Mercedes dominance continues, double stacking mayhem and (surprise!) the Honey Badger strikes!
Slight possibility of rain. Just think about it for a moment; arguably the most beautiful yet challenging venue on the F1 calendar, Spa-Francorchamps is notorious for its teeth-clenching, gut-wrenching flat out corners. Eau Rouge and turn 18 are two such. And thanks to the combined effort of the brilliant minds at Mercedes AMG and the balls of the team’s two stars, turn 12, or commonly known as Pouhon has been added to that list. All these in the wet? Would’ve made for an absolute spectacle on Sunday. But much to us viewer’s dismay, the rains never came. But a dreary race on Spa? Unlikely. Sure, on the outset, it looks the same. Mercedes continues strong, Red Bull close behind and Ferrari falling back further. But a closer look reveals so much more!
To compare the Silver/Black Arrows’ car to the others on the grid is, frankly, pointless. The W11 is in a league of its own; monstrous 1000+ HP in qualifying, combined with an extremely well balanced chassis that suits both its drivers, the team has built a car with such mechanical grip that the tyres have a hard time keeping up (case in point, Silverstone). I’m pretty sure if Mercedes AMG could design their own tyres, they would do a much better job than Pirelli, such is the team’s technical dominance. It seems that Lewis wasn’t happy with the lap record belonging to Ferrari (Sebastian had managed to set 1:41:50 in 2018) and this year, he wanted his record back. Breezing past the rest of the field, Mercedes AMG locked out the front row with Lewis setting a 1:41:25, with Valtteri 0.5s down on his teammate. In an emotional tribute, Lewis dedicated his pole position to Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman who had passed away the day before.
The Brackley based outfit is like a well-oiled machine, with a talented pit crew which is probably capable of double stacking in their sleep. Working the safety car to their favour, Merc managed to perform a double stack and hold on to the lead. Lewis led all 44 laps, probably something to do with his race number 44 while Valtteri ended his stint with 8s behind. But all was not rosy in car number 77. Some back and forth on the team radio showed that Valtteri wasn’t happy when he was told not to race against the leading sister car. Add to that tyre performance towards the end of the race looked bleak with both cars running at about 20% average life left. Yet, the team managed a dominant finish.
Mercedes’ flat out through Pouhon is especially exciting because rivals Red Bull only managed 86% throttle, so Max did have to lift up. And knowing Max, he wouldn’t have lifted if it was not absolutely possible. But both teams were lightyears away from Ferrari, with Charles LeClerc managing only 60% throttle through the same corner. This goes to show the SF1000’s mechanical grip (rather, lack of) and shows why the Scuderia, especially Sebastian Vettel is suffering this season.
Behind the two Mercs were ex-teammates Max and Daniel Riccardo. The Aussie surprised everyone with his practice pace and carried it to qualifying for a career best starting position at this track. Actually, the performance of Renault in general was extremely good, with Daniel’s teammate Esteban Ocon making it to the third row, right behind Alex Albon’s other Red Bull. The relatively low downforce track seemed to suit the yellow and black French cars quite well, which was evident with Daniel holding 4th position till the end and Ocon coming in 5th, making it the team’s best finish of the season. The final few laps saw Daniel pushing hard to close the gap to Verstappen down to 3.4s, securing the fastest time on the last lap. The team looks to replicate this pace in Monza, which is one of the least downforce tracks.
Looking back at the earlier races of the season, it was clear that Red Bull were experimenting tyre setups on Albon’s car and then taking a decision on Max’s car. This strategy meant Max was always clear to push onto the Mercedes cars but Albon was left to suffer, making it harder for him to fight back in traffic. Last weekend in Spa though was different. Both Red Bulls were on decent strategies, and the safety car was surely a boon. By the end, Max held on to 3rd while Albon dropped only one place, due to a daring last lap overtake by Ocon in the Renault.
