This year’s edition of the Belgian Grand Prix yielded yet another Max Verstappen masterclass as the Dutchman waltzes away with the Formula 1 title.
Verstappen, who hails from Belgium, comfortably secured a win at his second race on home soil, further increasing his lead in the championship to an impressive 125 points ahead of his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez. This victory marks Verstappen’s eighth consecutive win.
While battles for the lead were effectively non-existent and the front four finishers enjoyed somewhat solitary races, there was plenty of food for thought in the race’s aftermath as F1 moves towards its customary summer break.
Here’s the 10 key talking points from the pre-summer Spa weekend.
Verstappen continues to scale new heights in 2023
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Verstappen’s level of dominance is reaching unprecedented levels…
Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez were separated by a time difference of 22.3 seconds at the finish line. Perez began the race from the front row next to Charles Leclerc, who had secured pole position due to Verstappen’s penalty for changing his gearbox. Perez effortlessly took the lead on the first lap. However, he would soon encounter a challenge from Verstappen as he progressed through the field.
Perez lacked the means to pose a significant challenge. After overtaking Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc, Verstappen steadily reduced his teammate’s lead and effortlessly surpassed him on the 17th lap. Although not as rapid as his impressive climb from 14th to first in 2022 within 12 laps, Verstappen’s performance this year was still expected to dominate and secure his position at the front once more.
Verstappen had the opportunity to begin the race from the pitlane and emerge victorious. However, he experienced a nerve-wracking incident during the middle of the race when it started to rain, causing the track to become slippery. This led to a sudden loss of control while navigating Eau Rouge. Verstappen admitted that the track was more slippery than he anticipated, but he managed to regain control of the car. He attributed his success in correcting the situation to the substantial downforce generated by the car at high speeds.
The radio disputes between Verstappen and Lambiase became a notable aspect of the Belgian GP weekend.
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2. …however, both he and Jason Statham from ‘Red Bull’ likely require some time off separately.
From time to time, Verstappen and his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase express their disagreements on the radio – but this is common in any driver-engineer relationship. During Q2, Verstappen was particularly annoyed with how his run plan was executed and believed he should have done two consecutive fast laps. In response, Lambiase reminded him of the potential consequences if he had followed that approach. Verstappen’s reaction to this was not made public, but he did apologize to Lambiase after securing pole position. Lambiase jokingly commented that he was gradually becoming accustomed to these situations.
They continued to resemble a long-married couple trying to decide on the perfect shade of magnolia to paint their living room during the race. Lambiase, aware of the tire degradation on the slicks, reminded Verstappen to be mindful of managing his tires effectively. However, Lambiase was not happy when he saw Verstappen pushing hard on the soft rubber tires after his pitstop, fearing that he would use up all the tire life in one attempt at setting the fastest lap. Verstappen suggested pushing harder and practicing pitstops, but ‘GP’ rejected the idea.
“GP and Max have been a team since Max’s first race in the car,” pondered team leader Christian Horner, dismissing any worries of conflict between the two. “Max is quite demanding, and you need to have a strong personality to handle that. GP is like our equivalent of Jason Statham, they even resemble each other and he manages Max with firm but fair approach. There is a deep respect between them, which stems from the essential trust that must exist between an engineer and a driver. No therapy sessions are necessary.”
However, the pause likely occurs at a convenient moment – unless, of course, their families had made reservations for a comprehensive vacation in Lanzarote as a group. In such a scenario, the choice of music in the car could potentially cause additional disagreement.
Has Ferrari ultimately discovered a method to excel in handling the Pirelli tires?
Photo by: Michael Potts / Motorsport Images
Ferrari seems to be improving their management of tire wear.
Due to the continuous bad weather in the Ardennes during the weekend, a significant gap appeared in the teams’ data sets regarding the three types of slick tires. Although they had used them during the sprint race on a track that was drying up, this situation was quite different from a dry surface with increased temperature. The degradation of the tires seemed to be higher than anticipated, and the presence of DRS trains among the midfield runners appeared to worsen the situation.
