Nico Rosberg had the honours in qualifying with pole here and the German did all that was asked of him, but the sport did not do itself or the heritage of this magnificent circuit real justice. Even less so the fans who had paid to come and see the best drivers vie with one another on track, after Lewis Hamilton had opted out of the session strategically, for engine changes.
Hamilton will start from the back row of the grid (or possibly the pit lane, pending a team decision) after fitting three new power units this weekend, equating to a 55-place penalty. He suffered failures earlier in the season and opted to set in a stock of components at a track where his Mercedes can use its power advantage and where overtaking is possible. Knowing he would be at the back regardless, the team sensibly opted to save his rubber for Sunday, when it could be vital in coming back through the field. and damage limitation to that advantage is his priority.
From his and the team’s perspective this makes perfect sense, but for the sport it is positively injurious. Imposing grid penalties for replacing power units was introduced in a bid to cut costs. Where previously teams would be fitting new engines almost every day of running, the limit is now five per season before they face sanction. There is no carry over or punitive time addition for multiple penalties so going to the back of the grid for one race is as much as can be imposed.
Mercedes exploited the rules to the full, taking the hit for three new sets of components in one go and limiting the punishment to a single race, for all of which the financial cost will be of no concern to the marque, nor will it to McLaren, whose Fernando Alonso has also taken three new engines. But fans have flocked to a sold-out Spa, with a huge influx of Dutch and Belgians here to see Max Verstappen, who becomes the youngest driver to start a race on the front row of the grid at 18.
The season is already a two-horse race between the Mercedes drivers and to remove one of them from the equation of qualifying is a poor solution for punters who have come to see racing rather than tactics based on engine rules.
Hamilton, who watched the bulk of qualifying from his motorhome, agreed the system had become ridiculous. “The fact that we have six components to an engine, I don’t think it’s great. People watching don’t care. It’s far too technical, too complicated most people don’t know what an MGU-H is and don’t care and the engines don’t sound good. I still watch races of the old cars that sounded great. I hope one day they go back to that and simplify it.”
Even the Mercedes executive director, Toto Wolff, believes the rules to be flawed. “Last year we had a race where Jenson took 52 penalty places and it was ridiculous,” he said.
“We proposed a regulation where you cannot stockpile engines, the proposal was not accepted. This year we did the same thing. The system is far from perfect and it sounds a bit ridiculous. I think you should close that loophole.”
Ultimately, in the long game of securing his fourth world championship, Hamilton’s decision may prove crucial, with tyres likely to play a major part in how many places he can gain.
The temperatures all week have been very high, up to 43C (109F) on track in qualifying which, combined with the high pressures Pirelli have insisted upon after failures last year, has made degradation a major issue for all the drivers. “Tomorrow’s going to be even hard to get into the top 10 with the tyres the way they are,” said Hamilton. “I hope I prove myself wrong and be pleasantly surprised. I hope that it’s a clean race.”
Having preserved all his rubber by sitting out qualifying, Hamilton will be able to exploit what extra grip there is and disappointed fans from Saturday may yet have a spectacle to enjoy come on Sunday.