout included the high speed banked oval, which was a spectacle all to itself. The current track has few corners but a fair few hidden dangers. On paper it looks easy, but as it is the track where cars run with the least aerodynamic downforce of the entire season, it requires a particular set-up and a sensitivity from the driver, especially under braking when he has no drag to rely on.

Monza is often compared to Spa in terms of the effort it puts on the engines, but compared to the Belgian circuit, much more braking effort is required and the lateral loads, especially on the tyres, are far less. The long straights and little drag lead to high speeds, even if the 2017 cars will be hampered in this regard by the wide front tyres, when it comes to beating lap records from the past.

The rest is all down to the spectators who, year after year build on the tradition of a compulsive race.

A few words from the boys…

Lewis Hamilton: “It’s amazing to come back into the season and start on the right foot. The Ferrari was very strong today and they put on a fantastic fight. We were both pushing every single lap and there was no room for error or mistake. The safety car was driving so slow that keeping tyre temperature was very difficult. On the restart, Sebastian got a good tow, it was very close. It is fun to be racing against another team and Sebastian at his best and the car at its best – that’s what racing is all about.”

Sebastian Vettel: “If we had ended up ahead in qualifying, then we would have had a good pace to stay in front. I was surprised how close I could follow through the whole race. So I am a bit angry at myself, because, when the race restarted after the safety car, I was probably too close to Lewis out of Turn 1.

“I tried to open the gap down Eau Rouge but it’s a difficult compromise. You see the cars coming behind and you know that you need to defend, instead of focusing on attacking. At the same time I know that down the straights we are not as quick as Mercedes. So, I am not entirely happy, but after all it’s been a great weekend for the team.

“We don’t need to be afraid of any circuit, I believe we have the best car in terms of package. There’s still something missing but the guys in Maranello are very motivated. I think we have done the biggest improvement and a big step forward. Now we turn the page on and move on to Monza: let’s see what happens there.”

Daniel Ricciardo: “It’s always nice to get a podium. Especially after qualifying when you’re on the tail-end of that Top 6, then all you think of is moving forward, so I honestly believed we could be better than sixth in the race.

“Max had a problem and then Kimi made his mistake with the yellow flag so we gained a few positions but I think after the first stint our pace improved a lot. We showed a more respectable pace and then we had an opportunity under the safety car with the re-start and took the most of that, so I’m really happy with the result.”

What an astonishing performance

 

Not only did Lewis Hamilton claim his 68th career pole position – equaling Michael Schumacher’s all-time record – but also topping it off with his 58th career victory today – his third at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps and fifth of the 2017 season – this was the 200th race of his career.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel came second, with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo in third. Hamilton (213 points) has closed the gap on Sebastian Vettel (220 points) to seven points in the Drivers’ Championship, with Valtteri Bottas (179 points) in P3.

That must be a huge relief for Mercedes. No doubt a job well done by Hamilton, but perhaps unexpectedly he’s facing a rival in Vettel who arguably looked tougher on Sunday night than at any point so far this season.

It’s Spa time

Those toiling within the globe-trotting FIA Formula One World Championship earned a three-week reprieve following the final in-season test at the Hungaroring 1-2 August in Budapest. The mandated summer shutdown allowed crew members to reacquaint themselves with their families and recharge prior to the stretch run of this year’s 20-race calendar, which resumes this weekend at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

The Belgian Grand Prix

It’s a firm favourite amongst Formula One drivers, teams and fans, and for good reason. The prestigious race holds a rich history of over 60 years of F1 racing, with a long list of legends having won there.

The circuit lies within a triangle formed by the Belgian towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. Despite being part of the circuit’s name, the town of Spa is actually located slightly to the north west. The track in the Ardennes forest is picturesque, but it has its own mind when it comes to the weather.

With the possibility of rain showers occurring almost out of nowhere, it can be raining in one section of the track but dry in another – a common feature of long circuits.

It sports an old-style design which offers great challenges for the drivers, including “Eau Rouge”, the famous corner that so many drivers relish driving at full speed. The original layout of the Spa track was over 14 kilometres long, but during a redesign in the late seventies the lap was shortened by half the length. The new design now features a 7.004 kilometres long lap, the longest on this year’s 20-race calendar.

