By Stephen Williams
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.
Reliability issued plagued the start to Fernando Alonso's weekend in Belgium. Alonso would start the race behind the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, but both were at the back of the grid. Even though Hamilton had accumulated more grid penalties following his three engine changes, because Alonso failed to set a lap time in qualifying, he would start from last. Both drivers started on the medium compound of tyre, and would run longer than the cars ahead who started on the soft and supersoft tyres.
When the two Ferraris and Max Verstappen made contact into turn one, it dropped the three of them to the back, promoting Alonso up the field. He also overtook a cautious Hamilton into turn one as Lewis was wary of potential carnage at La Source. Alonso's team mate was hit from behind by Pascal Wehrlein in the Manor, and both drivers were forced into retirement. As such, by the end of lap one, Alonso was already up to twelfth. To put Alonso's stunning start into context, Hamilton in the dominant Mercedes, only managed to jump to fifteenth, although he later admitted that he was playing it safe on the opening lap.
When Kevin Magnussen had a huge crash at the top of Eau Rouge bringing out the safety car, the drivers who started on the supersofts pitted for new tyres, this allowed Alonso to move up to fourth, behind Rosberg, Ricciardo and Hulkenberg. At this point Alonso had an advantage, he had closed the gap to the leaders, and would run an alternate strategy to Rosberg and Ricciardo, but when the red flag came out, so repairs to the barrier could take place, the race was neutralised. Alonso was never going to be able to hold off the Mercedes of Hamilton for long after the restart, and soon dropped to fifth, a position he would hold until the next round of stops.
McLaren came into the weekend with an improved power unit, and it was a significant upgrade that allowed Jenson Button to qualify in the top ten. Alonso eventually fell to seventh when he was overtaken by the superior Force India of Perez, and then Vettel who was recovering from the back. Although McLaren's upgrades were a big improvement, Alonso realised that they are still behind some of their rival teams:
"We found ourselves in a good position in fourth, but we could not hold Sebastian, Hamilton and Perez - they were too fast."
Towards the end of the race, Williams instructed Massa to release Bottas so he could attack Alonso, but Fernando held on.
"Top 10 in qualifying with Jenson [Button], top 10 today - on a circuit like this, that was unthinkable a couple of months ago."
Alonso acknowledged that the result was slightly fortunate and it was the circumstances that allowed him to finish higher than expected:
"All the bad luck we had in the weekend concentrated in good luck in the race, with the incidents we avoided," Alonso reflected.
Fernando knew that with his performance on Sunday, he had achieved the maximum on a circuit which shouldn't have suited his car. Alonso said: "I think seventh was very good for the team." The result meant McLaren leapfrogged Toro Rosso in the constructor's standings for sixth, which is an impressive improvement from where they were in 2015.