Hamilton dominates, Renault improve while Ferrari struggle on a weekend of high emotion: 2020 Belgian Grand Prix Review

The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in the Ardennes Forest, Belgium is one of THE favourite circuits for drivers and fans alike so it was great to see the race going ahead this year. Usually, it is the traditional first race back after the summer break but it was the 7th of the unusual format of the 2020 season as F1 attempts to fulfil a now confirmed 17 race calendar. F1 arrived with a new concord arrangement in place with all ten teams committed to the sport until 2025, Williams under new ownership and the final races for the year confirmed.

A year on from the tragic passing of F2 driver Anthoine Hubert, the return to Spa was always going to be an emotionally charged weekend for the paddock with so many drivers in the paddock close friends of his including Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon. A minutes silence was held before each race from F1 down to F3.

The F1 grid paid a minutes silence in memory of Antoine Hubert before the race. [Image from Sky Sports].

The ultimate lap record tumbled in Qualifying while Ferrari, who won at Spa last year, struggled immensely on the high-powered circuit. The top three in the race remained a constant meaning as a spectacle it was not as high quality as the race that saw the most overtakes last year (30 compared to 58 in 2019) with the action coming through the alternative strategies of Sergio Perez and Gasly as the majority pitted behind the early safety car triggered by Antonio Giovinazzi and George Russell on lap 10 but fears over tyres towards the end added some intrigue.

Mercedes did not quite show the level of dominance of the previous two race weekends but they did when it mattered in qualifying and the race. The Silver Arrows secured their first front-row lockout at Spa since 2015 before converting that into their 6th win in 2020 having led a race for the 30th successive race; only one behind Williams record of 31 (1995-97), It all pays testament to the teams mentally that Lewis Hamilton praised post-race, ‘Huge credit to the team, both here and back home in Brackley and Brixworth. No matter how much success we’ve had over the years, everyone just keeps their heads down and focuses on trying to improve. It’s an incredible mentality to have and it’s inspiring to be working in that kind of environment.’ It looks set to continue with the ominous warning, ‘I am 35 going towards 36 but I feel better than ever.

Hamilton has had a chequered past in Belgium. Before this weekend he had more DNFs (4) than race wins (3) but his performance was exceptional. The World Champion looked in complete control throughout Qualifying and his efforts in Q3 were phenomenal. Smashing the track record and being half a second clear of your teammate in the same car is not easy but both Q3 efforts were good enough for his 93rd pole position which he dedicated to actor Chadwick Boseman [Pictured above doing the Wakanda salute; Image from Eurosport] after the announcement of his tragic passing. The race start was the trickiest part of the weekend but once through the first sector he was in complete control and only a brief power unit scare or tyre wear could have denied him an 89th career win. Now, he is only two behind Michael Schumacher on his way to title number 7; a record he could equal at Ferrari owned Mugello.

2020 Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying

Q1: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:42.323……………15th Charles Leclerc 1:43.656; 16th Kimi Raikkonen +0.087, 17th Romain Grosjean +0.182, 18th Antonio Giovinazzi +0.294, 19th Nicholas Latifi +0.482, 20th Kevin Magnussen +0.658

Q2: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:42.014………10th Lando Norris 1:42.722.; 11th Daniil Kvyat +0.008, 12th Pierre Gasly +0.023, 13th Charles Leclerc +0.274, 14th Sebastian Vettel +0.539, 15th George Russell +0.746

Q3: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:41.252, 2nd Valtteri Bottas +0.511, 3rd Max Verstappen +0.526, 4th Daniel Ricciardo +0.809, 5th Alex Albon +1.012, 6th Esteban Ocon +1.144, 7th Carlos Sainz +1.186, 8th Sergio Perez +1.280, 9th Lance Stroll +1.351, 10th Lando Norris +1.405

Valtteri Bottas could not match his teammate and is now two race wins behind Hamilton in the standings. [Image from Taiwan News].

Valtteri Bottas celebrated his birthday at the start of the weekend and marked it by going quickest in FP1 remarking, ‘I can definitely think of worse things to do on your birthday than driving this track’. Unfortunately for the Finn, that was as good as his weekend got as Hamilton relentlessly controlled the weekend. There aren’t many harder seats than his in F1 at the moment. Qualifying 2nd, his best at Spa is usually a good result but he was half a second adrift of Hamilton and only just quicker than Verstappen. There was potential at the start if he could get a good exit from La Source but could not challenge during the race. The result though meant he is now two full race wins behind Hamilton in the Championship standings so he really needs something to change soon.

Max Verstappen secured a sixth successive podium but could not get close enough to the Mercedes pair after an impressive Qualifying. [Image from formula1.com].

Red Bull aren’t quite there in challenging Mercedes but Max Verstappen’s impressive consistency continued as he is still there nearest challenger to collect a sixth successive podium. After impressively topping the FP2 timesheet, it looked like he could and qualified just 0.015s shy of Bottas. From 3rd, he was in a good spot to attack the pair on the run-up to Les Combes but found himself needing to defend hard against ex-teammate Ricciardo. Maintaining 3rd after pitting behind the Safety Car, Verstappen was unable to apply more pressure to Mercedes leading to a pretty dull and boring race. As tyre wear became a concern in the closing stages, it was expected Red Bull could pounce but the too struggled as he dropped back slightly and still collected his 6th successive podium.