Ferrari hasn’t had a particularly strong grasp on tyre wear over the past season-and-a-half, although recent improvements have hinted that the SF-23 is learning to be a little kinder on the Pirelli rubber it sports on-track. Results didn’t exactly correlate with that as Ferrari struggled for overall pace at Silverstone and the Hungaroring, but Charles Leclerc’s run to a podium at Spa-Francorchamps came with few hiccups in the tyre preservation stakes.
The statement holds true that the Monegasque driver seldom faced any obstacles from cars in front of him, as the Red Bulls quickly pulled away and there were no slower cars to navigate during the entire race. However, this was still an impressive performance from the Ferrari team, which has experienced significant fluctuations this year, alternating between having the second-fastest car and leading the middle group of competitors.
“I believe it may be too early to make a definitive statement, but in the past two or three races, we have been effectively managing our tires,” Leclerc explained. “I don’t think tire management was the main factor for our significant gap behind the Red Bulls today. They were simply faster. However, our tires didn’t experience significant degradation, and even when considering the Mercedes behind us, I was able to control the pace of my tires. So in that aspect, it appeared positive. Nevertheless, we still need to remain cautious because there are occasions, particularly under specific conditions, where we struggle when the tires are not in the optimal range.”
Mercedes biggest enemy – bouncing – returned at Spa
Photo by: Erik Junius
Mercedes is consistently recovering and making a comeback.
The Mercedes W14 has a lingering drag issue, which prevents it from being as powerful in a straight line as desired by the team. Despite this, Hamilton successfully defended against Verstappen’s Red Bull for a while, until the feeling of inevitability took over and Verstappen overtook him. Hamilton made an effort to catch up to Leclerc and secure a podium finish, but the Ferrari was slightly faster and Hamilton couldn’t catch up.
Hamilton didn’t need to burn his tires to catch up to Leclerc in the last few laps. He had such a big lead over Alonso in fifth place that he was able to make a pit stop for medium tires, come out in front, and then set the fastest lap of the race. This allowed him to take the point that Verstappen was hoping to get. Meanwhile, Russell had a terrible start when he got stuck behind Piastri, which caused him to lose several positions. Mercedes then decided to use a risky one-stop strategy to try and help Russell recover.
Mercedes came close to achieving the expected goal of “maximizing the outcome” at Spa, despite facing a recurring issue of bouncing on the straight sections. Toto Wolff, the team principal, clarified that the bouncing was the primary constraint during both the previous day and today. He mentioned that even Blanchimont, which is typically an easy flat corner, required Lewis to lift due to the bouncing on the straight. This bouncing caused the tires to overheat during braking, creating a vicious cycle and becoming the main limitation throughout the weekend.
As McLaren’s weakness was revealed, Norris dropped in the rankings.
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
McLaren’s preference for a wet set-up negatively impacted its performance in the grand prix.
McLaren has nearly finished its mid-season overhaul and finished the British and Hungarian Grands Prix with the second-best car. Due to the frequent rain during the Belgian round, McLaren adjusted its setup to have more downforce, which helped it maintain traction on the wet track. This strategy was successful in the sprint race, but when it became evident that Sunday’s race would be dry, McLaren was at a disadvantage.
Lando Norris’s inexorable slide down the order demonstrated the weaknesses of the car’s configuration in a straight line, and was unable to do a great deal on either the medium or hard compound of tyre as he slipped to the back once he’d called in for softs. But when the short spell of rain emerged, lap times around the field dropped by four to five seconds – except for Norris, who was in his element.
During the race, there was a remarkable moment when Logan Sargeant was overtaken on the outside by a McLaren car, demonstrating its excellent grip. The driver’s speed in the rain allowed him to pass a few cars and compete for points. Despite having to use the soft tires for more than half of the race, Norris managed to hold onto seventh place and earn a respectable number of points. However, the McLaren car still lacks top speed on straightaways, so the team needs to prepare a low-drag package for the upcoming race in Monza.
“When we were surrounded by the other cars, the situation was quickly deteriorating,” team principal Andrea Stella explained. “Therefore, we must honestly acknowledge that although this setup provided us with an advantage in previous days, it became a major problem today. Additionally, we did not assist ourselves by attempting to provide Lando with open space and equipping him with hard tires.”
