The Belgian Grand Prix will bring down the curtain on the first half of the 2023 Formula 1 campaign with what promises to be a wet and wild weekend at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.
Drivers arrived at one of world motorsport’s most famous circuits kitted out in rain jackets and brandishing umbrellas, the heavens over the Ardennes Forest wide open — and forecast to remain wide open for the entire weekend.
It adds a slippery twist to the baked-in freneticism of the sport’s third sprint weekend of the season.
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Spa-Francorchamps is already one of the calendar’s more complicated tracks to nail set-up as a circuit of three distinct sectors that make equal demands of slow, medium and high-speed performance as well as good straight-line speed.
The three hours of practice have traditionally been a cat-and-mouse game of set-up, with teams trying to retain as much downforce as they can while maintaining a better top speed down the straights than their main rivals. Where a car would start Friday often changed significantly by Saturday.
But this year teams will get one roll of the dice.
Higher downforce will be preferred in the wet, but a team that gambles on lower drag will win big in any session that ends up dry or only damp — so long as a driver is confident in their ability to handle the conditions.
At a drivers circuit, these could be real driver conditions.
Will that change the form guide at the final round before the mid-season break?
WILL WE GET A FULL WEEKEND?
Rain in Belgium tends to trigger a variety of range of emotions. In recent years the overwhelming feeling is concern.
Spa-Francorchamps is a historic circuit that’s done much to improve safety, but in the last five years it’s claimed two lives — Anthoine Hubert in 2019 and Dilano van ’t Hoff earlier this month — and triggered several other large crashes, especially when wet and particularly at the top of the high-speed Eau Rouge-Raidillon.
It was enough for several drivers to call for changes to the iconic track.
“That corner needs to be looked at and changed because we’ve lost two young talents in the span of five years,” Lance Stroll said after Van ’t Hoff’s fatal crash. “It needs to be changed.
“Every time we go through there we put our lives on the line, and today we saw something bad happen and it’s not right.
“We discuss it but then it blows over, and it needs to be changed.”
PIT TALK: Max Verstappen claims Red Bull Racing‘s 12th consecutive victory, a new benchmark for dominance in Formula 1; McLaren gets another second place in a boost to the British team; and Daniel Ricciardo ticks some big boxes on an understated impressive first race back.
But while the high-speed layout is certainly part of the problem — Hubert’s fatal accident was in the dry — wet weather dramatically ratchets up the danger.
The top of the steep Eau Rouge-Raidillon is already practically blind. A driver has no visibility of a hazard ahead until a second or two before they’re on the scene.
Those few seconds are reduced to zero in Formula 1 because of the amount of spray generated by the modern downforce-ladened car.
“It’s really difficult to put into words what we are seeing [in the wet] apart from saying that we are seeing nothing,” Charles Leclerc said. “We are not exaggerating when we say we don’t see anything.
“We have quite a bit of downforce, there’s quite a lot of spray, and then this causes quite a lot of incidents just because we cannot react to what there is in front.”
Visibility rather than driveability is the reason the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix was called off with no racing laps completed — controversial for the way it was handled but correct on safety grounds.
So you can understand why there are serious questions being asked of how race control will approach this weekend given that there are two qualifying sessions and two races scheduled.
“When it is safe to start a race … is another topic for the FIA to look closely — especially on a weekend like this, where it seems we will have quite a lot of rain throughout the whole weekend — to not feel the pressure of starting a race just because we didn’t have any running,” Leclerc said. “We could be in that situation this weekend.
“Safety comes first, and this needs to be the priority.”
It would be difficult to imagine, given the context of recent years, that race control will do anything other than play it safe — which could mean suspensions, delays and even cancellations if the rain doesn’t ease.
Ricciardo 13th as Max wins 12 straight | 02:03
WILL McLAREN FINALLY BE CONVINCED OF ITS STEP FORWARD?
But if conditions are clear enough for qualifying and racing to go ahead, all eyes will be on McLaren, which on paper should perform strongly this weekend, a circuit with similar demands to Silverstone, where it was Red Bull Racing’s closest challenger.
The upgraded MCL60 has excellent high-speed cornering performance. The Hungaroring also taught us that it also does well at medium speed. Those corner types are the majority of Spa-Francorchamps.
The weather could also be a bonus. This season the car has excelled in cool and slippery conditions because of its ability to rapidly fire up the tyres. Think Monaco when the rain arrived, when both McLaren cars were for a time the fastest on the track bar none, or qualifying at the Spanish Grand Prix, where Lando Norris qualified third in the un-upgraded car.
A slippery circuit that on paper already plays to many of McLaren’s strengths could see it comfortably through to being the second-best car.
But team principal Andrea Stella has been keen to keep expectations in check.
