Belgian Grand Prix conclusions: Verstappen’s radio wars, Piastri’s arrival and more

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen celebrates another win at Belgian Grand Prix

Belgian Grand Prix: Max Verstappen wins eight in a row

Reigning World Champion Max Verstappen claimed his eighth straight F1 2023 victory in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa.

The Red Bull driver overcame a five-place grid penalty to win by more than 22 seconds, with team-mate Sergio Perez second and Charles Leclerc securing Ferrari’s third podium finish of the season with P3.

As F1’s summer break begins, here are our conclusions from Belgium…

Race engineers are central to the success of drivers like Max Verstappen

In a sport as technological as F1, the trusted voices over team radio provide a welcome human touch.

A race engineer is not just a race engineer – doing whatever it is that race engineers do – but a friend, a parent, a teacher, a psychologist.

And, every so often, a human punchbag too.

Verstappen may have taken his eighth and Red Bull’s 13th victory in succession at Spa, but his latest triumph will not be remembered so much for overcoming a grid penalty to win by a massive margin – been there, done that, got the t-shirt last year – as his entertaining, insightful and weekend-long back and forth with Gianpiero Lambiase.

It began shortly after a scare in Q2, Verstappen only just squeezing into the top-10 shootout and preventing his five-place penalty from being even more damaging (or slightly less irrelevant, as it turned out), and continued throughout the grand prix with debates over tyre management and the weather.

Some will inevitably see Max’s combustibility and cockiness as a lingering character flaw, yet Lambiase is sensible enough – and has been working with him for long enough now – to avoid taking the hot air to heart, and indeed often gives as good as he gets.

Fun and witty when he can be, firm and uncompromising when he needs to be, Lambiase’s relationship with Verstappen reveals the importance of a driver working with someone who understands them from top to bottom.

Often you are left with the impression that whenever they sit down for a Red Bull debrief, all it takes is a single glance for one to instantly know exactly what the other is thinking.

These people, these familiar voices, are central to their drivers’ success.

Oscar Piastri is the most exciting rookie since Max Verstappen

This coming Wednesday will mark a full year since Oscar Piastri first marked himself out, at least to an F1-centric audience, as someone a little different.

In the aftershocks of Fernando Alonso’s sudden move to Aston Martin, Piastri moved F1’s tectonic plates even more by publicly rejecting the Alpine seat he had already been announced in to take up an opportunity with McLaren.

An act of such boldness before he had even started his first grand prix was an early sign that this, as a celebrated football coach once famously described himself, was “a special one” – not satisfied with a Formula 1 seat, but ruthlessly positioning himself to ensure he got the right seat.

In hindsight, there was already a touch of Verstappen about Piastri even then.

During Verstappen’s rise through the junior ranks, his father Jos refused to pledge allegiance to any F1 driver academy in order to retain full control over Max’s future. And even when they eventually did sign with Red Bull in 2014, the deal was arranged in such a fashion to give the Verstappens an inordinate amount of power for a Red Bull junior.

Piastri and his manager Mark Webber, meanwhile, may have benefited from the funding and guidance of Alpine/Renault in Oscar’s early years, but that exceptionally rare mark – the youngster’s talent alone so vast as to keep him the master of his own destiny, making a team in thrall to him rather than the other way round – was also there.

And as the McLaren has improved over recent weeks, so it has proved that the parallels with Verstappen do not end there. That skill, that certainty, that stillness – call it a Max-like Red Bullness – is alive in him too.

The conditions at Spa across the weekend were similar to those in which Verstappen himself made his first serious splashes in F1 – qualifying an unfancied Toro Rosso sixth in just his second appearance at Malaysia 2015, for instance, in the breakthrough performance that time forgot in light of Barcelona/Brazil 2016.

On a damp-but-drying track in Friday qualifying, the sprint shootout and the sprint race itself, Piastri’s natural touch and feel for a racing car stood out in the same way Verstappen’s did then as others – including McLaren team-mate Lando Norris, himself one of the standout drivers of the last three years – were drawn into mistakes.

And when Verstappen overtook Piastri to retake the lead of the sprint race before taking his latest inevitable victory, it almost felt as though the reigning World Champion was pulling past a younger version of himself.

Not this time, Oscar – just as it wasn’t his time when he missed out on sprint pole to Verstappen by just 0.011s, just as it wasn’t his time when an ill-timed Safety Car denied him a maiden podium at Silverstone three weeks ago – yet surely it will not be long before he and Max meet again.

Sorry Charles, sorry Lando, sorry George: this is the most exciting talent to arrive in this sport since Verstappen.

A year on from the Piastri saga, now the whole world knows why a driver yet to make his debut created such a huge fuss.

Mercedes’ slipping standards just as worrying as the underperforming car

There was a time not too long ago when Mercedes were regarded not only as one of the greatest teams in F1, but in the entire history of sport.

As the grand prix victories and World Championships continued to roll in season after season, it seemed as if Mercedes had made a point of learning from the mistakes of F1’s previous dominant teams.

Whereas Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull allowed themselves to be disorientated and destabilised by changes to the regulations over the years, Mercedes overcame a range of rule tweaks – the arrival of extreme-downforce cars in 2017, the front wing and floor changes of 2019 and 2021 respectively – to emerge with their position not only consolidated, but often strengthened.

There was no better reflection than that of the team – meticulous, diligent, organised, prepared and all the rest of the management-speak buzzwords – constructed in the modern, emotionally intelligent image of Toto Wolff.

Where did it all go wrong?