 

Williams

The team has won three times at Spa with Nigel Mansell claiming the 1986 race, followed by Damon Hill in 1993 and 1994. For Belgium, Pirelli has made available the soft, supersoft and ultrasoft tyres.

Paddy Lowe: “Spa is one of the greatest tracks on earth, in my opinion. It is one of the longest standing venues on the Formula One calendar and has been the setting of many dramatic races in the past. It has a fast characteristic, with a lot of changes in elevation, rewarding power and downforce.

“The most famous Eau Rouge corner is now generally taken flat, so actually not really a limiting corner. Eau Rouge leads on to a long uphill straight. The combination makes overtaking relatively frequent, with cars able to trade corner exit speed, slipstream effects and, with the current hybrid power units, the remaining energy in the battery.

“The weather in the Ardennes is notoriously tricky and can change from sun to rain and back again in a matter of minutes. The very long lap makes the timing of tyre changes from wet to dry, or back again, either look particularly heroic or disastrous. For Williams, this track should play to the strengths of the FW40 car. Felipe is very experienced at Spa and Lance has also won the race here in F3, so we look forward to getting the very best from this weekend.”

Felipe Massa: “Spa is one of the best tracks in Formula One. I think it will be incredible to drive there with this new car, with more downforce. Eau Rouge will feel like a straight but so many other corners will also be amazing to drive. I am also going to be wearing a special ‘Joy of Racing’ helmet designed by a great Spanish artist called Kenor. It will look great, and a lucky fan will also get the chance to win it thanks to Martini. I’m really looking forward to a great race at Spa.”

Lance Stroll: In Spa, I am heading to my second home race of the year. I am half Belgian, as this is where my mother was born, so I do have an affinity with the country. However, I have to admit that, unlike most Formula One drivers, Spa is not my absolute favourite. Having said that, I did win there last year in Formula 3, so I can’t complain about it too much. It is a very interesting track with some amazing sections and also there is always that air of uncertainty regarding the weather. You can have it raining in sector three and dry in sector one.”

 

Sahara Force India

Chief Race Engineer, Tom McCullough: “Spa is an iconic circuit and a great test for Formula One machinery, even more so this season. It’s the longest lap of the season with a mix of slow and quick corners, long straights and elevation changes: finding the right setup is always a challenge.

“There are some unique corners, like the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex with its rapid compression and decompression, which will be asking a lot from the driver, the car and the tyres. There are also many long and fast corners putting big loads through the tyres: it will be important to understand how the compounds on offer, the three softest of the range, work in these conditions.

“Usually, races in Spa are very entertaining: there are many overtaking opportunities, mistakes are easily punished and the weather can play a big part. It often rains and the extended nature of the circuit means you could be driving on a completely soaked track in one sector and on bone dry tarmac in another. Choosing the right strategy and being ready to adapt to the changing circumstances is crucial.”

Sergio Perez: “I’m feeling fresh and relaxed after the summer break and really looking forward to getting back to racing. I had a very nice break with my family, but now I can’t wait to be back on track.

“Belgium is one of the best circuits to experience in an F1 car. I love the high-speed layout, the history of the place and you get to meet some very passionate fans there. It’s just a great weekend and there is also the question mark over the weather. It nearly always rains at least one of the days.

“Pouhon is one of my favourite corners of the year. It’s so quick and satisfying when you get it just right. The 2017 cars will feel extra special through this part of the lap, as well as through Eau Rouge.

“As we begin the second part of the season, I want to improve on what we have done so far. We have been competitive, but we also lost a few chances to score more points than we did. Hopefully we will make up for those lost points in the races to come.”

Esteban Ocon: “I had a great summer holiday in the south of Spain. My batteries are fully recharged and I’m looking forward to getting back in the car. It’s now a year for me as a Formula One driver and the time has gone by really quickly. So I’m no longer a rookie!

“Spa is where I made my debut last year. It’s a great track, but it’s not necessarily one of my favourites. There are some special corners, especially through sector two, which has a nice rhythm. It’s a circuit where you have to be totally at one with the car because you need to be really committed through the high-speed corners.

