Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global Global
Analysis
Formula 1 Belgian GP

The danger Verstappen faces alongside deja vu in his latest Spa fightback

Max Verstappen proved unbeatable in the wet Spa sprint at the Belgian Grand Prix, despite briefly losing the lead to Oscar Piastri. Starting from sixth in the grand prix due to a gearbox change, few would bet against him repeating his Spa 2022 victory heroics. But a lack of dry running this weekend, the threat of rain and some potentially potent rivals pose some danger to the Formula 1 world champion

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, kicks up sparks

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 correct choice in not stopping at the end of the five formation laps on the still-wet track as Piastri and co did.

If the Dutchman had come in and been forced to wait in his pitbox at the start of the pitlane, he would've lost more time than the 1.5-second deficit he faced to Piastri when he did get back out on the inters at the start of sprint's second tour. Chances are, though, he still would've raced back to win given his crushing form.

"I said already to the team [ahead of the sprint finally starting], 'I know we can pit straight away [but] it's very risky in case of having all the cars come in as well'," Verstappen said in the press conference afterwards.

"You'd have to hold your car. We just took the safer option to at least do one lap. Maybe there would be a safety car [on lap one] and you're lucky. There wasn't a safety car, so I knew I would lose out – because the extreme tyres are a lot slower around here than an inter."

Piastri noted that "we had the same risk as Max of potentially getting stuck with everyone coming in, but it worked out really well". Indeed, he led his first F1 race, albeit not a full grand prix affair. Not that that dims any assessment of Piastri either on this day or most others in his impressive rookie campaign.

McLaren's pitstop speed allowed Piastri to take the lead in the Saturday sprint ahead of Verstappen

McLaren's pitstop speed allowed Piastri to take the lead in the Saturday sprint ahead of Verstappen

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 versus Verstappen tussle played out after the safety car had been called back into action following Fernando Alonso's crash while chasing Nico Hulkenberg's Haas, which capped a miserable 42nd birthday for the Aston Martin driver. It was also a surprisingly poor rare mistake, given Alonso's otherwise excellent standards this year – bar his Barcelona Q1 off.

"I'm starting a bit further back. I need to be careful to not have any damage on the car. And as soon as I have a clean lap one, I think from there onwards we can move forward," Max Verstappen

Verstappen blew by Piastri the first time they ran down the Kemmel straight after the restart – the Red Bull so fast along the pit straight and blast from La Source to Eau Rouge that it caught the Australian slightly by surprise.

"I probably wasn't expecting him to catch me literally at the top of Eau Rouge after the safety car restart," Piastri explained. "But such is our straight-line speed."

But this surely hints at what is to come for McLaren and the rest in the grand prix today.

The RB19's aerodynamic efficiency, potent Honda engine, powerful DRS arrangement and its mechanical stability are just combined so brilliantly at Spa. Clearly, the most likely prediction for the planned 44-lap event will be another case of deja vu for Verstappen: a 2022-like rapid rise from a grid penalty.

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.

A gearbox change will force Verstappen into a recovery drive in the grand prix

A gearbox change will force Verstappen into a recovery drive in the grand prix

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Danger does nevertheless remain. Verstappen himself alluded to it later in the sprint press conference.

"Car was quick," he said of his race one long-run pace. "We knew already over one lap we were not bad, but in the race, it seemed like we were quite good on keeping the tyres alive.

"Hopefully, we can do the same [in the GP] if it's dry. I'm starting a bit further back. I need to be careful to not have any damage on the car. And as soon as I have a clean lap one, I think from there onwards we can move forwards."

Verstappen knows all too well how Spa races can be undone from starting in the pack. Back in 2016, his race was compromised by being squeezed with the Ferrari drivers (then Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen) at the first corner, while in 2019 he collided again with Raikkonen (by then at Sauber) and he ended up in the Eau Rouge barriers.

Assuming the main event stays dry (always unwise predicting the weather at Spa but with a rain-less race offering a very different challenge for all the teams and so very much worth considering), picking up damage either as the pack brakes as one for La Source represents rather hefty danger to Verstappen's chances of another Spa steamrollering of his rivals.

On the weather, however, some in the paddock are expecting further precipitation to arrive shortly before half-distance following the 3pm local starting time today. Car positioning, if it does come, could of course also hamper Verstappen's chances, even if he is already leading by that stage, as he was in 2022.

But back to the dry race assumption, the lack of such running so far this weekend leaves all the teams relying on their historical data for tyre performance at Spa, plus what they have learned about the 2023 compounds in the 11 other races so far this year and the two events completed since these were strengthened.

