Paddock Postcard from Spa-Francorchamps 28 Aug 2011
With everybody reconvening after the long summer break, chatter in the Belgian paddock was at first dominated by tales of everyones holiday exploits.
Whilst most - including current frontrunners Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button - chose for a relaxing spell in the sun to recharge their batteries, others opted for a little more bustle.
Ferraris Fernando Alonso took to the hills in Asturias, cycling with a group of his friends including Ferrari sporting director Massimo Rivola. Red Bulls Mark Webber also swapped four wheels for two, cycling up the famous Alpe d'Huez Tour de France stage with four-time Formula One world champion Alain Prost. Felipe Massa, meanwhile, opted to return home to Brazil and spent a day testing a touring car at Interlagos.
Anecdotes swapped, talk quickly shifted back to the track, but before any cars had even made it out onto the circuit there were celebrations afoot. At Virgin local hero Jerome dAmbrosio was excited to be starting his first home Grand Prix, thereby becoming the first Belgian to race at Spa since Philippe Adams in 1994.
At the other end of the scale, at Mercedes Michael Schumacher was marking the 20th anniversary of his Formula One race debut. As well as plenty of cake, Schumacher was presented with a 21-carat gold-plated helmet by manufacturer Schuberth.
I'm tremendously flattered that Schuberth is dedicating this kind of helmet to me, said the seven-time world champion. Gold plating as homage to my racing debut 20 years ago in Spa and the golden years that followed - that's a grand idea and an expression of our strong partnership that's lasted for quite a while now.
Current drivers aside, there were plenty of famous faces in the Spa paddock. Nigel Mansell was the drivers steward for the meeting, while fellow former racers Luis Sala (at HRT), Jos Verstappen (and fast karting son Max), Eric van de Poele, Mika Salo, Marc Duez, Luciano Burti, Marino Franchitti and Olivier Panis were much in evidence too. It was also great to see John Surtees hanging out at Ferrari with Alonso and Massa on Saturday morning, celebrating courtesy of Shell his stunning victory over Jochen Rindt here in the rain back in 1966.
Famous non-motorsport faces included rock god Eric Clapton, Faithless front man Maxi Jazz, Belgian cycling legend Eddie Merckx, who presented Michael Schumacher with one of his bikes, and Chelsea football manager Andre Villas-Boas.
On-track, Romain Grosjean clinched the 2011 GP2 Series title courtesy of third place in the rain-affected feature race on Saturday afternoon, bringing his DAMS machine home behind polesitter and winner Christian Vietoriss Racing Engineering version and ARTs Jules Bianchi.
The track was dry at the start as Vietoris led from pole, as second fastest qualifier Luca Filippi was overtaken by Bianchi and Grosjean blasted from seventh to grab third. With title rival Giedo van der Garde being taken off at the first corner, Grosjean looked home a dry. Until it rained. And rained.
The heavens opened on Lap 13, triggering a rash of pit stops and spins, with Julian getting stranded at the top of Eau Rouge and bringing out the safety car. Then Stefano Coletti collided with Mikhail Aleshin. When the track was finally clear, eight laps had passed and the safety car came in for the final lap. Vietoris made a clean re-start and kept the lead from Bianchi and new champion Grosjean.
In GP3, ARTs James Calado and Valtteri Bottas qualified first and second but the Finn reversed the order in Saturday's race to beat his team-mate by 6.4s, with Nigel Melker (RSC Mucke) third from Briton Adrian Quaife-Hobbs (Marussia Manor).
Bottas won the start and soon pulled clear as Quaife-Hobbs and Melker battled for third and Statuss Alexander Sims stormed from 16th to ninth. With five laps remaining Sims was pushing Carlins Conor Daly hard for fifth, but a clash between the two at Blanchimont saw Sims retire with damaged steering.
By the chequered flag Calado had started closing on Bottas, who set fastest lap, but it was too late and the Finn scored his third win of the season. Melker completed the podium ahead of Quaife-Hobbs, Daly, Addaxs Tom Dillmann, Jenzer Motorsports Nico Müller and ARTs Richie Stanaway who finished an impressive eighth on his GP3 debut after starting from 17th.
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