“Spa is usually a good track for racing because it’s easier to overtake there compared to some other tracks. There’s also the famous Spa weather which brings unpredictability. I don’t mind if it rains because it could bring some more opportunities our way.

“I think we can be competitive this weekend regardless of whether it’s dry or wet. The layout of the track should suit our car quite well. Everybody loves driving through Eau Rouge and it’s certainly the most famous part of the lap. In these cars it will be an amazing experience. Maybe the first lap of the race will be a bit of a challenge, but after that I think we should be able to take it easily flat.”

Liberty Media figures reveal fan engagement boost, hopefully

Just perusing the Q2 figures released by the owner of the Formula One Group, admittedly not quite as expertly as my esteemed colleague Formula Money’s Christian Sylt, who is a noted expert in this area.

I notice Chase Carey, Formula One Group’s Chairman and CEO says: “We are in the process of developing our three to five year strategic plan while focusing on key priorities like improving and building fan engagement that will positively impact the business and build the foundation for long-term results.”

If you remember Carey, the former Vice-Chairman of 21st Century Fox, replaced Bernie Ecclestone after nearly 40 years at the helm of F1.

So, does this mean it’s trying to make the sport more exciting for the fans? Let’s hope so.

Anyway…

Here’s the rest of Carey’s chat at the press conference. I’ve omitted most of the financials (read Christian’s stories about those; they’re quite revealing):

“We just passed the halfway point in the 2017 season as well as the six-month anniversary of the change in ownership at Formula One. And while it’s still early days, it’s been a good start on both fronts. Attendance at our races and television viewer numbers are both up solidly season-to-date.

“Our engagement on digital platform season-to-date is up even more dramatically, particularly on video usage. Most of our senior executive team will be in place when we return from the August break. And we moved into new offices two weeks ago that will dramatically improve our effectiveness and efficiency.

“For the first time, we’ll have an organisation capable of properly managing and growing the sport. Most importantly, Formula One has a fresh energy and excitement among our fans and partners that is providing critical momentum. Our initial market research, as well as great events like our Formula One Live celebration in Central London last month, illustrated our fan’s great passion for the sport and the untapped potential of Formula One.

“We’re in the process of building a strategic plan, another first for Formula One, that will outline our vision and goals over the next three to five years. At the same time, our new operating groups have begun to move forward on key priorities that will be the building blocks for that plan.

Sponsorship

“In the sponsorship area, we’re actively engaged with potential new sponsors in a number of previously untapped categories as well as building stronger relationships with existing ones. We’re developing capabilities to provide more uniquely tailored offers that better match sponsors’ objectives and provide us both more inventory and premium values. On the promoter front, we’re working with existing promoters on key renewals and ways to enhance the appeal and value of our events.

Fans

“We’re expanding the consumer experience at the track in terms of entertainment, exhibitions and food as well as building new offerings in areas like merchandising. Quite simply, we’re making a lot more fun, interesting and open for fans. At the same time, we’re actively exploring some exciting new locations for future races.

“One area of particular focus related to our events is hospitality. It is increasingly important that we maximise the entire range of consumer experiences that enable us to fully exploit the potential of our most valuable customers. We’re also building stronger relationships with our local promoters and other partners to properly market and sell these experiences.

“In the television area, both traditional and digital, we’re balancing our goals for reach, economic value and growth potential for critical new areas like over-the-top. Our unique premium product positions us well for this expanding arena. We’re in the process of selecting the partners that will help us build our digital platforms and create new exciting content for fans.

“On the motorsport front, we’re addressing key issues like the next-generation engine, cost controls, aerodynamics, track design and other initiatives, all of which are designed to improve competitiveness and action on the track for fans and to strengthen the business for Formula One and its partners.

“This is just some of the activity at Formula One today, and we have many more initiatives like broader engagement with host cities, opportunities in the gaming area and developing Formula One in the US and China. Overall, our priority in the short term is to, first and foremost, improve and build our engagement with fans. Our sport is loved by our fans worldwide, and we have the opportunity to grow that base.

However, in recent years, this work is not delivering on its promise and potential. We now have the team in place to do so and look forward to turning a newly engaged fan base into an exciting business for all of us.”

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