Belgian GP conclusions: Red Bull unstoppable, Mercedes misfire and more Ferrari blunders

Oliver Harden
Conclusions from the Belgian Grand Prix

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen strengthened his grip on the 2022 Formula 1 World Championship by winning the Belgian Grand Prix from 14th on the grid.

Here are our conclusions from Spa…

Max and Red Bull touch the sky

There is no fun when one driver is so crushingly dominant, but on occasions such as these you can only stand back and marvel at the sheer seamlessness of it all.

Welcome to where sport meets art, making the most difficult of feats feel devastatingly simple.

 

 

From the very start of the Belgian GP weekend Verstappen and Red Bull were in a class of their own, the RB18 well-suited to the point of being tailor-made for the long stretches and flowing corners of Spa.

Even when he was shuffled back to a starting position of P14 to serve an engine penalty, having been quickest in qualifying by more than six tenths, pretty much all his competitors were convinced Max would still take some containing on race day.

Their fears were well founded, Verstappen up to eighth before the early Safety Car and taking the lead for good on Lap 18, ultimately winning by a margin of almost 18 seconds.

If his victory from 10th on the grid at the previous round in Hungary was the stuff of legend, Spa saw Verstappen and Red Bull enter a different stratosphere with a performance comparable to the very best days of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes dominance.

After taking a wonderfully controlled victory in Barcelona two years ago, Hamilton described a feeling of being “in the zone” as though he could have continued driving way beyond the chequered flag, such was his comfort and confidence in the car.

At Spa on Sunday, Verstappen and Red Bull – another team and driver combination in total, blissful harmony – also touched the sky.

Worryingly for the rest, they seem in no rush to come back down to earth.

Is the solution to Mercedes’ problems right under their nose?

If Mercedes’ success over recent years was measured by pole positions, podiums and winners’ trophies, soundbites and snapshots have become the currency of this campaign.

Qualifying at Spa, where Hamilton and George Russell were slower than both Alpines in seventh and eighth respectively, brought two more defining quotes of 2022.

Team boss Toto Wolff described it as the worst Saturday of his 10 years in charge while Hamilton, having expressed his disbelief at the 1.8-second deficit to pole, admitted he “definitely won’t miss” the W13 when it completes its final racing lap at the end of the season.

Mercedes had arrived in Belgium with optimism after Russell’s pole in Budapest before the summer break, yet on this evidence the much-anticipated Spa technical directive is not the panacea they were hoping would launch them back into victory contention.

Much has been made of Mercedes’ preparedness to experiment in their efforts to understand the W13 but as the second half of the season begins, for all the talk of progress, you are left with the sense they remain none the wiser.

Given the size and scale of the team, it is perhaps surprising those experiments have not extended to the introduction of a B-spec car, following in the footsteps of one of their customer teams.

Williams, remember, started 2022 with a car not dissimilar in design to Mercedes’ zero-sidepod concept, yet abandoned it by introducing a major upgrade package – featuring more conventional, Red Bull-inspired sidepods – at Silverstone.

Largely rooted to the back of the grid until that stage, Williams have gradually improved over recent races to the point where Alex Albon reached Q3 for the first time this season at Spa, qualifying within a tenth of Russell.

With Albon hanging on to 10th to score his first point since May, Williams’ upturn in form is a reminder of the easy gains that can be made when a team is prepared to admit they got it all wrong.

Mercedes, in stark contrast and quite possibly to their cost in the long term, remain reluctant to admit defeat.

As Hamilton admits his focus has switched to “how we build and design next year’s car”, the more Mercedes continue to chase their tail, the less likely they are to potentially recapture their former glories in 2023 and beyond.

Constant communication can’t stop Ferrari blunders

As the field circulated behind the Safety Car early on, Charles Leclerc wanted to ensure everyone at Ferrari was on the same page and that the team wouldn’t suddenly throw a random set of tyres at him and expect him to work wonders.

“We agree one stop from now, no?” he asked over team radio, having made an unscheduled stop to have a tear-off removed from a front brake duct.

“We’ll come back to you on that,” replied his race engineer before confirming Ferrari’s plan of action.

As the race developed and the back-and-forth radio messages kept on coming, it became clear this was part of a concerted effort to improve communication between Leclerc and Ferrari, the team never committing to a decision without consulting him first.

It may have been made with the best of intentions, but the renewed approach only underlined the erosion of trust between Leclerc and Ferrari having lost a variety of results through poor strategy decisions in the first half of 2022.

Better communication may help, but the only way for them to truly re-establish that trust is by making the correct decisions and executing them to perfection.

It was in this area where Ferrari were again lacking at Spa, starting the second half of the season in a similar fashion to the way they ended the first.

After being erroneously sent out on a fresh set of soft tyres for his first run of Q3 on Saturday, Leclerc ultimately lost fifth place to Fernando Alonso for speeding in the pit lane while stopping for a late attempt at fastest lap.

He had expressed severe reservations over Ferrari’s pursuit of the extra point when asked over the radio but decided to go along with it anyway, that new-and-improved communication strategy clearly working well…

“We have to focus on ourselves, try and look for our weaknesses and push for developments,” was team principal Mattia Binotto’s reaction to this week’s blunder. “Not just for this season but for the next one as well.”

Rarely have a team looked so desperate for a season to end.

Advantage Alpine in the fight for fourth

Trouble has often found Fernando Alonso when he has looked on course to cause an upset in 2022.

His car’s hydraulics just had to fail when he was nearing the end of a thrilling qualifying lap back in Australia, for instance, and his engine just had to develop an issue as he was running as high as second in Canada.

Starting in the top three at Spa for the first time since 2007, it seemed trouble had once again got him on the opening lap as Hamilton clipped Alonso as they fought over second place into Les Combes.

On this occasion and unlike Lewis, however, Fernando lived to fight another day.

His persistence was ultimately rewarded with fifth place, equalling his best result of the season, after Leclerc was penalised for the rush of his late stop.

With Esteban Ocon – faster than Alonso by two tenths in qualifying – recovering from an engine penalty to finish seventh on a day both McLarens failed to score for the third time this season, Alpine have extended their advantage in the fight for fourth in the standings to 20 points.

It is no exaggeration to suggest these are potentially pivotal weeks in that particular battle, with Spa and Monza heavily favouring Alpine’s straight-line speed advantage and the compact Zandvoort layout likely to flatter the McLaren.

If this triple header really is the period when P4 will be won and lost, Alpine, for all their current woes off track, have made a promising start.

Maybe F1 can survive without Spa

The Belgian GP weekend began with most expecting this to be F1’s last visit to Spa for some time and ended – with talks over a return to South Africa breaking down – with the circuit retaining its spot on the calendar.

That the new arrangement only covers 2023, though, is hardly a glowing endorsement for Spa and may be interpreted as a mere stay of execution.

Would an F1 calendar lose its lustre without the annual visit to Spa? For the answer, perhaps we should refer to last year.

The torrential rain of race day meant we effectively didn’t have a Belgian GP in 2021, but the intense season-long battle between Verstappen and Hamilton was no lesser for it.

As F1 seeks to expand globally, strip the emotion away and the Spa round is expendable, certainly more so than the likes of Monaco (reportedly set to extend its own F1 deal shortly), Monza and Silverstone.

The irresistibility of Verstappen and Red Bull did not help but the relatively tame spectacle of the 2022 race – on a track no longer posing the challenge it once did compared to F1’s other great ‘driver circuit’ at Suzuka – reinforced the view that Spa is no longer untouchable.

Perhaps a place on the rotation list would help preserve the wow factor.