Max Verstappen‘s frightening speed at the Belgian Grand Prix was unexpected, even to Red Bull as the team scored their fourth 1-2 of the 2022 Formula 1 season.
Verstappen took pole position by 0.632 seconds despite just doing one lap in Q3 and setting the car up for the race.
It’s not normal to think a driver starting from 14th is the favourite to win the Grand Prix, but that’s what the consensus was prior to the race and my word did Verstappen make it look easy.
His lead in the championship is 93 points to Sergio Perez and 98 to Charles Leclerc, that’s game over, but was this the high point of Red Bull‘s season or will the remaining eight events see something similar?
The perfect storm
Verstappen is great at every track, but Spa-Francorchamps generally brings the best out of him in terms of raw speed.
In 2016, he was just 0.149 seconds away from taking a shock pole position when Mercedes were at the height of their dominance.
Unfortunately, he had a very scrappy race and finished down the order after some poor driving.
Two retirements from the next three Belgian GP meant we were never able to see the true potential of Verstappen but we finally did this year, 12 months on after his great qualifying lap in the wet which is forgotten due to that non-event of a so-called race at in 2021. But back to the present and last weekend.
Verstappen revealed “the car felt good straight away” when he rolled out of the garage on Friday, enabling him to set the fastest time early in FP1, which he so often does.
It’s very rare for a driver to be happy with the handling of their car so Red Bull clearly got their simulator work spot on and the correlation from the wind tunnel onto the track with their upgrades is strong.
“I think the was certainly the fastest and especially Max was very impressive,” said Perez. “The whole weekend, especially come the race, he was just on another level.
“So that’s great, great to have, but I think it’s very track specific. I think when we are back to Zandvoort we will have Ferrari and Mercedes back into contention.”
Red Bull were able to use a medium-sized rear wing to be quick in the high-speed middle sector, relying on their power unit and low drag car philosophy to still be very competitive on the straights. That is a statement of dominance and there is very little other teams can do to combat it.
“This was our biggest ever achievement to date,” said team principal Christian Horner.
“We have never won a race from as far back as 14th and to take a 1-2 with Checo, along with fastest lap, is an outstanding achievement.
“It’s a fantastic win for Max and he has been in a class of his own on the track this weekend but it really is a team victory; for everyone here and all the team back in Milton Keynes.
“There is a lot of hard work that goes in behind the scenes that contributes to a performance like this and would also like to thank HRC for their contribution to this victory.”
Led by Adrian Newey, the RB18 is incredibly aerodynamically efficient which was also a key factor at Spa.
The freshness of Verstappen‘s brand new power unit also exacerbated his advantage so expect a much closer affair at the front in Zandvoort.
Will Ferrari and Mercedes be close enough?
Ferrari and Mercedes will be closer, there’s no question about that. But will they be able to bridge their deficit simply because of the track layout?
Leclerc will be able to go about his weekend as normal, running a traditional practice programme to build-up for qualifying where he shows his class.
The Ferrari rides kerbs very well and is mechanically strong so if there is any track where they will go well, it’s Zandvoort, and Singapore which is four weeks away.
We shouldn’t forget about the technical directive too, which saw new tests to regulate porpoising and flexi-floors.
If Ferrari are off the pace this weekend compared to Red Bull, we can conclude they have been affected by the technical directive which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season and 2023.
“We certainly need to take conclusions from this weekend and analyse why the lower downforce package was not as strong as the lower downforce package of Red Bull,” said Carlos Sainz after Spa.
“I think it’s also an inherent characteristic of each car. I think clearly in high downforce tracks we’ve been performing better than at the lower ones and it’s a tendency that we’ve seen all year.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Red Bull is a bit quicker in Monza, but we certainly want to be a lot closer and put on a fight, like it’s been in every track so far this year.
“Even Baku where there was lower downforce, we’ve managed to outqualify them and be ahead in the race until we faced some issues so I think we can learn from this weekend.
“We have two weeks to analyse with the Zandvoort weekend in between [Monza] where I’m hopeful that our package will be performing a lot better.”
As for Mercedes, Toto Wolff labelled his team’s qualifying performance in Spa as “unacceptable” which is the kind of harsh but fair comments which add to the spectacle of F1.
Lewis Hamilton was in disbelief when told by his engineer Peter Bonnington that he qualified 1.8 seconds behind Verstappen.
Race day was better for Mercedes, at least for George Russell, who had very good tyre degradation and was closing in on Sainz towards the end of the race.
Zandvoort is one of the least power-sensitive circuits on the F1 calendar which will play into Mercedes‘ hands.
The teams will use their high downforce rear wings at Zandvoort and a trend that the W13 seems to have is, the straight line speed performance is not too bad when they use bigger rear wings compared to their rivals.
Tyre temperature is also important for Mercedes as they really struggled in the cooler conditions at Spa, a major reason for their poor qualifying.
Warmer weather of around 23-25 degrees celcius is expected at Zandvoort this weekend, so not exactly hot, which is what Mercedes would want to fire the tyres up in qualifying which will be crucial.
The smooth surface will suit Mercedes too, as we saw at the Hungaroring when several parts of the Budapest track were re-tarmaced which helped Russell take that brilliant pole position.
“Belgium was a challenging weekend for us as a team, but those weekends are the ones that really fire you up and make you dig deeper,” said Wolff ahead of the Dutch GP.
“There were such big extremes across the weekend. From the pace differences on Saturday and Sunday, to the difficult first lap for Lewis and George’s late charge for a podium.
“We’ve been working hard to understand our Spa struggles and thankfully we don’t have long to wait until we can bring utilise and maximise those learnings.
“What will make the difference for the rest of this season is how quickly and effectively we can continue learning, to deliver our best performance this year and next.”
It would be a massive turnaround if Mercedes can jump from nearly two seconds behind Red Bull over one lap, to beating them seven days later.
This one should be a Red Bull vs Ferrari right, with a bit of Mercedes magic potentially seeing them right up there too for a six-way fight.