Belgium’s Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is Max Verstappen’s favourite track. Fortunately for him, his car loves it too.
Formula 1’s longest track also appropriately features the sport’s biggest mix of corners and widest range of demands. Fast, medium and slow-speed turns — the car has to be quick through all of them while also dealing with more than 100 metres of elevation change and the unpredictable weather.
Few cars are perfectly suited to facing the full mix of motorsport variables on a single lap, but Red Bull Racing’s RB19 is one of them.
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Fundamentally it’s because the car is aerodynamically super-efficient.
That means Red Bull Racing doesn’t have to compromise its set-up by choosing to be quick through the corners or fast down the long straights. It can pile on the downforce and still be a rocket ship in a straight line.
That indifference to the corner type led to an almost embarrassing 0.82-second margin over the field for Verstappen.
That’s not only the largest of the season behind the also-damp Canadian Grand Prix; it’s also comfortably bigger than his gap at this track last season.
The comparison to 2022 is important. Last year’s car was quick enough for Verstappen to win the race by 17 seconds after starting 14th with a power unit penalty.
This year he will serve only a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change.
It’s never wise to pre-empt a race result, but you get the feeling the other drivers don’t stand much of a chance this weekend.
And that’s drivers, not cars, because Sergio Pérez was more than a second slower in qualifying, all the difference coming from Verstappen’s confidence and heightened feel for grip through the twisty middle part of the lap.
Was third, up to second after penalties, a better result for Pérez in this season of shocking qualifying performances? If it wasn’t at a circuit that so strongly suited his car, you’d think there’d have been little chance of him having been close enough to inherit the front row.
Nonetheless, Pérez finds himself with a golden opportunity to snap his losing streak with a small head start on his teammate and alongside a Ferrari that will be capable of offering little resistance in the face of the RB19.
He might yet be able to make a fight out of the Belgian Grand Prix.
Ricciardo gears up for wet F1 return | 00:55
BATTLE FOR BEST OF THE REST
Those drivers who weren’t so lucky to be driving a car impervious to track layout and conditions had a much harder choice to make after the non-event of rained-out first practice before the qualifying hour.
Conventionally the decision is whether to load up on downforce to be quick in the second sector or trim the wings to be fast down the straights in the first and third splits — one or the other.
McLaren, having not been confident in its straight-line credentials all season, chose to lean into a high-downforce set-up. Ferrari, usually quick down the straights anyway, used skinnier wings.
Mercedes split its drivers, with Hamilton going the low-downforce route and Russell piling on the aerodynamic load.
On a dry weekend teams usually gravitate towards less downforce, leaving it up to the drivers to live with a more skittish car in the bends, but the weekend-long forecast for rain evidently made the higher-downforce route more appealing, at least for McLaren.
We saw the thinking behind that as qualifying dragged on. Oscar Piastri was the fastest driver in the still-damp conditions of Q2, but the track was drier by the time the final laps of Q3 rolled around, reducing the benefits of McLaren’s better tyre warm-up and higher downforce load.
The cars with lower loads were then better off for their final laps.
Piastri’s deficit to Leclerc blew out to as large as 0.7 seconds after the first sector before he clawed almost all of it back through the second split, but the Aussie had nothing left in the tank to combat the Ferrari in the fast final third of the lap, his gap settling at just under 0.4 seconds. The story was much the same relative to Hamilton, albeit by less of a margin.
Conversely, Piastri was faster than Verstappen through Les Combes, Bruxelles and the Fagnes-Campus-Stavelot series of corners.
That doesn’t mean McLaren necessarily made a mistake on set-up. George Russell, for example, was using the same high-downforce thinking and ended up eighth and 1.6 seconds off the pace. Some cars prefer to tackle this circuit in a certain way. McLaren thinks this is roughly what’s right to get the best from its car.
But it does suggest McLaren will be hoping the forecast for rain holds true to make the most of its set-up gamble. A fully dry grand prix would likely see it vulnerable to dropping to the lower reaches of the points.
Piastri opens up on life with McLaren | 05:38
NO WET-WEATHER RUNNING MEANS NO DATA FOR THE WEEKEND
But the most interesting part of Friday isn’t where every team landed in terms of set-up and speed. It’s the fact no-one knows what to expect in terms of race pace, either in the sprint or the grand prix, regardless of whether it’s wet or dry.
Rain lashed Spa-Francorchamps throughout the sole practice session on Friday. The deluge was so heavy that no driver completed more than nine laps and few strung more than two laps together.
Five drivers didn’t both to complete a timed lap at all, including Verstappen.
At best the teams might’ve better understood the crossover point between the intermediate and the wet tyres given the intensity of the rain varied throughout the hour.
Teams arrive at a track with their set-up practically confirmed by hours of simulator running, which means no car is likely to be miles away from what’s required. But tweaks are almost always implemented once rubber hits the road and real-life dynamics come into play, and drivers will also want to make tweaks to maximise their confidence in the car.
But this weekend teams have had to roll the dice and lock in a set-up with no worthwhile track time. The outcome of their decision-making will only become apparent in the sprint and the race.
These sorts of conditions normally make for thrilling grands prix given pit walls have to think on the fly, their predetermined plans often unravelling once the true picture emerges.
Mark Winterbottom seeking home town win | 00:48
TURMOIL AT ALPINE
The break between practice and qualifying was punctuated by the sudden announcement that Alpine will “part ways” with team principal Otmar Szafnauer and sporting director Alan Permane at the end of the weekend.
Chief technical officer Pat Fry is also leaving the team to join Williams in a similar role.
Szafnauer has been in the job for just 18 months but has been under pressure for the better part of a year, since the calamitous events of the 2022 mid-season that saw the team lose Fernando Alonso to Aston Martin and Oscar Piastri to McLaren.
Fourth in the constructors standings quelled dissent, but a poor start to this season led to a spectacular spray from CEO Laurent Rossi that put Szafnauer and the entire team back under the spotlight.
But clearly the fault lines ran far deeper than just a rift between CEO and principal.
In the last month Alpine has installed long-time engineer Bruno Famin into the motorsport vice-president role, which precipitated Rossi being extracted from the business and moved to ‘special projects’ in the parent Renault company.
Just one week after Rossi’s departure, the broom appears to have been swept through Enstone, with three high-profile leaders on the outer.
It was only last week Szafnauer said that Renault CEO Luca de Meo “will be true to his word” and give him until the end of the team’s much-talked-about 100-race plan to win the title in 2026. He now says he fundamentally disagrees with how quickly Alpine’s new management thinks success is possible.
Permane’s axing is arguably more surprising. The Briton has been at Enstone since the 1980s and is highly regarded in the sport, but evidently he’s been forced to wear the responsibility for the team’s poor execution this season.
“We were not on the same line on the time line to recover the level or to reach the level of performance we are aiming for,” caretaker team principal Famin said. “Mutually we agreed to split our ways, and that’s it.”
Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon qualified 12th and 15th respectively.
WHAT’S THE FORECAST?
Fears that the weekend might end in washout have been receding, but there’s still a lot of rain on the radar.
Saturday’s forecast is similar to that of Friday, with rain on the radar all day. Formula 1 got relatively lucky with the break in the weather to get qualifying done with only a 10-minute delay to the start of Q1; it can’t guarantee the same will happen for the shootout and the sprint.
Sunday’s forecast is more unsettled. Rain will be in the area but seems unlikely to be present for the whole day, which could mean a wet-dry race of fully variable conditions.
The undulating track drains and dries relatively quickly, so strategists will be kept on their toes until the chequered flag falls on race day.