Mclaren had a mixture of emotions on raceday. It started terribly with Carlos Sainz Jr not even able to start out due to an issue with his car’s exhaust, even after his best ever qualifying on this track with a P7. It seemed that bad luck was plaguing the man, who’ll drive for the red team from next year. Seeing Carlos looking at the appalling performance of the Scuderia on his screens and hanging his head in utter disappointment was just too much to watch. Here was a great driver, capable of getting on the podium, moving to a team that every driver wants to drive for. Future might be different for Ferrari, who knows. The sister Mclaren though, fared well. Part time F1 driver and full time gamer Lando Norris had only managed P10 during qualifying but pushed to P7 on Sunday.
The pink cars that looked so dominant during the opening races of the season disappointed with P8 and P9 on Saturday and finished just inside the points with Lance Stroll in P9 and Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez in P10.
Apart from Riccardo, the other driver who surprised everyone was Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly. Starting from behind his teammate Kvyat in P12, Gasly already gained 2 places by the end of lap 1 and in a battle with Sergio Perez in the Racing Point, overtook the Mexican going side by side through the toughest corner of the circuit, Eau Rouge. All this, while being the only driver on the hard compound, which meant he could pit much later than the others. Finishing eighth overall, Gasly’s brilliant drive saw him voted driver of the day while teammate Kvyat finished just out of the points in P11. In an emotional tribute, Gasly dedicated his race efforts to his childhood friend and Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert who was killed in a horrific crash on this track last year.
Lap 11 saw a slew of activity when Antonio Giovinazzi lost the rear of his Alfa Romeo C39 at the Fagnes chicane, shoving straight into the outside wall and losing a wheel in the process. That same wheel bounced into an unlucky Williams of George Russell and broke the Brit’s front right suspension, making him lose control and crash as well. Thankfully, both drivers walked away unscathed even though it left the track littered with expensive carbon debris. Safety car deployed, every team took this chance to pit their cars and what a sight that turned out to be! Double stacking upon double stacking, Mercedes pulled in their lead car 44 and Bottas together, while Red Bull narrowly lost out a chance to send out Max in P2 while even they double stacked. Ferrari disappointed even here when the crew wasn’t ready with tyres for Leclerc’s pit, making him wait for more than 10 seconds! Every team on the grid except Racing Point and Alpha Tauri changed to fresh tyres while Perez chose to stay out on the softs and Gasly on the hard compound.
While Giovinazzi’s crash made Alfa Romeo’s already dire chances of finishing better than P15 worse, Finn Kimi Raikkonen embarrassed their engine supplier Ferrari by passing his former teammate Vettel, coming home to a respectable 12th position, though not without drama. Coming into pits under the safety car, difference of opinion on tyres by the Alfa pit crew left an otherwise cool Kimi slightly frustrated.
Ferrari needs to make some changes and fast, with performance off in every passing race so far, and things looking worse for their home Grand Prix at Monza. Managing only P13 and P14 in qualifying, their race pace was lacking as well, with their strategies not helping at all. During the first pit stop, Leclerc was already made to stop for an eternity and in his second visit to the pits, the team had to top up pneumatic pressure, which meant another excruciatingly long stop. Adding to the fact that Vettel is uncomfortable with the car’s dynamics, the Scuderia ended the Belgian Grand Prix from where they started, in 13th and 14th, only bettering the remaining three running cars of Haas and Williams.
Now Ferrari has their work cut out with no real hopes of bettering their current pace. There are rumours that the Scuderia will be using a brand new engine for the next season, but nothing is confirmed yet. Whatever happens next year, this year looks all too familiar for Mercedes AMG, with wins and podiums in every single race. Red Bull finally looks to have caught up with the front runners but are yet to beat them, in spite of Merc's tyre woes at Silverstone earlier this year. With Racing Point's performance unexpectedly declining and Renault pushing into what seems to be a possible battle for 3rd, Mclaren hot on its heels. Gasly's performance in the inferior Red Bull outfit has been the talking point and he looks strong enough to challenge for points. If Mercedes wins at Monza, other teams need to be worried because the W11 will be unbeatable at both low and high downforce tracks.