However, I believe that due to the sufficient downforce in the middle sector, we were able to prolong the use of the soft tires and remain competitive even when they were nearly worn out. This was beneficial for us. Nevertheless, there are some valuable lessons we can extract from this weekend.
Piastri achieved his top F1 performance on Saturday, but his weekend came to an abrupt halt due to a collision at the first corner.
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
Piastri continues to showcase his potential despite the overshadowing impact of the La Source clash.
Six of one, half a dozen of the other, is how this writer called the Carlos Sainz-Oscar Piastri incident in the post-race Motorsport.com Podcast. Both drivers were to blame: Piastri was far too optimistic, while Sainz was not willing to grant enough space, and it overall ended both of their races.
However, disregarding that, Piastri proved to be the superior McLaren driver throughout the weekend at Spa. The Australian outperformed Norris in both the sprint and the grand prix qualifying sessions, securing a spot on the front row for the shorter race. Piastri achieved his first significant F1 outcome during the sprint, finishing in second place after strategically taking advantage of a pitstop opportunity to lead in the earlier laps.
Piastri reflected on his sprint efforts, expressing his initial belief that the safety car would work in his favor by reducing the number of laps he needed to defend against his competitor. However, upon exiting Turn 1 (La Source), he realized that despite his decent restart, his competitor was already closing in on him at the top of Eau Rouge. Consequently, he was unable to prevent his competitor from overtaking him on the straight.
“We still have some work ahead of us, but I am pleased with the positive results. Aside from Max, our team’s performance was impressive, and I give them full credit. The past three weekends have been exceptional compared to our previous performance, so I am extremely grateful for the car. We still have some improvements to make in order to reach the top position. However, it is a great feeling to be up there, and leading my first laps was a memorable experience.”
The 2021 F2 champion joined McLaren after a protracted transfer saga with Alpine, and the junior career pedigree that the Victorian came into F1 which put the pressure on him to succeed. It’s good to see that Piastri is starting to deliver on his potential, and it’s probably true that Alpine is kicking itself for letting him go. Oh, and on that note…
Szafnauer and Permane are the latest Alpine F1 management casualties
Photo by: Alpine
Alpine seems to be lacking in creativity as Szafnauer is dismissed.
Frederic Vasseur, Cyril Abiteboul, Marcin Budkowski, Otmar Szafnauer, and Bruno Famin. Since Renault returned to F1 in 2016 and bought out the Enstone outfit it had owned from 2001 to 2009, these five men have been nominated in the team principal role at the team. That’s five changes of management in eight seasons.
During the Spa weekend, the team made an announcement that Szafnauer would be dismissed and Famin, who previously worked at Renault powertrain operation in Viry-Chatillon, would take his place. Famin had recently been promoted to vice president at Alpine Motorsport, but will now temporarily oversee the F1 team.
After Laurent Rossi left his position as Alpine CEO, Luca de Meo, the head honcho of Renault Group, decided to make some significant changes. Alan Permane, who had been the technical chief at Enstone for a long time since the team’s Benetton era, has also been removed from his role.
“We express our gratitude to them for their valuable contributions to the team. Alan has been with us for an impressive 34 years in Enstone, and Otmar has also made significant contributions. Although Otmar helped us secure fourth place in the championship last year, which was commendable, we realized that our goals for performance were not aligned. Therefore, we mutually decided to part ways.”
Initially, there was a strategic blueprint spanning five years to achieve consistent victories in F1. However, this approach shifted to a long-term vision encompassing 100 races. Given the frequent changes in management, it is challenging to envision how Alpine can escape the recurring pattern of hiring and firing, resembling more of a football team’s dynamics rather than a well-established F1 team.
Alonso believed that Aston Martin had accurately identified the issues it had been facing lately.
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
Aston Martin has returned to its regular state following a technical adjustment.
