“Looks like we’re going to see two races,” said Christian Horner, referencing the fact that both Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc will be starting from at or near the back respectively at Spa after a raft of PU penalties.
“It’s going to be fascinating. Checo won’t be taking any penalties, we assume that Sainz and the Mercs won’t be. So we should be seeing those four guys at the front and the other two coming through the pack and seeing how far they can get.”
That neatly summarises the likely impact of the penalties, but how might each of those battles pan out based on what we saw on Friday?
Given the devastating pace advantage shown by Verstappen in FP2 (and when he was running at the same time as the Ferraris in FP1), he could conceivably be in with a realistic shout of victory even from the back… His single lap advantage over Leclerc was 0.812s which even around the very long lap of Spa is still a huge advantage (of about 0.8% in a season in which the Ferrari has never qualified more than 0.06% slower than the Red Bull).
The gap is over 10 times bigger, in other words, than Ferrari has ever qualified behind this season. But it’s only Verstappen showing such form. Sergio Perez in the other example was a long way off, though he did spend some time in the garage having a DRS problem attended to.
Verstappen and Red Bull definitely hit the ground running. “Yes,” he confirmed. “We really didn’t change the set-up of the car. It was working pretty well straight away. I was happy with it from the first run. For the long runs I would’ve liked to have run a bit more – but so would everyone else.”
That last point was a reference to the fact that no-one was more than three laps into their race sim runs when a rain shower arrived, which endured for the remainder of the session.
So all we really have to go on is that raw pace and how it was delivered. There’s a complication in the Red Bull-Ferrari comparison because Ferrari ran with a much lower downforce set-up in the second session. In FP1 the Baku wing was used but in FP2 a new Spa-specific super-low drag wing was utilised by both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.
It was this which was largely responsible for the 0.6s advantage Verstappen enjoyed over Leclerc in the downforce-demanding sector 2. The Ferrari was still quite quick through the corners of that sector but its direction change between them was not on the same planet as the Red Bulls.
But crucially, the Ferrari was not significantly quicker than the Red Bull in sectors 1 and 3 which are dominated by those long stretches of flat-out running. The Red Bull’s natural aero-efficiency seemed to be making it the perfect car for Spa – at least in these cool, damp conditions.
That’s the other complicating factor. Everyone except Verstappen and Lando Norris, Ferrari included, was struggling to get their tyres in the correct temperature window. At Mercedes, the problem was particularly dire. Norris’s third-fastest time – faster than both Mercs and splitting the Ferraris – is probably a reflection not just of his own prowess around here but also McLaren’s usual ability to switch on its tyres very effectively.
It’s a trait which always tends to flatter the car when conditions are generally too cold for the tyres. Daniel Ricciardo was 0.8s slower but that still put him ninth.
Conditions are expected to be warmer and drier for the rest of the weekend, which might be expected to help Ferrari and Mercedes claw back at least some of that deficit to Verstappen. But it would be no surprise if it knocked McLaren back a little.
Lance Stroll’s fourth-fastest time for Aston Martin was eye-catching and it will be interesting to see whether the car is just in a sweet spot of aero balance with Spa levels of downforce or flattered by fuel loads.
Ferrari’s back-to-back wing comparison will be part of understanding what the best choice will be for the grid-penalised Leclerc. The way Ferrari has played the component replacements should give him a useful head start over Verstappen but unless the conditions are more favourable to the Ferrari, that might not be enough.
So how might that pattern play out at the front? Can Perez get his car working as well as Verstappen? If so, he would be the logical favourite.
But if he continues to struggle, Sainz is surely favoured – assuming solid reliability and strategy calls. For Mercedes to be able to take winning advantage of this rare opportunity of both Verstappen and Leclerc starting so far back will require a much happier car than it had on Friday.
“We’re just not very quick,” said Hamilton. “I don’t really don’t know why. It could be tyre temps, the wing level. It doesn’t actually feel disastrous but we’ve got to figure out what we can do with it. It doesn’t feel like it did in qualifying at the last track but it feels a bit like it did there on the Friday. So that gives me hope.”
“We’re pretty used to having bad Fridays,” said Russell. “Let’s see if we can turn it around.”
Keyword: Mark Hughes: Verstappen pace suggests he can win despite penalty