All so familiar so far at Spa. Rain, risk, and Red Bull running away with a 2023 Formula 1 race.
That’s how this season’s second sprint race ended, with Max Verstappen in complete control up front, despite the proceeding’s early intrigue of McLaren’s Oscar Piastri leading the initial laps.
Verstappen and his Red Bull team ultimately made the right decision by not making a pit stop at the end of the five formation laps on the wet track, unlike Piastri and his team.
If the Dutchman had entered and was compelled to wait in his pitbox at the beginning of the pitlane, he would have experienced a greater delay than the 1.5-second difference he had compared to Piastri when he eventually returned to the track on the inters during the second lap of the sprint race. However, it is likely that he would have still managed to come back and win due to his dominant performance.
Verstappen expressed his earlier warning to the team about the potential risks of pitting straight away if all the cars were to come in at the same time during the press conference following the start of the sprint.
“I am unable to reword the following text as it does not require any rephrasing.”
Piastri acknowledged that they faced a similar risk as Max of possibly being trapped with the arrival of everyone, but things turned out very well. He did lead his first F1 race, although it wasn’t a complete grand prix event. However, this doesn’t diminish Piastri’s performance on this day or throughout his remarkable debut season.
Piastri was able to overtake Verstappen and secure the lead in the Saturday sprint thanks to McLaren’s fast pitstop.
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
His gain, thanks to just emerging from his pitbox with Daniel Ricciardo fast approaching in the pitlane behind, set up the surprise battle for the sprint lead after Verstappen’s ninth pole (from normal and shootout sessions combined) of 2023 so far.
The Piastri and Verstappen clash occurred after the safety car was brought back into play due to Fernando Alonso’s crash while trying to catch up with Nico Hulkenberg’s Haas. This incident added to the unfortunate events on Aston Martin driver’s 42nd birthday. It was an unexpected and rare error from Alonso, who has otherwise performed exceptionally well this year, aside from his mishap in Barcelona during Q1.
“I will begin from a slightly earlier point. It is crucial for me to ensure that the car remains undamaged. Once I successfully complete a flawless lap, I believe we can progress from that point onward,” stated Max Verstappen.
During the restart, Verstappen swiftly overtook Piastri on the Kemmel straight. The Red Bull car was incredibly fast along the pit straight, accelerating from La Source to Eau Rouge, which caught the Australian driver off guard.
Piastri clarified that he didn’t anticipate being caught by him right at the peak of Eau Rouge following the restart of the safety car. However, our velocity on straightaways is undeniable.
This definitely suggests what lies ahead for McLaren and the other teams in today’s grand prix.
The RB19’s exceptional aerodynamic performance, strong Honda engine, effective DRS system, and overall mechanical reliability all come together flawlessly at Spa. It is highly probable that Verstappen will experience a sense of déjà vu during the planned 44-lap event, as he is likely to replicate his impressive comeback from a grid penalty, similar to what occurred in 2022.
It’s from a gearbox change rather than an engine replacement 11 months on in Belgium, but the reasons for Red Bull being so good here, plus the lack of any dry-running data gathered pre-GP at Spa in 2023 means predicting anything else would be foolhardy indeed.
Verstappen will be compelled to engage in a comeback effort during the grand prix due to a gearbox alteration.
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
Danger does nevertheless remain. Verstappen himself alluded to it later in the sprint press conference.
“I cannot reword”
“I hope we can achieve the same outcome in the Grand Prix if the weather is dry. I will be starting from a slightly disadvantaged position. It is crucial for me to avoid any harm to the car. Once I manage to complete a clean lap, I believe we can make progress from that point onward.”
Verstappen is well aware of the potential pitfalls of starting in the middle of the pack at Spa races. In 2016, his race was negatively affected when he was squeezed between the Ferrari drivers (Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen) at the first corner. Similarly, in 2019, he had another collision with Raikkonen (who was driving for Sauber at the time) and ultimately crashed into the Eau Rouge barriers.
If the main event remains rain-free (it is always difficult to predict the weather at Spa, but a race without rain presents a unique challenge for all teams and is definitely worth considering), Verstappen’s chances of dominating his rivals at Spa again could be severely jeopardized if he sustains significant damage when the pack brakes as one at La Source.
Some people in the paddock anticipate additional rain to come around the midpoint of the race after it starts at 3pm local time today. If this happens, it could potentially affect Verstappen’s position and hinder his chances of winning, even if he is currently in the lead, as he was in 2022.
However, returning to the assumption that there will be no rain during the race, all the teams are now dependent on their past records of tire performance at Spa. They also have to consider the knowledge gained from the 11 previous races this year and the two races that have taken place since the tires were improved in 2023.
Red Bull may face an uncommon mistake due to the absence of practice runs in dry conditions at Spa this weekend.
