Unpredictable Spa could pose threat to Red Bull’s latest record attempt

Thomas Maher
Red Bull's Max Verstappen at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Budapest, July 2023.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Budapest, July 2023.

The last race before F1’s mandatory summer break looks nailed on for another Red Bull win unless the weather gods interfere…

Red Bull head to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium this weekend having set a new F1 record in Hungary by claiming their 12th Grand Prix victory in a row – albeit taking in the last race of 2022 into that unbeaten run.

They can set another all-time record this Sunday, if they win again, that of consecutive race wins in a single season. But, as is customary at Spa, the weather may have a big role to play over the course of the Belgian Grand Prix.

Recent tragedy hangs over Spa ahead of Belgian Grand Prix

The fearsome Belgian circuit is one of the sport’s most historic and is loved and feared in equal measure. Corners like Eau Rouge and Raidillon, as well as the uber-fast Pouhon and Blanchimont are challenges the drivers adore, but the perils of its high-speed nature have resulted in countless tragedies over the years.

Earlier this month, 18-year-old Dutch racer Dilano van ‘t Hoff was killed in a junior category race, having been struck in a side-on impact along the high-speed Kemmel Straight in what was an ill-judged last-lap release under green flag in atrociously wet conditions. His funeral has scarcely concluded by the time F1 arrives at the circuit, where the schedule also features the ill-received Sprint format on Saturday.

Saturday Sprint races at Spa also bring back memories of the late Anthoine Hubert, with the French driver killed in a similar side-on impact during the F2 sprint in 2019. The loss of the Renault junior deeply affected the F1 paddock, with close friends Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc particularly heartbroken due to their close friendship with Hubert.

Gasly has taken the opportunity to organise a track run on Thursday at Spa, with all personnel from F1 and the junior categories in attendance invited to show up to view the track and pause in a moment of reflection for the departed Hubert and Van ‘t Hoff.

At almost any other track, the prospect of a rain-affected weekend would inspire any fan of the sport to savour the event with glee. But, at Spa, where the unpredictable rain can hit individual parts of the track and linger in the trees, such conditions are far less enjoyable to watch as the drivers thread their way around the Ardennes circuit.

The predictable thing about a Spa weekend is the unpredictability of the weather, even in the earlier date slot the Belgian Grand Prix has been given this year, but the weather forecast does suggest rain showers are likely to disrupt the track action on all three days – rain is forecast during Friday’s qualifying, light showers during the Sprint, and similarly light rain at the start of the Grand Prix.

It’s the exact type of weather Red Bull don’t want, as they eye heading into the summer break with a new record for the most consecutive F1 race wins in a season, as well as continuing on their way to sweeping every single race of the 2023 season.

F1 Commission meeting set to dominate proceedings as weekend begins

Friday will see the latest meeting of the F1 Commission, in which the team bosses will meet with representatives from F1 and the FIA to cast their votes on several important issues.

Up for discussion is the decision on whether or not to proceed with a ban on tyre blankets in 2024 (Pirelli will also be able to vote on this issue), as well as the prospect of power unit equalisation in light of a reported disparity between the best and worst engines (yes, even under a power unit freeze!).

The issue of capital expenditure, and how to address the imbalance of infrastructure between the biggest teams and those of fewer resources, will also be up for discussion.

The decisions reached by the F1 Commission can be expected to be revealed on Friday night, just as the weekend ramps up for the Sprint running on Saturday.

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Can anyone stop Red Bull from another victory?

Assuming the weather doesn’t somehow turn the RB19 into an unruly toddler for Max Verstappen to calm, there’s little reason to doubt that the combination of the Flying Dutchman and his Magnificent Machine aren’t the favourites going to Spa.

Indeed, it doesn’t even really seem to matter where Verstappen qualifies, if last year’s race is anything to go by.

A grid penalty for taking on fresh power unit components meant Verstappen started the 2022 Belgian Grand Prix from 14th on the grid, but he was already ninth by the end of Lap 1. By quarter-race distance, on Lap 12, he was already in the lead and, by the chequered flag, he was almost 20 seconds up the road.

The race last year was also the first in which Ferrari stopped being a genuine threat to Red Bull as the effects of the FIA’s technical directive aimed at curbing the porpoising phenomenon took hold and, almost 12 months later, the Scuderia are no closer to returning to the front – if anything, the team are falling further and further away.

Aston Martin, too, have fallen away from the front as their inexperience at being a front-running team has shown – the Silverstone-based team are struggling to keep up through the development cycle of the year to the point where Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll are on the verge of going without points, let alone podiums.

Mercedes’ W14 looks quick under single-lap conditions and when on light fuel, to the point where they might even be able to race a Red Bull if there’s one in their vicinity. Unfortunately, their pace under heavy-fuel conditions is poor – to the point that it’s pretty difficult for those conditions to happen.

It’s perhaps McLaren, then, that offer Red Bull the greatest challenge to overcome this weekend. After backing up their Silverstone form with another comprehensive display in Hungary, a return to a high-speed circuit means the MCL60 should be quite happy – a fact not lost on Verstappen as he suggested the McLaren is even more capable through the high-speed sweeps than his own Red Bull.

Verstappen, together with Lando Norris, resembled a cabaret act as they laughed and joshed with each other after another podium appearance together in Hungary, perhaps aware that they’ll be racing each other far more frequently in the second half of the season.

“You will fly in Spa,” Verstappen said. “Everyone should go and stand in Pouhon, because you will be flat!”

Norris replied: “One-handed. Blindfolded, as well!”

But the slow-speed performance of the MCL60 left Norris suggesting that the few low-speed corners at Spa will leave him “nowhere”, while team boss Andrea Stella believes a lot of laptime will be left behind due to the same slow corners.

“There’s a lot of lap time in Turn 1, which is 80 kph, in Turn 8, which is 100 kph, and in the last chicane, which is 90 kph,” he said.

“I go with some care because, in these three corners, at the moment we see that we lose time. In addition to the outright performance, it will be important how rapidly you can adapt your car to the demand of the track.

“Spa is also a very demanding track in terms of understanding, for instance, your ride height because, with Eau Rouge, you can’t run too low because, otherwise you would have problems under the car. So how rapidly you can set up your car can make a difference for the entire performance.

“We certainly come out of this event encouraged that we have made progress in medium-speed [corners].

“That’s what we certainly see in comparison with our competition. There is still work to do in low-speed. The other important confirmation is that we make progress in terms of tyre degradation. Having improved the car actually brings an improvement in how we use the tyres at the same time. It’s common knowledge, having good load helps tyres, but it was good to confirm it once again. This makes us certainly a bit more optimistic for the future than we were after Silverstone.”

In other words, it’s not clear where Red Bull’s competition might come from this weekend. The RB19 has no discernible weaknesses and the former Achilles’ Heel for Red Bull – that of outright horsepower – is no longer applicable. History beckons for the Milton Keynes-based squad and, without chaos, there’s simply no way to look past Verstappen and/or Perez having things all to themselves at Spa-Francorchamps before the mandatory summer shutdown begins…

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