Verstappen Blitzes The Opposition Twice In Belgium
After last Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix the Formula 1 paddock quickly relocated to the Spa Francorchamps circuit in the Ardennes forests at the eastern end of Belgium and the cars and drivers were back on track by Friday afternoon. Amidst a truly international mix of spectators, as always at Spa, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who is of Belgian/Dutch nationality, thrilled his many fans in the grandstands and trackside by continuing his rich vein of form, winning both this afternoon’s Belgian Grand Prix and yesterday’s shorter Sprint event in dominant style. Such was his superiority today that he beat his second placed team-mate Sergio Pérez by a 22 second margin despite being in the same car and by winning eight consecutive Grands Prix he equalled a record previously set by only Alberto Ascari and Sebastian Vettel.
Max Verstappen again proved to be in a class of his own
2023 Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix
1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr22m30.450s
2 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +22.305s
3 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +32.259s
4 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +49.671s
5 Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +56.184s
6 George Russell (Mercedes) +1m3.101s
7 Lando Norris (McLaren) +1m13.719s
8 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +1m14.719s
9 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +1m19.340s
10 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +1m20.221s
11 Pierre Gasly (Alpine) +1m23.084s
12 Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) +1m25.191s
13 Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo) +1m35.441s
14 Alex Albon (Williams) +1m36.184s
15 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +1m41.754s
16 Daniel Ricciardo (AlphaTauri) +1m43.071s
17 Logan Sargeant (Williams) +1m44.476s
18 Nico Hülkenberg (Haas) +1m50.450s
19 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) Retired
20 Oscar Piastri (McLaren) Retired
Away from the ontrack action, this weekend marked the departure of Ferrari’s sporting director Laurent Mekies after four and a half seasons with the Italian team as he is bound for AlphaTauri to replace the retiring Franz Tost as team principal. His arrival there, announced back in April, will not actually take place until 1st January next year due to an agreed intervening gardening leave period and his seat on the Ferrari pitwall has with effect from Belgium been taken by Diego Ioverno, who has worked for the famous Scuderia for the last 23 years.
Major personnel changes were also announced at Spa in the Alpine camp following a difficult 2023 campaign to date, with team principal Otmar Szafnauer leaving by mutual consent after this weekend following 18 months in his role and sporting director Alan Permane is doing likewise after 34 years of service at the team’s Enstone base. The vastly experienced Pat Fry is also departing, bound for the rejuvenated Williams team as its new Chief Technical Officer, and Alpine has revealed some interim appointments for its soon to be vacated roles with effect from the Dutch Grand Prix weekend in late August. Interestingly there is strong speculation that the former Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto, who has quietly re-emerged in the F1 paddock of late, may be set to undertake a key role in Alpine’s future.
The highly talented British Mercedes driver George Russell, who is also one of the most intelligent and personable racers I have ever met, is a wise head on young shoulders and is a director of the Grand Prix Drivers Association...
The iconic Spa track is certainly a very different animal to the Hungaroring, with plenty of fast straights and high speed corners set to challenge the drivers and their cars. It’s also a circuit which most F1 drivers have long loved, if tempered of late by the fact that it’s witnessed a couple of awful Formula 2 and Formula Regional European single-seater fatalities in 2019 and earlier this month. These very serious incidents obviously caused full red flag race stoppages, but all the teams’ strategists were well aware ahead of this weekend that safety car interventions have featured during every Grand Prix at Spa bar two since 2014. They and the drivers were also aware that overtaking at this venue is definitely possible, with the long DRS assisted sprint to Turn 5 and the approach to the Bus Stop chicane presenting the best opportunities.
The weather at Spa on Grand Prix weekends has always been notoriously variable despite its summer timing and this year during the build-up to the event things were looking decidedly wet for at least Friday and Saturday, if possibly a little better for race day. It seemed amusingly ironic that the title sponsor of this year’s Belgian Grand Prix was MSC Cruises! Adverse weather not only affects all the fans attending and the officials, team personnel and media working at the circuit, but crucially the drivers too who face having to race hard at upto 200mph in extremely dangerous conditions.
The highly talented British Mercedes driver George Russell, who is also one of the most intelligent and personable racers I have ever met, is a wise head on young shoulders and is a director of the Grand Prix Drivers Association, usually known as just the GPDA, which represents the interests of all those who are privileged to race in Formula 1. He stated at Spa last Thursday that the FIA governing body would have to make some bold decisions if wet weather and severely limited visibility were to impact ontrack running throughout the weekend, adding that he felt the circuit was safe enough in dry conditions, but far less so if very wet.