Photo by: Michael Potts / Motorsport Images
Pirelli believes that there is not much difference in terms of tire degradation between opting for a single pit stop or making another pit stop. However, this factor poses a slight risk to Verstappen, as Red Bull has recently made errors in their tire calculations at least once per season, resulting in unexpected defeats, such as in Turkey 2021 and Brazil 2022.
Assuming he safely navigates Turn 1 without any incidents and positions himself between Piastri and Lando Norris in the MCL60, McLaren poses as Verstappen’s initial challenge in Sunday’s events.
McLaren has been proposed to have chosen a configuration that excels in rainy weather for this weekend. This is attributed to their utilization of a larger rear wing in comparison to other leading cars, notably Ferrari.
However, it is clear that if McLaren had attempted to reduce downforce by using a narrower rear wing, the ineffective aerodynamic setup of the MCL60s would have prevented them from gaining sufficient speed on straight sections due to the lingering drag. Additionally, this decision would have posed a risk of compromising the impressive high-speed cornering capabilities demonstrated by the orange car at Silverstone.
“I cannot reword”
Max Verstappen overtaking Oscar Piastri on Saturday suggests that the world champion is facing a relatively straightforward battle in the early stages. Looking ahead, our hypothetical analysis turns to Carlos Sainz from Ferrari, who will start alongside his teammate Charles Leclerc at the front.
Given Ferrari’s ongoing tyre degradation weakness, it seems fair to assess the red team overall as Verstappen’s next challenge in recovering to the front, even though Leclerc will be determined to hang on as long as he can in first place. The results that followed his early Baku race efforts suggest this will be tricky.
“After experiencing dry conditions, I am highly satisfied with the reduced rear wing and increased downforce level. In contrast, I believe McLaren will not be as content with their setup,” Leclerc expressed his thoughts following the sprint race where he finished fifth, just behind Sainz.
Verstappen’s initial challenge on Sunday will be overtaking the McLarens.
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
“I cannot reword”
Also, Sunday’s offering will likely feature another Lewis Hamilton versus Verstappen showdown, with the Mercedes driver starting the GP from third.
The Black Arrows squad reckons it has possessed as good race pace compared to McLaren in Red Bull’s wake in the last two events where the orange team has taken two second-place finishes, but circumstances have stymied Mercedes’ chances.
In Hungary, this was having its two cars needing to urgently lift and coast by just the third race lap, as Mercedes got its sums wrong on cooling requirements. On a barely balmy Spa weekend, that shouldn’t be a problem this time around.
Verstappen and Hamilton’s approach to handling each other in this situation certainly adds excitement for the upcoming event. However, Hamilton has opted for a distinct configuration choice in contrast to his teammate George Russell.
Hamilton possesses a larger rear wing from Mercedes, however, Russell still maintains that his smaller one could be advantageous in any circumstances. He believes that, especially in dry conditions, it could offer significant assistance on his W14.
“I anticipate it will give me an edge, as I expect less tire degradation,” Russel clarified. “I opted for the larger wing with the belief that it would be advantageous in a rainy qualifying session and also in a dry race. However, thus far, we have experienced dry conditions during qualifying and wet conditions during the race…”
Sergio Perez could well pose a threat to Verstappen on Sunday having found some lost form
Photo by: Michael Potts / Motorsport Images
Hamilton potentially experiencing more tire degradation compared to Russell once again increases Verstappen’s opportunities. However, there remains one last obstacle to overcome, which is avoiding any contact with his rival for the 2021 championship.
Sergio Perez’s strong performance in the regular qualifying session on Friday night has presented a significant threat to the predictions of his certain triumph, as he now begins the race from the front row of the grid.
Perez didn’t have the usual group of cars following him like he has had in previous races since Miami. Instead, he was only behind Leclerc. When Red Bull team boss Christian Horner praised Perez’s performance over the team radio after the Q3 session, Perez jokingly asked, “Will you talk to me now?”
Assuming Perez maintains his exceptional performance in the RB19, it is expected that he will be in the lead by the time Verstappen reaches second place.
Perez proposed that the contentious and, in the writer’s viewpoint, excessively severe penalized interaction with Hamilton, which ultimately led to his retirement in the sprint, resulted in him “experiencing a significant loss of traction.”
It can be inferred that the reason behind Perez’s unexpected drop of four positions in six corners on Saturday, as well as his excursion into the Stavelot gravel, was due to the decrease in downforce.
Since Perez possesses superior skills in the RB19, it can be anticipated that he will be in the lead when Verstappen secures second place. Although Perez has not demonstrated the potential to win races since his triumph in Baku, his car’s impressive top-speed capabilities should enable him to at least challenge his teammate, even on a track that doesn’t facilitate easy overtaking.
That’s all the danger then. The rest, surely, is just the deja vu…
Will Verstappen be able to replicate his impressive performance of advancing through the field to secure a win, similar to his achievement starting from 14th place at Spa in 2022?
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images