It was a strange Saturday at the Belgian Grand Prix with Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc scrapping over 15th place rather than pole position.
Qualifying may have been a session dominated by Red Bull’s Verstappen, but an engine-related grid penalty means the reigning World Champion will start from 15th place on Sunday.
With Charles Leclerc also serving an engine-related grid penalty, the Monegasque losing out to Verstappen in Q3 means he will start 16th on the grid.
Here is who we think were the big winners and losers from Saturday’s action at Spa-Francorchamps.
Knowing he had a grid penalty that meant a 15th-place grid position at best, Red Bull and Verstappen opted to keep things extremely simple in their approach to qualifying.
Apparently unconcerned by using up tyres, or the risk to the car from pushing unnecessarily, Verstappen went out and simply blitzed the field.
The Dutch driver has looked comfortable and hooked up from the very first lap on Friday, and his qualifying advantage was such that there is no reason to doubt he is perfectly capable of fighting for outright victory from 15th place – an outcome some of his rivals are already predicting.
What’s more, Verstappen did his impressive Q3 time, six tenths clear of Carlos Sainz, on a one-and-only attempt at the start of the session. It was a hugely confident and measured display from a driver who now needs to reproduce a similar level of performance on Sunday.
With Leclerc’s one and only Q3 lap not being particularly strong, Sainz did exactly what he needed to do to keep the Scuderia’s hopes alive.
While unable to get anywhere near the pace of dominant Verstappen, Sainz’s time was three tenths clear of Leclerc’s and, crucially, two tenths clear of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.
As Verstappen and Leclerc try to fight their way forward on Sunday, Sainz thus has a prime opportunity to close up further in the Drivers’ Championship. After all, he is just 22 points behind Leclerc overall. If they were to finish in their starting positions on Sunday, it would be Sainz who assumes the lead Ferrari position with eight races remaining.
The British-Thai racer inspired a ‘where did that come from?!’ moment in Q1 as he popped up into sixth and ahead of Lewis Hamilton as the chequered flag fell.
Albon replicated that lap time, almost to the thousandth, in Q2 and made it comfortably through to the final part of the session.
However, he could not quite match his own pace in the final portion of the session and wound up ninth. After penalties for others are applied, he will start from sixth place.
“The car was feeling strong, we are still learning our package and we made some changes from FP3 which helped the car for qualifying,” he said afterwards.
“We know our car likes low downforce and when track conditions are in a place that suits us, we can extract a good lap time from the car. We were P9 on pure pace.
“Everyone seemed to have clear runs today and we were only a couple of tenths behind Mercedes, so it shows in certain situations we can really maximise what we have.
“With the penalties, we are starting sixth and so we have to try to hold on and maybe even overtake at the start. We’ve got a car that, on paper, should be hard to overtake as we are quick on the straights, but it’s also not a track like Monaco where it’s easy to keep people behind, so it will be elbows out tomorrow.”
On a weekend when Mercedes appeared to be full of optimism as the performance of the W13 seemed to be on the upswing before the summer break, Lewis Hamilton was incredulous on the radio as his engineer told him the gap to Verstappen was 1.8 seconds.
The implementation of Technical Directive 039 was expected to close the gap between Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes, but the reality is Mercedes look just as far away from the front as they were at the start of the year – so much so that even Alpine were able to go faster.
However, TD aside, Mercedes have not been happy in cooler conditions all year. On a longer run in race spec, tyre warm-up should not be as much of a concern, but their draggy set-up could mean clearing Fernando Alonso could be difficult.
But there was no disguising the deflation of both Hamilton and George Russell as they spoke to media after qualifying, with the seven-time former World Champion labelling it a “real kick in the teeth”.
After having four weeks to reflect and learn from their troubled first half of the season, the radio call of “that was a mistake” to Leclerc as the Monegasque questioned being fitted with a fresh set of soft tyres for the run on which he would tow Sainz around suggested not much has changed behind the scenes at the Scuderia.
While Sainz starts on pole position, the key strength of Ferrari’s season – their car – appears lacking compared to Red Bull this weekend. Porpoising also looked back on the menu, with onboard footage from Sainz and Leclerc showing a pretty uncomfortable ride.
It will be intriguing to see whether the TD has possibly affected Ferrari more than Red Bull in the race, given there has been little to separate them on race day throughout the year.
“They [Red Bull] are way too fast,” Leclerc told Sky F1 after qualifying.
“There’s nothing we could have done, nothing that would have changed anything for our starting positions more. We had to beat Max in qualifying, but today the car is just not at their level.”
On a weekend when Albon is showcasing what the FW44 is capable of, Nicholas Latifi’s failure to escape Q1 has come at a bad time as the Canadian driver fights for his career.
“I got caught out by the unpredictability of the car and tyres,” he said after the session.
“There were a lot of big mistakes on the lap, so it ended up being scrappy. It’s frustrating to not put it on the board in the session that mattered.”
F1’s penalty system
Granted, Saturday’s qualifying session was an outlier in that several drivers incurred penalties at the same time. But there is something not quite right about watching such an inspired performance from a driver resulting in a 15th-place grid slot.
It is also strange to see a driver knocked out in Q1, Sebastian Vettel, starting the race from 10th once all the penalties have been applied.
In an era of a budget cap, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate financial penalties for teams exceeding their component allowance, rather than a sporting penalty for the blameless drivers?
Another potential solution could be to only allow half Constructors’ points for races in which a team exceed their allowance if a sporting penalty is still the preferred option. That way, there is still an impetus and an on-track effect without it compromising a driver’s weekend.
However, on this occasion, let’s be glad the quirky system has set up an intriguing grid for Sunday’s race…