Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps revealed a few key insights about how the second part of the 2022 Formula One season will unfold.
First, after Russell’s impressive first pole position in Hungary, where he secured the fastest qualifying time despite no purple (fastest) sectors, which was followed by a double podium finish for Mercedes on Sunday, it was believed the team was closing the pace gap to Ferrari and Red Bull and could possibly challenge for a win in Belgium given all of the engine penalties. But the Silver Arrows were 1.8 seconds clear of Verstappen in qualifying, suggesting the Mercs are going in the opposite direction.
Would Ferrari address its strategy challenges? Let’s just say it will take more than a summer break to work out this structural weakness. The team fitted the wrong tires to Leclerc’s car in qualifying, as he was taking an engine penalty and was only out there to give Sainz a pull. During the race, Leclerc and his race engineer openly discussed strategy on team radio, posing the question to Leclerc about which tire he wanted for the final stint in pursuit of a P5 finish. Essentially admitting it was six to one, half-dozen to the other. Actually, this is progress, as the team needs to factor more real-time driver feedback into the strategy decisions. It’s just a clumsy way to go about it.
Congrats to Alex Albon, Jost Capito and the Williams team on a Q3 appearance and 10th place points finish. This was perhaps the most surprising development. Williams went with an extreme low-drag, low-downforce setup for the high-speed track at Spa, and it paid off. The race finished with Albon leading a DRS train with Aston Martin, McLaren, AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo chasing but unable to pass. The Williams setup seemed to have a default DRS for the entire lap.
Unfortunately, Latifi spun on lap two, which forced Bottas to beach his car in the gravel and abandon the race. Let’s hope Williams and Riccardo work out a deal to put him in Latifi’s seat for 2023, as the Canadian consistently has a net-negative impact on races (and entire series) with his mistakes. Furthermore, Danny Ric could be an ideal fit for a Williams team that is showing potential to challenge in the midfield.
With a one-two finish at Spa, Red Bull is now poised to win both the driver’s and constructor’s championships. The big question: can Mercedes overtake Ferrari for second place? With eight races left, Mercedes has a 59-point delta. This was not helped by Hamilton’s first-lap retirement after getting too aggressive with Alonso. Russell salvaged the race with a 4th-place finish ahead of Leclerc and maintains his “Mr. Consistency” record of finishing top-five in every race he’s finished in 2022. So the Ferrari-Mercedes battle will be the one to watch through the end of the season. Can Ferrari get out of its own way? Can Mercedes find more pace? Can each team manage the porpoising, which reemerged at Spa? Those are the key questions.
Some of the best news out of the weekend was that Spa will remain on the F1 calendar for 2023. There’s just nothing else like this track and its signature Eau Rouge series of non-corners, which are taken flat out at 185mph. Every F1 fan should experience this in simulators and/or video games. In order to take it flat out, you have to position the car precisely at the apex of each bend, where the final apex is blind as you come over the top of the hill. The steering-wheel inputs are incredibly subtle and precise. Otherwise you’ll have to lift or else lose the rear end. And you definitely don’t want to lift.
This is a new Formula One race analysis series. My coverage of the sport started in 2018 with a piece on How to Become a Fan of Formula One. This was before the Drive to Survive series on Netflix made the sport much more accessible to American audiences. However, I still maintain you have to understand the incredible and often tragic history of the sport and to drive a car on track to truly appreciate the sport and athleticism of Formula One. I covered the 2018 United States Grand Prix, which proved to be the best race of that season, and more recently interviewed George Russell in his final year at Williams. Finally, I was in Finland recently to ride gravel bikes with Valtteri Bottas, and that interview is forthcoming.