Sebastian Vettel’s victory in the 2011 Belgian GP was significant as it was the first for both the German driver and Red Bull Racing at Spa, one of the most challenging tracks on the calendar.
The victory also added to a list of famous Renault successes at the venue that stretches back to 1983, when Alain Prost triumphed in the inaugural Grand Prix at the rebuilt, shorter version circuit.
Rain was a common sight throughout Friday and Saturday, and in Q3 it was a question of pounding round and being out when the damp track was at its best. Pole position changed hands rapidly, with Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton both going top before Sebastian grabbed it right at the end. After three frustrating races without a win, the World Champion was determined to make amends and get his 2011 title defence back on track.
However, before the race some safety concerns emerged regarding front tyre blistering seen on some cars in qualifying, and especially on the Red Bulls. It was suggested that the team had exacerbated the problem by running extreme camber settings. After discussions with the FIA all the top 10 drivers had to start on the tyres on which they qualified, as per usual.
After two days of wet conditions Sunday proved to be dry. Nico Rosberg was the star of the first lap, the Mercedes driver charging into the lead from fifth ahead of Vettel, Felipe Massa, Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Webber made a bad start, while there was chaos when Bruno Senna’s Renault ran hard into Jaime Alguersuari’s STR at La Source, and several other drivers were caught up in the aftermath.
Rosberg’s spell in the lead was short lived, and he was soon passed by Vettel, while with some determined driving Alonso moved ahead of both Hamilton and Massa to take third.
RBR’s tyre concerns saw Vettel stop for fresh rubber as early as lap five. Meanwhile Alonso passed Rosberg for the lead before the Ferrari pitted, and then Hamilton led briefly before he too came in. When it had all shaken out Vettel was safely back in the lead. However, Hamilton had lost some ground around the pit stops, and in his hurry to make it up he clipped Kamui Kobayashi at the end of the straight. The McLaren turned sharp left and crashed heavily, triggering a safety car.
When it came out leader Vettel pitted straight away, and that proved to be a crucial move by RBR, ensuring that his strategy played out successfully over the course of the race. He made it back into the lead when Alonso made his second stop under green flag conditions, and then led without drama to the flag, overcoming any worries on the pit wall about the tyres.
Like his team mate Webber had made his first stop very early, and he went for medium tyres – which were less prone to blistering. Despite his poor first lap the Australian’s strategy worked out well as he moved up the order. He passed Alonso’s Ferrari for second place in the closing stages to give Red Bull an emotional one-two.
“I’m very proud,” said Vettel afterwards. “Obviously you had to manage the tyres. Going into the race wasn’t easy, but then it turned out the pace was very good. It was crucial and a fun race, so I think it was one of the best we have had this year. I definitely enjoyed every single lap and obviously, in the end, we found ourselves in quite a comfortable position, not needing to push a hundred percent every lap anymore. So all in all, it was a great race for us.”