The story at the front of the grid for the Belgian Grand Prix is as expected — Max Verstappen primed to attack two Mercedes cars on Sunday afternoon, but the real story of intrigue was further down the order.
Much further down, as it turned out, with Ferrari-powered cars going slower than every team bar the two Williams cars…
What a difference a year makes.
On a weekend when every other team improved on its 2019 qualifying lap at Spa-Francorchamps, Ferrari went 0.4s slower than 12 months ago. Softer tyre compounds this year gave the field a helping hand in going quicker and, for comparison, Mercedes and Red Bull both found 1.2s on their 2019 efforts. The tangible result of the lost time is that Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel will start 13th and 14th on Sunday’s grid when a year ago they were starting first and second.
Perhaps most depressing for Ferrari is that the result is barely a surprise. A lack of engine performance has been evident ever since the FIA investigated Ferrari’s power unit over the winter and as a result the car has been stripped of its single greatest asset from one year to the next. At some circuits it has been possible for Ferrari to mask that loss, but at Spa-Francorchamps it was laid bare.
On Friday the team pointed to difficulties getting the tyres working in the first two practice sessions, and while that is undoubtedly true, it’s still related.
The Ferrari is running a low-downforce rear wing at Spa to reduce drag and mask its lack of straight-line performance. But while that allowed semicompetitive first and final sectors, it just shifted the issue to the second sector where Leclerc was 1.2s slower than Hamilton and 0.8s off Verstappen as the Ferrari struggled for grip.
It’s easy to suggest Ferrari should just put more wing on the car to balance the problem, but that would leave it exposed on the straights in the race. Despite having a car stripped of downforce, both Ferraris were in the bottom half of the speed traps and the bottom five drivers in that list were all in Ferrari-powered cars.
Compared to other midfield teams also running low-drag setups, such as the Renaults and McLarens, Ferrari was giving away 6km/h-7km/h through the speed trap, which is a difference that would see it struggle to retain position on Sunday if it ends up in a battle at the end of the Kemmel Straight. Add any more downforce to the car to help in sector two and that straight-line speed deficit would get even bigger.
Vettel, who has not been afraid of sharing some home truths with the media since Ferrari ditched him for 2021 earlier this year, told it like it was.
“It is the true picture, it’s what the car can do around here today,” Vettel said. “Obviously we tried everything we can and a lot of effort going in from last night to today, trying to make things better.
“I think we did a little bit, but obviously we’re not where we want to be, but that’s not the first race and the first qualifying where that’s the case.”
Sunday is unlikely to be much better for Ferrari, especially if the forecast of rain hits the track ahead of the race. Low-downforce setups and wet circuits don’t mix, so it could get even worse on race day.
From Monza onward there will be a ban on qualifying-specific engine modes and there’s a chance that will help Ferrari balance its deficit to the front of the grid on Saturdays. But the underlying issue won’t go away this year as engine performance upgrades are outlawed, meaning Spa could be a low point but Ferrari is not going to return to the highs of 2019 any time soon.
Over to you, Max
Lewis Hamilton’s qualifying performance might have been dominant, but the gap between Mercedes and Red Bull still was smaller than it has been at recent races. That bodes well for a competitive race as Max Verstappen usually has been able to close the gap to the Mercedes drivers under race conditions.
Friday’s practice times suggest Mercedes had the pace to outgun Red Bull over a race distance, but a lot will depend on the run up to Les Combes Sunday. Mercedes is running a high-downforce setup, which should help tyre wear, but comes with extra drag and a lower top speed on Spa-Francorchamps long straights.
The run from the first corner, La Source, to the next braking zone, Les Combes, is just over two kilometres and it’s all uphill from Eau Rouge. Drivers exiting La Source behind the front-runners on the opening lap benefit from the slipstream of the cars in front and it’s not unusual to see cars four-wide by the time they reach the end of the Kemmel Straight.
Starting fourth on the grid, Daniel Ricciardo is the favourite to make things interesting on the opening lap as the Renault was particularly fast on the straights Saturday. Ricciardo’s teammate Esteban Ocon, who starts sixth, clocked the fastest time through the speed trap at 313km/h, which was roughly 7km/h faster than the Mercedes. That’s a significant difference in an F1 car and Mercedes is wary of the threat from behind.
“I think overall the qualifying result shows that we had the quickest car today over one lap and hopefully we can maintain that for the race,” Wolff said. “What you say is absolutely true, of course you’re quite vulnerable particularly on the straight into Turn 5 [Les Combes]. “Max is on pretty high downforce as well but maybe a little bit less than us but the really interesting car is Ricciardo who runs a low-downforce configuration where he has been far the quickest on the straight.
“I believe we could have a situation some years ago with Force India — a couple of cars will try to make into Turn 1 and that will then be interesting to see how it plays out with strategy.”
Mercedes remains the firm favourite but the order after the first five corners will determine how hard they have to work for it. Failing that, Spa-Francorchamps’ reliably unpredictable weather could also make for an interesting race.
Is Renault in the mix?
As Wolff’s quote alluded to, Renault was the surprise of the session.
Ricciardo quietly has been one of the best performers this year and before the final runs in Q3 he was third, behind the Mercedes drivers. Verstappen eventually knocked him down to fourth, which Ricciardo said prompted an amusing exchange with his teammate after parking their cars up.
“It was quite funny actually. I got out of the car in parc ferme and I looked over in his direction and he was already looking at me — he was waiting for my response, and we both gave each other a friendly middle finger. A little bit of banter!”
Ricciardo is unsure he can fight Verstappen in the grand prix, although feels Renault’s set-up and the nature of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit might make it interesting if he can get ahead at the start.
“[Max] and the two Mercedes have been for the most part in a league of the round on Sundays this year. So it’ll take something extra to hang with them tomorrow for the whole duration.
“But we do have a strong first and third sector, so if we could get ahead maybe it is a track that we could defend on. They are very strong in the second sector but it is tricky to overtake in the second sector, so I will certainly try to make life difficult for him and the Mercedes guys if that was somehow in reach.”
It’s refreshing to see Ricciardo back at the front end of the grid, as he rarely has been since leaving Red Bull for Renault at the start of next season. The Australian said starting so close to the front felt like he was back to where he belongs.
“Seeing the pole sitter in arm’s reach is much more exciting. And it is also where I believe I can and should be.
“There is more to fight for. Points as well are important. The deeper you get up front the more points you can take away from the weekend. So it’s all of it. Starting fourth I have a diagonal view of the pole sitter, so to see that already and to know that I am right there in arm’s reach, if I had any problems getting out of bed, qualifying upfront certainly helps that.
Flashing a grin, he added: “And you normally are on TV more, so that’s cool!”
Racing for Anthoine
This is the first visit to Spa-Francorchamps for F1 and its support series since last year, when F2’s Anthoine Hubert was killed in a collision with Juan Manuel Correa. It has clearly been an emotional return for a lot of drivers, especially the likes of Pierre Gasly, Charles Leclerc and Esteban Ocon, who raced with Hubert through the junior ranks.
Ahead of this weekend’s race, F2 confirmed it has permanently retired the No. 19 Hubert raced with last year. Hubert was remembered in a minute of silence ahead of the F2 race, which preceded qualifying. It’s the same event that featured his fatal accident in 2019, with Correa in attendance and 17 F1 drivers drivers — Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen were absent as they completed media duties as the top three qualifiers.
A similar minute of silence will be held before the start of the F1 race on Sunday.