McLaren’s Oscar Piastri is a star of the future, but regretted his early retirement today
F1 drivers tend to be well paid because of their skills and also because they risk serious injury every time they step into their cars, although to be honest most would do so for nothing anyway, such is the thrill and adrenaline rush it gives them. On a slightly less serious note McLaren’s Lando Norris apologised at Spa to Verstappen, Red Bull and the makers of the porcelain winner’s trophy in Hungary last weekend for having accidentally damaged it on the podium after exhibiting a little over exuberance whilst spraying the post race champagne!
Under the current Formula 1 regulations drivers are allowed to use upto four gearboxes per season and Red Bull revealed ahead of Friday’s running that Verstappen would be taking a five place grid penalty for today’s Grand Prix after having a further one fitted. With the driver enjoying a period of dominance in his RB19 and having won here last year from 14th on the grid he and his team were fairly confident that the penalty wouldn’t be a problem.
There’s often trouble at this corner though as the pack squeezes through and today was no different as Sainz and Piastri made contact, damaging both cars and instantly ruining their races...
Just two words were needed to describe the conditions at Spa on Friday until mid afternoon - very wet. A free practice session did begin as scheduled at 13.30 local time, but the conditions were so bad that even extreme wet tyres struggled to cope with the copious amounts of standing water on the track and large rooster tails followed the cars as they circulated. Running was limited and was interrupted briefly by red flags after Williams’ Logan Sargeant had gone off at the end of the Kemmel Straight. The times set were of little importance, but for the record Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz went quickest ahead of the McLarens of Oscar Piastri and Norris amidst the low mist hanging over the forested setting.
The qualifying hour for today’s Grand Prix was due to start at 17.00 local time on Friday and it had been announced in advance that, if conditions meant it could not be held, the grid would be based on the latest Drivers’ Championship rankings. Fortunately it got underway at 17.10 on a still wet, but drying track and those to fall at the first hurdle come the end of Q1 included both Williams cars and AlphaTauri’s recently arrived Daniel Ricciardo, who was slowest bar one. Part way through Q2 slick tyres made their first appearance of the weekend as drivers ditched their intermediate wet weather rubber and the lap times started to tumble. Come the top ten shootout Verstappen put in a stunning lap a mighty 0.82s faster than best of the rest Charles Leclerc for Ferrari, but the reigning champion’s grid penalty meant he was destined to start today’s race in sixth position, with Leclerc and Pérez on the front row ahead of Mercedes’ Sir Lewis Hamilton and Sainz.
Yesterday the focus turned to F1 Sprint activity, with a qualifying session set to be followed by the race, but the weather was again proving troublesome. The officials had managed to run an incident strewn F3 race, during which it proved impossible to complete even a couple of laps without the intervention of the safety car, but the intended noon start of the F1 Sprint Shootout qualifying hour was delayed by 35 minutes due to heavy rain. Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll caused red flags in the second part of the session after a gamble on using slick rather than intermediate tyres resulted in a hefty off and subsequently Verstappen just edged pole position from the young Australian rising star Piastri and Sainz, with the trio covered by a mere 0.025s.
Pierre Gasly was thrilled to finish third for Alpine in yesterday’s Sprint
The number of laps for each Grand Prix and Sprint race throughout the year varies because of the differing circuit lengths and yesterday’s Sprint encounter was due to be held over just 15 laps of the 4.352 mile circuit, which is the longest on the F1 calendar. However, more heavy rain caused a delay to the start of the Sprint before it eased and the sun actually came out. All very Spa-esque. When the action resumed the cars all followed the safety car for several laps before it headed back to the pits and a rolling rather than standing start was declared appropriate for an 11 lap race. With the track now more suitable for intermediate rubber than extreme wets many drivers pitted straightaway to make the change, whilst others, including Verstappen, Leclerc and Norris, stayed out for fear of losing time if blocked in whilst others cars behind them pitted at the same time.