A lack of dry running at Spa this weekend could expose Red Bull to a rare slip-up

A lack of dry running at Spa this weekend could expose Red Bull to a rare slip-up

Photo by: Michael Potts / Motorsport Images

Pirelli reckons there is little to choose between a one-stopper or coming in again when it comes to tyre degradation. But this consideration next represents a minor danger to Verstappen, as Red Bull has made at least one mistake a season of late on its tyre calculations and so ended up with a shock defeat – think Turkey 2021 and Brazil 2022.

For the rest, McLaren represents Verstappen's first hurdle in Sunday's action – assuming (again) he gets through Turn 1 unscathed and between Piastri and Lando Norris in the other MCL60.

It has been suggested that McLaren has plumbed for a set-up that performs best in wet conditions this weekend, thanks to its big rear wing compared to the other frontrunning cars – particularly Ferrari.

But really, it is understood that if McLaren had tried to take downforce off with a skinnier rear wing, its still inefficient aero arrangement means the MCL60s would not have made up enough time in a straight line given the remaining drag. Plus, the orange car would've then risked losing the high-speed cornering potential it displayed so well at Silverstone.

"If it's wet, I think McLaren will be very happy and we won't be, so it depends. But let's wait and see because McLaren can be surprising sometimes. And maybe their choice was surprising, but quick for [the GP]" Charles Leclerc

Verstappen's pass on Piastri on Saturday indicates this is an easy early fight for the world champion. Next up in our theoretical thinking is Ferrari's Carlos Sainz, with team-mate Charles Leclerc on pole.

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.

"If it's dry, I'm really happy with my [downforce level, with a more meagre rear wing] and I think McLaren will be not so happy with theirs," Leclerc said after finishing fifth behind Sainz in the sprint.

Jumping the McLarens will be Verstappen's first hurdle on Sunday

Jumping the McLarens will be Verstappen's first hurdle on Sunday

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

"If it's wet, I think McLaren will be very happy and we won't be, so it depends. But let's wait and see because McLaren can be surprising sometimes. And maybe their choice was surprising but quick for [the GP]. Let's see."

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.

How Verstappen and Hamilton tackle dealing with each other here of course adds spice for the upcoming event, but the latter has gone for a different set-up choice compared to team-mate George Russell.

Hamilton has Mercedes' bigger rear wing, but Russell was nevertheless insisting after the sprint his smaller one could pay off in any conditions. In the dry, he reckons it could provide a particular aid on his W14.

"I'm hoping it'll be an advantage, I should have less tyre deg," Russel explained. "I decided to take that big wing because I thought it'd be a benefit for a wet qualifying and a benefit for a dry race. But so far, we've had dry qualifying and a wet race…"

Sergio Perez could well pose a threat to Verstappen on Sunday having found some lost form

Sergio Perez could well pose a threat to Verstappen on Sunday having found some lost form

Photo by: Michael Potts / Motorsport Images

Hamilton maybe having heavier tyre deg compared to Russell again boosts Verstappen's chances, but there's still a final hurdle to clear should he get by his 2021 title rival without contact.

And it might be the biggest danger yet to predictions of his inevitable victory. This is Sergio Perez starting on the front row of the grid after his improved showing in 'normal' qualifying on Friday night.

Perez only trailed Leclerc instead of the gaggle that has become typical for the Mexican since Miami. This caused him to quip "you will talk to me now?" when Red Bull team boss Christian Horner congratulated him on his efforts over the team radio post-Q3 chequered flag in that against-the-clock session.

Given he has the class of the field in the RB19, it should be predicted that Perez will be leading by the time Verstappen arrives in second

Perez suggested that the controversial and, in the opinion of this writer, overly harshly penalised contact with Hamilton that eventually forced his retirement in the sprint meant he "lost too much grip".

The inference there is that it was that downforce loss that was behind Perez's shocking loss of four places in six corners on Saturday, plus his trip into the Stavelot gravel.

Given he has the class of the field in the RB19, it should be predicted that Perez will be leading by the time Verstappen arrives in second. Perez really has not shown race-winning potential since his Baku victory but given his car's top-speed prowess, he should at least be able to put up a fight against his team-mate, even on a track where overtaking isn't difficult.

That's all the danger then. The rest, surely, is just the deja vu…

Can Verstappen repeat his charge through the field to victory, just as he did from 14th at Spa in 2022?

Can Verstappen repeat his charge through the field to victory, just as he did from 14th at Spa in 2022?

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Be part of Motorsport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Gasly: F1 podium a turning point for under-fire Alpine
Next article Pirelli agrees with drivers that F1 wet tyres are "useless" now

Top Comments

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global Global