“There is still work to do in low speed,” he said after the team’s second consecutive podium last week. “Even if Spa is normally mentioned as one of the higher speed tracks, in reality the highest speed corner, which is [Pouhon], is flat in qualifying,” he said, signifying that there was no time to be gained there.
“There’s a lot of lap time in [the La Source hairpin], which is 80kph, in [Bruxelles], which is 100kph, and in the last chicane, which is 90kph.
“I don’t want to repeat myself, but I go with some care, because in these three corners at the moment we see that we lose time.”
It’s true too that performance through La Source is decisive given the quality of your exit correlates with top speed down Kemmel — which can also mean it correlates with how well you’re able to defend position under DRS.
And it’s fair to say the new McLaren is yet to be tested at very slow speed. Zandvoort will be a tougher challenge than the Hungaroring, and Singapore will be its first street circuit.
McLaren might be wise to keep a low profile while the extent of its upgrade — and the work it still has to do — becomes perfectly clear. But it’ll be harder to argue the car isn’t among the frontrunning favourites with another good weekend.
Was Piastri undercut by his own team? | 00:50
WILL YUKI TSUNODA HIT BACK AT DANIEL RICCIARDO?
Daniel Ricciardo joked that there’d been so much interest in him in the last week that it felt like he’d won the world title rather than finished a fighting 13th in his first race for AlphaTauri.
Finishing in the same place he started was an understatedly strong result given he was last on the first lap after being punted off the road.
“Obviously I’m very results-driven, but I felt like I had done everything I needed to,” he said, per ESPN.
“In the end, whatever you call it — a bit of bad luck at turn 1 or whatever — it meant 13th. But I was still happy with everything that I put into the weekend.”
But more important was that he outqualified and outraced teammate Yuki Tsunoda, who will be the most important measuring stick of success in his 12-race comeback chance.
The same applies to Tsunoda, who both has a golden chance to burnish his reputation with a Ricciardo-beating or Ricciardo-matching performance but also risks career damage if he’s consistently shown the way.
The difficult conditions on the radar combined with the reduced practice time could give the Japanese driver a chance to use his better familiarity with the car to land a morale-boosting blow into the break.
“The last three races it’s been a little bit messy,” he said. “Sometimes I rush to overperform, to be into Q3, Q2, whatever, and sometimes mistakes started to happen more consistently.
“And I think Daniel gives more information and more places that I have to improve
“I just have to reset myself and try to focus on what I can do.”
Ricciardo buoyant after first race back | 01:18
A Tsunoda victory this weekend wouldn’t be disastrous for Ricciardo, who arguably outperformed expectations with his fast start on his first weekend back. He’s also signalled that the first races before the break would be almost like fact-finding missions before he starts putting all the pieces back together after having had time to digest everything he’s learnt.
“I know the sport well enough not to assume every time now I’m going to be quicker,” he said. “I know there is still going to be more for me to learn.”
But another good weekend would certainly set the tone ahead of the rest of the season.
CAN SERGIO PÉREZ BUST HIS WET-WEATHER DEMONS?
We’re yet to mention Max Verstappen, and that’s because the efficient and recently upgraded Red Bull Racing car should be comfortably the class of the field both at this track and in these conditions.
But that’s only the case in Verstappen’s hands. Sergio Pérez has been far from a guaranteed performer when conditions are less that perfect.
It’s something the Mexican spoke about in Hungary, having been knocked out in Q1 for the previous race in Britain, when qualifying was affected by sprinklings of rain.
“The deficit that I’ve been experiencing with the car in the last few races, whenever there is a change in condition, it tends to get wider,” he said, per Racer. “That’s been something that has caught us out.
“I think the last five races [before Hungary] really have been some change in conditions in qualifying. That has really put us on the back foot for it.”
He spent the weeks between Silverstone and Budapest working on solutions with his engineers, though he never had the chance to experiment in the rain given he crashed just three minutes into the eventually wet first practice session.
This weekend will be the acid test, with rain likely to affect the entire round but with the track’s microclimate setting meaning the quantity of rain will probably be greatly variable.
On his side is a strong Sunday in Hungary, where he collected his second podium in six races. If he can string it together this weekend, he might finally have banished his demons and silence some of the speculation about his seat.
Hungarian GP Full Race Highlights | 07:02
HOW CAN I WATCH IT?
The Belgian Grand Prix is live and ad-break free in racing on Kayo and Fox Sports.
Practice starts at 9:30pm (AEST) tonight ahead of qualifying for the grand prix at 1:00am.
Saturday track action starts with the sprint shootout at 8:00pm. The half-hour sprint race starts at 12:30am.
Pre-race coverage of the Belgian Grand Prix is from 9:30pm Sunday ahead of lights-out at 11:00pm.
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