/ 30 August 2022

Belgian F1 review: The untouchables

Max Verstappen won the Belgian GP.

The hype around the summer drama had long but faded and everyone — journalists, fans and F1 enthusiasts — were locked on the engagements, the interviews, the shoulder brushing in the paddock for any hints of possible action. 

Action like the unanswered question about Daniel Ricciardo’s future and the futures of other drivers, such as Mick Schumacher, Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda. This may have been a middle-of-the-table chat while the teams at the top were left to focus on the matter of importance. That be racing. 

The fact that ride heights are being measured from now on meant this was possibly a moment for Mercedes to further close the gap between Red Bull, Ferrari and themselves. And then came the announcement that Audi would join F1 as an engine manufacturer in 2026. This is all in between Mercedes’s 55 years of AMG celebration. Spoiler alert.

Track changes before the race showed their value all weekend, notably the gravel trap replacing the tar runoff on turn 1. Spa proved a valuable point here. “Give a race driver some tar and he’ll take the entire tarmac … give him gravel, and he’ll dial it back.” That could have been taken straight out of chapter 12 of the race drivers’ code of conduct but Spa proved something that other race tracks should be following.

Leading up to qualifying, free practice gave us some interesting insights. Of the biggest was the slippery nature of a Williams, of all things, showing pace, with Alex Albon mixing it up from the get-go. A sign of things to come, for sure. 

On the other hand, Mercedes lurked within arm’s reach, not showing their hand just yet. Was it that they might have undershot expectations leading up to the grand prix or were they holding back? Either way, I had a sneaking suspicion they were sandbagging and that the genuine pace would eventually come. No spoilers here, though. More on that in a moment.

Tsunoda failed to make it past Q1 yet again, and Sebastian Vettel, by 0,002 seconds. Such are the margins of Formula One. Gasly and Ricciardo did not make it past Q2 either, not doing themselves any favours. Albon stamped his intentions and proved his pace by getting his Williams into Q3. 

Speaking of not doing any favours for themselves, Ferrari sent Charles Leclerc out on a new set of soft slicks instead of a used set. Another sign of things to come. Insult to injury for Leclerc, who then needed to give Carlos Sainz the tow down the Kemmel straight, which meant the Spaniard would be gifted pole, even though Max Verstappen went fastest, but with the grid penalty, he would start in P14. Sergio Perez completed the front grid. The two would have Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton breathing down their necks into turn 1.

Ferrari sent Charles Leclerc out on a new set of soft slicks instead of a used set.

Grid penalties would ensure a proper mix-up. Valtteri Bottas, Zhou Guanyu, Lando Norris, Esteban Ocon, Schumacher, Verstappen, Leclerc. Everyone had opted to replace the power unit. All eyes would be on the championship contenders who would be carving their way to the front. The aim of the game would be to stay out of trouble.

Sunday came with the confirmation that Spa would remain on the 2023 F1 calendar. It’s bittersweet if you wanted a Kyalami deal to go through. Lights out! 

Perez’s lazy start would be something he wished he could forget as Sainz got the jump and shot off into the distance, leaving the rest to wrangle, and wrangle they did. Hamilton and Alonso came together into the Les Combes chicane after the seven times world champion made an unusual unforced error, pinching Alonso into the corner, which saw him retiring his Mercedes soon after. 

The Brit would regret his mistake, given that the Mercedes looked to have decent race pace. The early incidents didn’t stop there, with Nicholas Latifi going off, causing evasive action by Ocon, but surviving. Bottas was not as lucky after he spun out to avoid collecting Latifi, causing his Alfa to beach and then retire.

In a bizarre chain of events, and as if Charles Leclerc’s year couldn’t get any unluckier, a visor tear-off protector from Verstappen found its way towards his Ferrari, blocking a sensor and getting stuck in the braking duct, forcing him to pit. Yes, you couldn’t make that up. 

It only took Verstappen until lap 5 to make it to P6 from P14. Lap 12 saw him take P1 in a manner of asserting dominance but in a casual way not many have seen from the driver in a while. Dare I say it looked far too easy for the current champion? That sealed the deal for Verstappen, who would not be seen for the rest of the GP. 

One last issue that needs to be addressed by Ferrari and Mercedes is the ludicrous speed at which the Red Bull managed to outperform the Ferrari, for instance, by 30km/h down the Kemmel straight with DRS. It was then Perez’s chance.

The action continued through the race with some great moves by Vettel on Gasly, only to be passed by Ocon on the outside heading into the Les Combes chicane, which got a good solid head nod and smile from many, further cementing the fact that these cars do provide closer fighting. Great racing. 

It seems Ferrari just can’t get it right when wanting to pit Leclerc to fit a set of softs to get the extra point for the fastest lap. They got it wrong and released Leclerc behind Alonso. One feels for Leclerc taking the full brunt of this saga each time. In addition, the bad luck of a blocked sensor would cause him to exit the pits 1km/h over the speed limit, earning him a further 5-second penalty. This was on top of the earlier slow puncture which caused Leclerc to pit. Character building, perhaps? 

Albon had completed the points and had an excellent race for Williams, securing P10. That sort of performance will do wonders for the team’s energy and highlight the uncertainty about Latifi’s future.

Max completed a perfect weekend, taking P1 with Perez in P2 and Sainz narrowly escaping a charging George Russell to grab P3. In a race with a heap of excitement throughout the 44-lap distance, across the field, no one could touch Verstappen, not even his teammate in the same car who finished 17 seconds behind. Verstappen now extends his championship lead to 284 points, leaving nothing for Leclerc, who will have to dig deep to turn anything around. 

The world’s most expensive circus now heads to Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix on 5 September. Another home race for Verstappen, who’s lucky year just gets better and better. The complete opposite for Leclerc. Anyone willing to fly a sangoma to Maranello for Leclerc? He might need one.