Aston Martin achieved its best result since Austria at the Belgian Grand Prix, with Fernando Alonso finishing in fifth place. However, the team’s performance has slightly declined compared to the beginning of the season when they consistently reached the podium. The recent changes made to their AMR23 car have caused some confusion and may have contributed to this drop in form. Additionally, the other three teams they are competing against – Ferrari, Mercedes, and McLaren – have also made improvements, making it challenging for Aston Martin to maintain its position as the best-of-the-rest. Despite suggestions that the car did not respond well to the Pirelli tire construction change, it seems unlikely that this is the main cause.
However, Alonso had a strong beginning to prevent any disorder during the first lap. Despite not having the speed to compete with the leading Mercedes and Ferraris, he managed to effectively defend against George Russell, who only made one pit stop.
“I believe the car had a strong performance today,” stated the experienced Spaniard, who recently celebrated his 42nd birthday. “Once again, the team did an outstanding job with the strategy and pitstops. We were able to gain a few positions in the previous race, despite not finishing. Today, I felt that the car was more balanced and in line with our expectations. We made some adjustments to the setup after Hungary and Silverstone, and I think it was beneficial. The car felt more familiar and competitive. I am pleased with the outcome, and it provides a positive momentum for the summer.”
Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04, Esteban Ocon, Alpine A523, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR23, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo C43
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
9. Drivers reckon wet visibility is even worse in 2023
The FIA’s attempt to enhance visibility in wet conditions with a spray guard was not successful. However, the topic continued to be discussed during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, particularly after Dilano van ‘t Hoff tragically passed away at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in heavy rain a few weeks earlier.
Spray will forever be an issue with single-seater cars, owing to the exposed wheels and underbody effect, but the current F1 drivers reckon that the new generation of cars has made vision during wet weather even worse.
Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg, experienced Formula 1 drivers, expressed that the wet track conditions at the beginning of the sprint races were more challenging than any previous wet conditions they had encountered. They proposed that the cars’ ground effect underbody might be causing a denser spray to be emitted from the rear of the cars.
“I am relieved that we managed to complete the race. It seems like everyone is unharmed, but the lack of visibility is truly unfortunate,” expressed Ricciardo. “I have been participating in this for quite some time, and I don’t recall it being like this before. It’s true that the past few years have been challenging, but we used to race in such conditions five or ten years ago.”
“We desire to participate in the race as we find enjoyment in the wet conditions. However, in all honesty, I believe the onboard footage accurately depicts what we are unable to perceive. Once we exceed the fourth gear, it becomes a matter of uncertainty and hope.”
“I believe these cars that utilize ground-effect technology have exacerbated the situation. I have never witnessed it being this severe,” Hulkenberg expressed. “It involves a significant amount of speculation and optimism, solely relying on the visibility provided by the flashing lights. However, when the spray becomes excessively dense, it becomes impossible to maintain visual contact. Therefore, the situation is far from ideal.”
The Pirelli wet tyre could be hung out to dry
Photo by: Erik Junius
Even Pirelli concurs with the decision to use wet tires being deemed as “pointless”.
“The extreme tire is rather ineffective, it is truly terrible,” expressed George Russell. “It is likely to be six to seven seconds slower per lap compared to the intermediate tire. The only circumstance where you would consider using the extreme wet tire is if you risk hydroplaning with the intermediate tire. Therefore, significant improvements are necessary in that regard.”
Russell made remarks after the sprint race at Spa, where once the track was sufficiently dry, all drivers quickly switched from the wet tires to the intermediate tires. Normally, Pirelli is quite protective of its products due to years of complaints from drivers, but surprisingly, motorsport boss Mario Isola agreed with Russell’s evaluation.
“I acknowledge that if the full wet tyre is solely utilized when the safety car is out, it is deemed pointless by the drivers,” Isola confessed. “Therefore, we must determine the path we wish to pursue in order to enhance the product required for Formula 1.”
A proposed idea was to combine the intermediate and wet compounds into a single ‘super-intermediate’ design. This would result in a reduction of the number of tires needed for races. Stay tuned for updates.
Formula 1 takes its customary summer hiatus and will resume racing at the Dutch Grand Prix in late August.
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