F1 Belgian GP: 7 questions that will decide the winners at Spa

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Formula One fans have seen a lot during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend so far.

True to the region’s climate, rain came and went, creating mixed conditions during qualifying and the Sprint Saturday. There have been safety car periods, red flags and drivers making mistakes in the slippery conditions. Add holes in sidepods, a rookie leading the sprint (and finishing P2) and major senior personnel changes at Alpine to the list. And the grand prix hasn’t begun!

A refresher on where things stand from Friday’s qualifying: Charles Leclerc inherited pole despite Max Verstappen’s lap time being a whopping eight-tenths of a second faster because the Red Bull star has to serve a gearbox penalty. Sergio Pérez, who collected a gaping hole in his sidepod during the sprint race, lines up alongside Leclerc on the front row. Kevin Magnussen has a three-place grid penalty for impeding Leclerc during qualifying.

With one eye on the weather after a rainy Friday and Saturday, here are the seven questions on our minds as we prepare for the Belgian Grand Prix.

How many laps until Max takes the lead?

It may sound a bit snarky. However, Verstappen will probably climb to the top rather quickly, considering how this season has gone. The Red Bull driver looks to secure his eighth consecutive victory, most recently finishing 33.7 seconds ahead of the rest of the grid in Hungary.

Even Verstappen seems confident after a clean sprint Saturday where he secured pole and won the sprint race. “I need to be careful to not have any damage on the car, and as soon as I just have a clean lap one, I think from there onwards, we can just move forward,” he said.

Last year, Verstappen started the race P14 but made his way to third by Lap 8. He led by Lap 12 and eventually finished 18 seconds ahead of Pérez. With Verstappen lining up P6 on Sunday, it seems the question is when — not if — he’ll take the lead of the Belgian Grand Prix.

What is realistic for Leclerc starting from pole position?

Even after inheriting pole position due to Verstappen’s penalty, Charles Leclerc quickly downplayed his chances on Friday of repeating his Spa victory from 2019, admitting he was “not confident” given the pace of Red Bull’s car.

Since Ferrari appeared to make a significant breakthrough in Austria with the Spain upgrade package, comfortably running as the second-fastest team, it has slipped back into the murky battle to be ‘best of the rest’ with Mercedes, Aston Martin and — the team now seeming to lead that pack — McLaren.

The Red Bull’s straight-line speed means Leclerc will do well to keep Pérez back in the opening stages. Inevitably, Verstappen’s car will fill his mirrors not long after. It means even from pole, Leclerc knows coming home on the podium would be a good result for him and Ferrari.

“It gives us a good chance to have a great result,” said Leclerc. “But to say that we’ll target the win, I think it’s probably a bit too optimistic. If there’s an opportunity, for whatever reason, as always, I’ll try and take it. But I believe it’s going to be difficult to keep those (Red Bull) guys behind.”

Can Piastri keep up his blistering pace this weekend?

Oscar Piastri is the runaway leader in our (now two-person) rookie rankings for 2023, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down at Spa.

Yes, the McLaren car has improved leaps and bounds and is perfectly suited to the medium-speed middle sector at Spa. But to outqualify Lando Norris not only on Friday but also in the sprint shootout and then come home second in the sprint sets this up to be the best weekend of Piastri’s 12-round F1 career.

After all the hype surrounding Piastri through his junior days and the lengths McLaren went to secure his services for this year, it has all been justified this year. Spa is only further proof of that. Verstappen said after the sprint race, he enjoyed fighting with a new face in the form of Piastri, the Australian being one of the first he’s battled that was too young for them to cross paths in karting.

From fifth on the grid, Piastri will want to complete his weekend sweep over Norris, who starts two spots further back. McLaren’s straight-line speed weakness may leave the MCL60 car exposed on the long stretch to Les Combes, but you can still expect the team to be right in the fight for the podium on Sunday.

Piastri admitted after the sprint that he wasn’t sure what to call the result, given there’s no podium ceremony and only a small trophy on offer. But based on his weekend so far, Sunday could see him get the real thing.

On a weekend of change, can Alpine flip the script?

Alpine has been all over the F1 headlines this weekend, and not quite for the right kind of reasons.

After announcing Laurent Rossi was out as CEO and moved into special projects eight days ago, the team made more changes with both team principal Otmar Szafnauer and sporting director Alan Permane parting ways with Alpine after this weekend. In Szafnauer’s place, vice president of motorsports Bruno Famin will serve as interim team principal. On top of these moves, chief technical officer Pat Fry left for Williams.