2023 Formula 1 Belgian Sprint
1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 24m58.433s
2 Oscar Piastri (McLaren) +6.677s
3 Pierre Gasly (Alpine) +10.733s
4 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +12.648s
5 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +15.016s
6 Lando Norris (McLaren) +16.052s
7 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +16.757s
8 George Russell (Mercedes) +16.822s
9 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +22.410s
10 Daniel Ricciardo (AlphaTauri) +22.806s
11 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +25.007s
12 Alex Albon (Williams) +26.303s
13 Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) +27.006s
14 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +32.986s
15 Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo) +36.342s
16 Logan Sargeant (Williams) +37.571s
17 Nico Hülkenberg (Haas) +37.827s
18 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +39.267s
19 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) Retired
20 Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) Retired
Following this flurry of activity Piastri, who had pitted early, found himself in the lead ahead of Verstappen, Alpine’s Pierre Gasly and Pérez, but just one lap later Fernando Alonso gave himself an unwelcome 42nd birthday present as he crashed his Aston Martin at Pouhon and exited the fray. Following a brief safety car period to enable the removal of his stricken car, racing resumed at the start of the sixth tour and Verstappen immediately passed Piastri for the lead on the Kemmel Straight. Soon Hamilton clashed with Pérez and earned himself a five second penalty from the stewards for causing a collision, whilst the Mexican was forced to retire his damaged car. Verstappen continued to extend his lead over Piastri before the chequered flag with a consummate performance in challenging conditions, leaving Piastri and Gasly to join him as the top three finishers. The French driver Gasly dedicated his third place to his close racing friend and fellow countryman Anthoine Hubert, who had been killed at Spa four years ago. Hamilton was fourth ontrack, but his penalty dropped him to seventh behind Sainz, Leclerc and Norris.
Turning to today, the weather conditions were fortunately dry as the start of this afternoon’s 44 lap Grand Prix neared, if with a threat of rain still never far away. With Leclerc and Pérez lining up on the staggered front row of the grid due to Verstappen’s gearbox penalty all was to play for as those famous red lights went out and after a short sprint to the opening La Source hairpin it was the Monégasque Ferrari driver who led from his Red Bull opponent. There’s often trouble at this corner though as the pack squeezes through and today was no different as Sainz and Piastri made contact, damaging both cars and instantly ruining their races. Piastri soon had to park his McLaren trackside, whilst Sainz struggled on until retiring his now uncompetitive car on lap 23. Pérez was clearly in no mood to hang around and swept past Leclerc into the lead during their first blast up the Kemmel Straight ahead of Hamilton and Verstappen, who was already up two places to fourth.
After twelve Grands Prix and a trio of Sprint races so far this season it’s now time for Formula 1’s almost four week summer break before the action resumes in late August at Zandvoort in the Netherlands...
On lap six the Red Bull team leader claimed third from Hamilton into the Les Coombes chicane and three tours later helped himself to Leclerc’s second position at the same part of the circuit. The running order was now Pérez ahead of Verstappen, Leclerc and Hamilton and this remained the same following the opening round of pitstops. However, a flying Verstappen soon caught his team-mate and easily passed him on lap 17 at the start of the Kemmel Straight before beginning to gradually build an ever increasing lead he was never to relinquish. Some brief light rain subsequently made the track a little tricky for slick tyres, but it remained too dry for intermediate wet rubber and soon soft specification slicks proved to be the favoured option as blue sky returned overhead.
With so much rain falling at Spa it seemed appropriate that the main sponsor was a cruise line!
A second round of pitstops followed for most drivers, but the order out front remained unchanged with Verstappen well clear of Pérez, Leclerc and Hamilton and this continued to the chequered flag. The Mercedes driver also pitted for a third time on the penultimate tour to take on a set of new medium tyres, which he used to claim the extra point for the fastest lap of the Grand Prix. Alonso and the one-stopping Russell completed the top six finishers, with seventh placed Norris salvaging something for McLaren following Piastri’s opening lap retirement.
After twelve Grands Prix and a trio of Sprint races so far this season it’s now time for Formula 1’s almost four week summer break before the action resumes in late August at Zandvoort in the Netherlands for this year’s Dutch round. A further nine Grands Prix and three more Sprints will follow this and, although Verstappen and Red Bull are dominating both championships due to their undeniably outstanding performances, there is still much to be battled for amongst the rest of the grid until the current campaign concludes in Abu Dhabi in late November.
2023 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship
1 Max Verstappen 314
2 Sergio Pérez 189
3 Fernando Alonso 149
2023 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship
1 Red Bull 503
2 Mercedes 247
3 Aston Martin 196