There is a sense of trepidation heading into the 2023 Belgian Grand Prix just four weeks on from the death of Formula Regional driver Danilo van ‘t Hoff at Spa-Francorchamps in wet conditions.
Rain is forecast throughout the Sprint weekend with wet weather almost certain for qualifying on Friday, plus the Sprint Shootout and Sprint Race on Saturday. The drivers are relying on race director Niels Wittich to make the right decisions but there is definitely an eerie nature in the paddock.
Max Verstappen leads the Formula 1 drivers’ championship by 110 points from teammate Sergio Perez and is looking for an eighth consecutive victory to put him just one win away from equalling Sebastian Vettel‘s nine straight triumphs in 2013.
It’s a remarkable effort, even if Red Bull clearly have the best car, because one mistake from team or driver can throw the win away. Verstappen is driving with confidence and he’s sensational in the rain too.
Is Spa-Francorchamps too dangerous?
It’s a topic which seemed to divide the paddock on Thursday ahead of the Belgian GP with some drivers putting the blame more on the wider cars and bigger tyres for causing more spray, while other suggested Spa should be changed.
Verstappen won the controversial 2021 Belgian GP, which is officially the shortest ever F1 race at just 6.88km long, as half points were awarded.
The Dutchman says race control should know from the safety car crew’s feedback about whether conditions are safe enough.
“Honestly, I don’t think it’s really track related,” said Verstappen. “You have dangerous corners, yes, and in the wet there’s always more risk, but I think everyone is competent enough to make the right calls. If you can drive, you can drive, and if it’s too wet, it’s too wet.
“Accidents happen unfortunately, and when you look back at the one that happened, it was just extremely unfortunate the way it happened.
“But the visibility is going to be bad anyway, otherwise we cannot have any rain races any more. It’s bad, but it has been bad for a very long time, so I don’t think there is a lot at the moment that we can do about it.”
In 2019, Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert died in a multi-car collision at Raidillon in dry conditions. Charles Leclerc was good friends with Hubert and is among those who think Spa needs to change.
“First of all, it’s the walls in the straights after Eau Rouge, we should have a bit more space on the left and right,” explained Leclerc.
“If you lose control of the car, I think the way it is done at the moment, you are bouncing on the walls, and you have very high chances of finding yourself in the way again, and I think this is probably a change that we should consider in the future.
“Then to change the layout of Eau Rouge, by example, I think we find ourselves in the season in those particular conditions being fast in a straight, that’s basically everywhere. I think that’s going to be difficult to do anything else, other than that.
“You can always change the layout but I don’t think it’s fair to say that this is what should be done. Then the two biggest problems after that is visibility. Visibility is… it’s really difficult to put into words what we are seeing, apart from saying that we are seeing nothing.
“But we are not exaggerating, when we say we don’t see anything: we really don’t see anything when it’s raining. And this is a really big problem for Formula 1, for motor sport in general, any single-seaters.
“Now, 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. So easy to say that, much more difficult to find a solution for that.
“But I know that the FIA is on it, and is obviously trying to do the best on that. And then, the last thing is when is it safe to start a race, and this is another topic for the FIA to look closely, especially on a weekend like this, where 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.
“We could be in that situation this weekend. But at the end, obvious to say, but safety comes first. This needs to be the priority and people, and first of all, us drivers, we shouldn’t complain if we don’t have any laps because it is not safe to do so, with everything that has happened.”
F1 needs wet racing
Some of F1’s most memorable moments and standout performances have come in the rain – think Ayrton Senna‘s breakthrough for Toleman at the 1984 Monaco GP, Michael Schumacher at the 1996 Spanish GP, Lewis Hamilton at the 2008 British GP or Verstappen at the 2016 Brazilian GP.
Since the wider cars were introduced in 2017, there have been less of those wow drivers in the pouring rain, with drivers switching to intermediates as soon as possible as race control generally err on the side of caution. Expect that conservative approach this weekend at Spa, not just in F1 but in F2 and Formula 3.
Safety comes first, but everyone loves to see the drivers earn their money by dancing the car around in the wet and feeling the grip through their body. It shows supreme skill.
Perez may not enjoy the rain, given his struggles in mixed or wet qualifying conditions in Spain, Canada and Austria, while there’s a chance for someone to cause a surprise like George Russell did for Williams in 2021 by qualifying on the front row.
The smaller teams may gamble by running a big rear wing to give themselves more downforce in the rain, but this will make them vulnerable on the straights if Sunday’s race is dry.
This decision alone can swing the performance massively and because it’s a Sprint weekend, parc ferme begins after the one and only practice session, so there is a lot of jeopardy here. If Red Bull get it wrong, their winning streak could come under threat.
Can McLaren make it three podiums in a row?
McLaren can continue their resurgence at Spa and could even be considered favourites for a podium spot behind.
Why not? Perez isn’t a natural in the wet, neither Ferrari nor Aston Martin have brought upgrades to the race so they are really fighting Mercedes who are bringing upgrades to Belgium.
You can’t analyse what you can’t see but certainly based on the form of the last three races McLaren would be favoured ahead of Mercedes in Spa so it all depends on whether the latest upgrade from Brackley can have a similar impact to the Monaco developments.
Lando Norris is one of the best wet drivers in F1, he can just make the car come alive under him and he should be relishing the weather forecasts this weekend. The sight of him piloting his way through a downpour, his papaya machine lighting up the dull grey around it, is a something to behold. And don’t forget, he was quickest on the drying track of Q1 in Silverstone.
Despite crashing in qualifying for the Canadian GP, Oscar Piastri has shown he’s adept in the wet too and is due his first podium in F1 after two near misses in Britain and Hungary.
The number of high and medium-speed corners around Spa should play to McLaren’s strengths and they’ve shown over the last two weekends that they don’t have too many weaknesses, though Norris was at pains to play down expectations once again.
“But it’s still clear that we’ve got some weaknesses and those weaknesses are going to show in certain places,” Norris told the media.
“Even in Spa, we’re going to struggle in certain places even more, like Turn 1 – I’m already scared of Turn 1.
“There are many other things which are obviously very positive and if we’re still here and under a tenth off pole position, I’m happy. The team are doing a great job. I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made.”
More upgrades for Mercedes
As hinted above, Mercedes should be the other team battling McLaren behind Verstappen. Much of their success, or otherwise, will depend on whether they can get their upgrades dialled in quickly.
With new sidepods on the W14, the bad news for Mercedes is the limited practice time – just one session that’s in danger of being washed out on Friday morning. However, they can take heart for their previous form for upgrades.
After bringing major upgrades to the Monaco GP, after Mercedes had scored just one podium all season, the team then made four trips to the rostrum in the next four races and now look firmly ensconced on second place in the F1 constructors’ championship.
Team principal Toto Wolff has urged caution ahead of the weekend and avoided inflating optimism too much, but he’s also got two of F1’s premier rainmasters at his disposal – there’s not too many better than Hamilton or Russell in a downpour.
“We will be bringing updates this weekend as part of our ongoing development programme,” Wolff said. “We hope this will be another small step forward in improving the W14.
“As we have seen at many races this year though, it is hard to predict where we will be relative to our competitors. Wherever the true pace of our car is here, we want to maximise the outcome in this final race before the summer shutdown.”