This all comes during an unlucky stretch for Alpine, who haven’t scored points since Austria after consecutive double DNFs at Silverstone and Hungary. The narrative seemed to change on Saturday, though, as Pierre Gasly brought home third in the sprint race, a finishing position that he said meant “quite a lot.”

“We know in terms of performance, it hasn’t been as good as we would have liked since the start of the year. But in these conditions like today, everything can happen. You need to play with the cards that you have. I think we definitely did the right choice boxing on Lap 1, and then from there it was a bit of survival mode with first Sergio (Pérez) in the mirrors and then after Lewis (Hamilton) for a couple of laps.”

It came down to pulling together clean laps and avoiding errors in the mixed conditions, something Alpine has struggled to do from time to time. Gasly and teammate Esteban Ocon will start outside of points positions, but Spa offers plenty of passing opportunities. Have they found their footing despite the internal changes?


‘A bunch of racers’: After Alpine’s shaky start, the F1 team finds its footing

Can Williams fight back?

At a track where Williams’ car was expected to be strong, both Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant were knocked out of Q1 during Friday’s qualifying. Sargeant, though, had a delayed start because of damage from FP1 and only had time for a single run.

And it’s worth noting that the on-and-off rain weather didn’t help. “I don’t think we have the downforce for this kind of weather and were just sliding a lot, which overheats the tyres quickly and makes finishing a lap without the tyres going off a struggle,” Albon said. They prefer either fully dry or fully wet conditions, Albon continued.

The mixed conditions continued into Saturday, and it became more evident that Williams is weak in these scenarios. Albon discussed the tire issue again, saying, “As soon as we did more than nine corners, the tyres were overheating.”

Albon added, “With a lower downforce set up, it normally works around here, however you don’t see the benefit of the straights when you’re sliding through corners with the heat building and the tyres continuously overheating.”

All eyes are on the weather across the paddock, and it seems that this’ll determine whether Williams can fight back.

What can Daniel Ricciardo do from 19th?

It’s been a mixed weekend for Daniel Ricciardo. The early pit stop in the sprint race got him into contention for points, only for his tires to fade and cause him to slip from eighth to tenth in the closing laps. Without a track limits breach on Friday in qualifying, he’d have made it through to Q2, but ended up 19th on the grid after his time was deleted.

The second race of Ricciardo’s F1 comeback therefore looks set to be a tricky one. In Hungary, he made clear the focus was on learning as much as he could about the AlphaTauri car, widely regarded to be the slowest on the grid. In that GP, a first-corner hit from behind resigned him to last, only for him to rescue his race with a bold strategy call that helped lift him to 13th.

Ricciardo needs a similar mindset on Sunday at Spa. No, it’s not going to be easy to get the points he thought were possible in Hungary without the contact, even if overtaking opportunities are plentiful around this track. He spoke on Friday about his confidence in the pace of the car, believing it could leave him “maybe in a good spot come race day”. But the focus must remain on learning what he can to help set things up for a strong return after the summer break.



Belgian GP: Ask us your questions for our live F1 coverage

Will the weather continue to impact the Spa weekend?

The weather at Spa is always difficult to make sense of. Rain has hit the paddock through all three days of at-track events so far. In one 90-minute stretch on Saturday, we got everything from heavy rain to bright sunshine, and a rainbow in-between.

Safety has been a talking point right through this weekend. Even with a relatively clean sprint on Saturday, the start of which was delayed before the field completed a few laps behind the safety car to help clear the standing water, some drivers raised concerns about the levels of visibility. Gasly said he “could not see a thing” from sixth in the pack, adding: “All you need is just one guy to be stopped in the straight and it can go wrong very quickly. It’s a tricky call.”

There’s a big difference between track conditions being good enough to race and good enough to see. With these modern F1 cars producing so much downforce, and therefore kicking up so much spray, it’s difficult for the track to dry out enough for there to be enough visibility for safe running while the cars run in a pack. On Thursday, George Russell compared it to driving down the highway in the rain with your windscreen wipers off.

The weather forecast for Sunday looks changeable. There’s a definite chance of rain during the race, albeit at reduced levels compared to Friday or Saturday. The latest look on the iPhone weather app suggests a 70 percent chance of rain at 3 p.m. local time (9am ET), when the race is due to start.

Should the rain hit ahead of the start, when the cars are bunched together for the run up Eau Rouge and Raidillon, it would leave race control with some important decisions to make. It’s a difficult balance to strike, yes, and not everyone is going to be totally satisfied.

But safety must always take the priority.



Huge, fast and dangerous: Breaking down F1’s iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit:

(Lead image of Oscar Piastri at the Belgian GP: Joe Portlock – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

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