The Freak Show of Formula 1

Belgian GP: Your Pre-Race Briefing

Picture Credit: F1.com

A new driver on the grid, engine upgrades and a huge turnout of Max Verstappen fans – this year’s race at Spa is going to be even more interesting than usual. Find out here who did the best job in the sessions leading up to the race.

FP1

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Fresh from the mandatory summer break, Mercedes was looking superbly strong. There would be no direct battle between Rosberg and Hamilton this time – Hamilton swapped in three new, improved power units and would start the race from the very back, no matter what time he’d set in Qualifying. Therefore, his preparation was focused on long runs performance. His quickest lap was seven tenths slower than what Rosberg did but he still narrowly beat Kimi Räikkönen.

Spa being a power track, the Mercedes customers were expecting a solid points haul. Force India in particular was sublime from the beginning and established itself as the fourth best team. Who knows, maybe with a bit of luck and strategy wisdom a podium might be in reach.

McLaren meanwhile had a slow start: Alonso’s engine, also a brand new and improved unit, suffered a water leak and had to be completely taken out of the car to be replaced. He didn’t set a lap time in FP1. Jenson Button did do some laps but placed only 18th overall.

Even Mercedes protégée Esteban Ocon was quicker in his first outing with the Manor. He even outpaced Wehrlein who was quick to explain that their programs were totally different and a comparison would be worth nothing. Ocon is talented and quick, so quick that both Mercedes and Renault are investing into his career. Beating him is just the accomplishment Wehrlein needs to move up to a bigger team and to Mercedes once Hamilton and Rosberg leave.

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Some testing was done by the teams in FP1: Pirelli brought out prototype, unmarked tires for the teams to try, and the head protection system Halo was run for the first time by someone else than Red Bull and Ferrari. Rosberg actually had it on while setting the quickest time of the session, proving that it’s not as obtrusive as it seems.

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FP2

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The next practice session was to be decisive. Europe is blessed by great weather currently, and even Spa, usually known for mist and rain, is all sunny. Air temperature is going to be at around 85° all weekend, track temperature easily tops 100°. That’s a huge issue for anyone running Super Soft tires and having ordered too many of those – it just can’t handle the load and the heat for very long, and the damage is massive after a few laps even when a driver is nursing his car around the corners.

Ferrari was the best example for just that. The SF16-H was twitchy and not very confidence inspiring for both drivers on the Super Soft. How this tire would work at the beginning of the race with the car at peak weight is beyond me.

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Red Bull did a far better job and is making great use of the tire friendly chassis they designed. Verstappen set the quickest time, much to the delight of thousands of dutch fans that made the quick trip over to Belgium. Ricciardo was slightly behind, and both their long runs were impressively consistent. Nico Hülkenberg took third, underlining a strong Force India performance this weekend.

Hamilton and Rosberg held back and were 13th and 6th respectively. The Mercedes has issues with the Super Soft tire: it overheats right away and is marginally quicker than the Soft while lasting a handful of laps. The Soft tire looks to be the racing tire of choice, with maybe a quick Super Soft stint at the end.

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Qualifying

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Hamilton, now with the third power unit in the car, did the absolute minimum: His one timed lap placed him second to last – only Alonso with no timed lap did worse. His working day ended before Q1 was over and he was free to think about a strategy to move through the field from P22 tomorrow.

As Alonso and Hamilton were out of contention, the lesser teams had better chances of moving into Q2. One driver who made the most out of it was Pascal Wehrlein. He went 9th fastest (!) in the Manor (!!), outpacing Ocon, who ended up 18th, by well over half a second. Both Sauber and Kvyat also were just not quick enough for the next round of Qualifying.

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In Q2, Wehrlein’s run ended – he was out of fresh Super Soft tires and had to make due with a used set. Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso, massively down on power with the old Ferrari engine, Haas and Renault were ahead but also didn’t make it through the top 10. That left the remaining Mercedes and McLaren participating in Q3 as well as both Williams, Red Bull, Force India and Ferrari.

The last shootout was a tight one. The gap between Rosberg and Verstappen was melting down: Rosberg was ahead 0.149 seconds after the first run. As the time ticked away, a look at the sector times revealed that both couldn’t improve on their second tries – the front row was locked in, Rosberg in front of Verstappen.

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Daniel Ricciardo won the Grand Prix two years ago but this year was no match to Verstappen. He at first occupied third position but then was overtaken by Räikkönen and Vettel. Remarkably, Kimi was consistently better than Seb and almost caught Verstappen. It’s an all read second row tomorrow, which is better than many expected ahead of the weekend.

Force India won the duel of Mercedes customers quite clearly against Williams. Bottas did a solid job but Hülkenberg and Perez could always go a bit quicker. Meanwhile Felipe Massa delivered a performance that makes his F1 future questionable: after getting a tow behind Bottas and Button on the long Kemmel straight following Eau Rouge, he locked up in a few corners and threw that advantage away. Even Button with the feeble Honda engine was quicker in the end.

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Picture Credit: F1.com

Overall, a predictable qualifying session, but the implications for the race are fantastic: Verstappen is starting on the Super Soft while the Ferraris, Ricciardo and Rosberg are on the Soft tire. It’s going to be Verstappen’s advantage for about 5 laps, but he’ll have to be extra careful and stop somewhat earlier. Meanwhile Hamilton will have to cut through the field quick enough while being easy on tires to profit from a Safety Car or other unpredictable developments. With Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull being relatively close, any of the first 5 drivers is a possible winner tomorrow.

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