Mercedes, as we know, have not been in a position to win races on a regular basis for the last 18 months now, but maybe that itself is revealing and symptomatic of a significant change in the team, their attitude and culture.

Peter Windsor, the former title-winning Williams team manager, tells a story of legendary Lotus engineer Peter Wright emailing Mercedes’ James Allison over the winter of 2021/22 to wish him luck with porpoising ahead of the arrival of the new ground effect cars.

When months later Lewis Hamilton and George Russell took to the track in the bouncing monster, setting the tone for a season blighted by bouncing, a confused Wright could only conclude that nobody in Brackley had bothered to check their messages… recommends

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Mercedes’ inability to get it right with the car even after it finally sprouted sidepods in Monaco is one thing, but the increasingly shambolic management of the team’s race weekends, particularly in qualifying, is quite another.

The two near-misses in a matter of seconds between Hamilton and Russell in the Spa sprint shootout came less than two months after they collided at speed on the pit straight in Q2 in Barcelona – both the sort of incidents you might half-expect from a midfield team in a constant state of chaos (think Alpine or Haas) but not from the winners of eight consecutive Constructors’ Championships.

The W14 may not be exactly to the drivers’ liking, but it is far better than Mercedes’ record of seven early qualifying exits – two for Hamilton, five for Russell – in the 15 sessions (including sprint shootouts) held so far in 2023 so far would suggest.

After Hamilton was sent out into traffic in Q2 back in Miami, Russell was furious after getting the same treatment in Q1 in Hungary and, seven days later, the close calls in the sprint shootout at Spa pushed him over the edge.

“That was a sh*tshow from start to finish,” he commented over team radio. It was hard to disagree.

Mercedes’ slipping standards have become as big a concern as the underperforming car.

A reassuring result for Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin

Alonso has been so relentlessly complimentary about all things Aston Martin – and, for that matter, all things Lance Stroll – over team radio in 2023 that it is difficult to tell with a driver whose every utterance tends to be laced with a hidden message or two.

Yet was a radio call delivered in the closing stages at Spa quite as sincere as it sounded upon the first listen?

“Good job, thank you guys,” Alonso messaged after his final pit stop, which though achieving its primary aim of keeping him ahead of Russell in the fight for fifth kept him stationary for 3.3 seconds in total and reduced his lead over the Mercedes with 15 laps still to run.

Good job? Curious thing to say about such a slow stop by today’s blink-and-you-miss-it standards.

If Alonso’s intention was to keep the team focused on the positives – every possible positive they can cling to – after a difficult run of races, emerging from a challenging weekend with fifth should be enough to keep spirits up over the summer break.

Having told everyone who would listen that wins in Monaco, Hungary and Singapore were feasible in the midst of his flurry of podium finishes at the start of the season, Alonso would have been alarmed to have been so anonymous in Budapest last weekend.

A week later, in the more unflattering surroundings of Spa with its long straights and high-speed corners, the team’s season was at risk of sinking to a new low for much of the weekend.

After both cars were rooted to the bottom of the Q3 times in Friday qualifying, Stroll effectively took Alonso out of Saturday morning’s sprint shootout before his team-mate had even recorded a lap time in SQ2, the pit wall’s decision to trust Lance as the first car on mediums (imposed by regulation) on a drying track on the border between brave, stupid and a little desperate.

Then, in the sprint race itself, came that rare collector’s item as Alonso spun off into retirement all on his own in the wet at Pouhon.

In that context, a battling fifth place on Sunday – with Stroll doing what he does to take ninth – is a reassuring result to end the first half of the season.

It has often been said that Aston Martin, with a new state-of-the-art factory only just open for business and a works Honda power unit to come in 2026, is very much a long-term project, but that doesn’t make them immune to the frustrations of today.

Even if their steady decline from such a strong start to 2023 continues across the final 10 races and they eventually fade into obscurity, it will be key for Aston Martin to hold it together and avoid wasting the hard work that put them in this position going forward.

With Alonso on their side, there’s always a possibility that magic will happen.

Alpine are going nowhere fast

The dead men were walking and wearing Alpine team kit at the Belgian Grand Prix after the team announced on Friday that team principal Otmar Szafnauer and sporting director Alan Permane would leave their roles after the race.

It was an outrageous way to treat two respected F1 people – particularly in the case of Permane, who had spent all his working life at Enstone having first joined the team back when they were called Benetton in 1989 and will not be short of offers to return to the paddock.

Why announce it there and then? In such a humiliating manner? With a full race weekend to carry out in the full glare of the public?

Could it be, as some speculated, that the new regime at Alpine wanted to be seen to be taking decisive action? It is a working theory that gets to the heart of everything wrong with Alpine/Renault since the manufacturer returned to F1 at the end of 2015.

For this lacklustre operation, being seen to be doing something has become more valuable than the actual doing itself.

From Ocon’s victory in Hungary two years ago to Pierre Gasly’s gritty third place in the sprint here, the drivers are only ever papering over the cracks at Alpine.

After all, this race – this latest shedding of their skin – comes at a time when the team are pushing hard for an equalisation of engine performance with the Renault powertrain still “significantly down” compared to their rivals, according to Szafnauer, almost a decade into the V6 hybrid era.

No matter how many changes this team make – from Fred Vasseur’s year-long visit in 2016, to the weird Cyril Abiteboul era, to the Alpine rebrand and Laurent Rossi and his all-mouth, no-action 100-race disasterplan – nothing ever seems to get any better.

Safe to say Piastri and Alonso both dodged a bullet this time last year…

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