An absolutely critical time for Vettel and Ferrari

Both championship contenders arrived at Spa with upgraded power units and with Shell adding in a fuel upgrade; clearly every tool in the box is being used in this intense title battle.

Sebatian Vettel trails Lewis Hamilton by 17 points in the Drivers' Championship.   -  AFP

F1’s return from the summer break took us to Spa-Francorchamps for the first of two power circuits that I believe could be vital for Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel’s championship campaign. Both championship contenders arrived at Spa with upgraded power units and with Shell adding in a fuel upgrade; clearly every tool in the box is being used in this intense title battle.

The rain in the final part of qualifying made things very interesting. As a driver at Spa, you always have to expect rain at some stage, and the first thing is to try and work out is just when it’s going to hit and also try and guess how long it may rain for. Fortunately, with all the undulations and long straights, you do get opportunities to look into the valleys and see where the rain is coming from. I used to always ask the engineers to try and tell me which direction the wind is blowing from and therefore you can try work out from which part of the track you need to look up at the sky and judge the movement of the clouds.

A lot of people were wondering about how Kimi Raikkonen and the Red Bulls ended up in a situation where they didn’t have enough fuel at the end when the rain shower stopped and the track started to dry, but it’s not really something that we can criticise them for. I was standing in the pit lane when the rain came down and it did look like the rain would stay for the whole session, so really at that point the call to make was “let’s just swap tyres and go quickly with whatever fuel we have to get the first lap.” This is what the Red Bulls and Kimi did while Seb and Lewis Hamilton spent a bit more time in the pits getting some fuel on board and that gave them the crucial final lap.

In those conditions, Lewis was supreme at feeling the grip and picking his way around on the wet lines (often away from the conventional dry racing line) to jump ahead of Sebastian for pole by a significant margin. With three weekends in a row where Lewis has proved to be stronger in the wet, I wonder if Ferrari and Sebastian will start praying for a dry run to the end of the season, especially if they now have the quicker car.

The gamesmanship on the opening lap was always going to be fun to watch. I don’t know if any of you have seen the Macau Grand Prix – if you haven’t, you should – but Spa is now becoming a bit like Macau, where of course you aim to get pole position, but actually being second out of the first corner is proving to be a better place to be. Last year, the Ferrari had a bit too much drag, so when Lewis lifted off the throttle at the bottom of Eau Rouge, that was enough to sneak out a small advantage over Sebastian, one which the Ferrari man couldn’t overhaul by the time they got to the top of the hill.

It was clever stuff from Lewis, but I did wonder before the race whether he could be in trouble this year given the fact that Ferrari now seems to have turned the tables on Mercedes in terms of straight line speed and power. Sure enough, as much as Lewis tried to run Sebastian wide at La Source and get a few car lengths over his rival, by the time they reached the top of the hill, the German breezed past.

What would have been a bit depressing for Mercedes was when on the restart, when Lewis was the one in the hot seat in the slipstream, he didn’t really get close enough to make the move on Sebastian. That bodes well for the Maranello squad as we head to the long straights at their home race in Monza in a week’s time and Toto Wolff certainly didn’t seem particularly pleased about Mercedes’ relative lack of competitiveness after the race.

The whole weekend seemed to be dominated by all the gossip around the driver merry-go-round from the summer break. The changes to Force India also kept everyone on their toes and despite all the politics, I think everyone was delighted to see Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez get a good result in the race after all the stressful times they’ve had in the past few weeks.

Ocon in particular seems to be a big piece in this midfield driver market. All through the weekend we seemed to be hearing all sorts of rumours about who was going where and when, but it all seemed to change on a daily basis and depending on who you spoke to. Otmar Szafnauer, the CEO and team principal of the renamed Racing Point Force India, told our Channel 4 team that he expected Lance Stroll to be at the team, but didn’t know when and the consensus across the paddock was that Perez would stay with the team, which leaves Ocon out. All of this must be very distracting for a young driver like Ocon, but he’s coped with it brilliantly so far and I think it will be a real shame for F1 if he doesn’t get a seat next year as he’s clearly a very talented star of the future.

Likewise Stoffel Vandoorne – he’s obviously had a tough season, but I firmly believe that there’s a good driver in there. If you look at his junior Formula record, he’s got a tremendous CV and I do think that perhaps a change of environment and a good winter break will help him. Being Fernando Alonso’s teammate is a very difficult thing. The Spaniard dominates the team, and if you’re a young rookie going up against him, that’s going to be a rough ride. Lewis Hamilton coped with it in 2007, but a decade on we know just how good Lewis is. McLaren is ramping up the pressure as well by giving Lando Norris an opportunity to do some Friday practice sessions alongside Stoffel, which of course gives the team a direct comparison. Depending on where the McLaren/Force India/Toro Rosso/Haas/Sauber/Williams merry-go-round finishes, I do think he’s got an outside chance of a seat at a couple of those teams, but right now there are so many unknowns so it’s a tricky time for him.

Off to Monza and the Temple of Speed next. The tifosi will be out in their droves after seeing Sebastian win at Spa, which should make it an amazing atmosphere. For the championship however, these three races are absolutely critical for Seb and Ferrari to swing the momentum back in their favour and it’s started off very well indeed!