Alex Albon had a better Qualifying and race pace but perhaps let done slightly in the race taking the Medium tyre to the end. [Image from Malay Mail].

Could he be better supported by Alex Albon? That was suggested by Hamilton but it was a better weekend for the London born Thai driver at a circuit he made his red Bull bow last year. It was certainly a more consistent showing throughout by Albon as he qualified in the top 5 for the first time since the season opener in Austria despite a mistake on his final Q3 lap. Starting in a Renault sandwich, he was unable to keep Ocon behind on the opening lap but regained the position during the pit stops behind the Safety Car. Red Bull thought the Medium tyre ‘was the best compound to attack the Renaults’ but the decision compromised him slightly in managing the tyres as Ocon found a way past on the final lap. He kept Noris behind for 6th, a result which puts him 4th in the Championship.

Renault were impressive in Belgium. The Enstone team have shown potential in glimpses with some times in the top three of practice sessions but sometimes falling short when it mattered. That was not the case at Spa. They qualified 4th and 6th; both cars in the top 6 since Monza last year and finished 4th and 5th in the race equalling their best race result since returning to the sport as a Constructor in 2016. The haul of 23 points with Daniel Ricciardo collected the fastest lap; the teas first since Robert Kubica in Canada 2010 was the teams best in F1.

2020 Belgian Grand Prix Race Result

1st Lewis Hamilton 1:24:08.761, 2nd Valtteri Bottas +8.448, 3rd Max Verstappen +15.455, 4th Daniel Ricciardo +18.877, 5th Esteban Ocon +40.650, 6th Alex Albon +42.712, 7th Lando Norris +43.774, 8th Pierre Gasly 47.371, 9th Lance Stroll +52.603, 10th Sergio Perez +53.179, 11th Daniil Kyat +70.200, 12th Kimi Raikkonen +71.504, 13th Sebastian Vettel +72.894, 14th Charles Leclerc +74.920, 15th Romain Grosjean +76.793, 16th Nicholas Latifi +77.794, 17th Kevin Magnussen +85.540, George Russell DNF, Antonio Giovinazzi DNF, Carlos Sainz DNS

Fastest Lap: Daniel Ricciardo 1:47.483

Daniel Ricciardo produced a stellar performance to qualify and finish 4th as well as taking the fastest lap point. [Image form Motorsport Week].

Ricciardo raised eyebrows when he went 2nd in FP2 and within a tenth of Verstappen despite pulling up with a hydraulic issue. Thankfully, Renault resolved the issue as he put in an excellent performance qualifying 4th; his best at Spa in 10 visits. The honey badger had a good start and battled Verstappen on the opening lap before slotting into a rhythm with brilliant pace making it difficult for Verstappen to open up a gap for a second stop. He finished nearer the race winner than his teammate. Surprisingly, Ricciardo had enough left in his tyres to produce the fastest lap with a final lap effort he quipped ‘Maybe it was better than my qualifying lap’. Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul promised to get a tattoo if Ricciardo delivered a podium this year, he came within three seconds of it and with Monza next where Renault went well last year, who knows?

Esteban Ocon topped off his best performance of 2020 with a final lap pass on Alex Albon’s Red Bull to finish 5th. [Image from formula1.com].

Esteban Ocon did not quite match his teammate’s pace but this was still his best performance of the season matching his best result in only his 7th race back in F1. He qualified four tenths adrift of Ricciardo but still good enough for 6th; his best qualifying of the season. He had a solid start and fought past the Red Bull of Albon on the opening lap only for a slightly slower pit stop as a result of Renault double stacking costing him that position. He could easily have thought the position lost but played the patient game with him having the more durably tyres to make it count on the final lap. Ocon dedicated the result to his friend Hubert who ‘would be pleased to see Renault up there today’. Hubert had been a Renault Academy driver before his death and it was a sentiment shared by the team.

Additionally, it was also a very emotional weekend for Pierre Gasly who started the weekend leaving a floral tribute. The emotion added so much more to the performance that saw him voted driver of the day. He was out-qualified by his teammate for the first time in 2020 but he has often been stronger on race day. The Frenchman was the only driver to start on the Hard tyre and was mighty in the opening exchanges including that unbelievable move on Perez up Eau Rouge. The Safety Car came at the wrong time for him as he had to stay out for the strategy to work. It meant he was 4th at the restart before eventually pitting on lap 26 dropped to 17th. From there, he charged his way through the field to finish an impressive 8th on a day he ‘wanted to do well for Anthoine.

Pierre Gassy’s immense move on Sergio Perez at Eau Rouge. [Source F1/Twitter].

Daniil Kvyat has been relatively close to Gasly for much of the season in the timesheets but he has fallen short when it mattered. The Russian had a strong Qualifying missing out on Q3 by just 0.008s and beating his teammate for the first time in 10 attempts. Unfortunately for Kvyat, that was undone by a difficult opening lap as Gasly and Leclerc got past but an otherwise strong race drive was undermined by strategy. ‘I think that we didn’t choose the right strategy today…We couldn’t have known it before the race, so we split the cars and unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of the strategy call.’ Alpha Tauri splitting strategies made sense from a team perspective to hedge their bets but it did not help Kvyat in the closing stages as he fell back to finish where he started; 11th and just outside the points.

2020 Belgian Grand Prix Points

Drivers
: Lewis Hamilton 25, Valtteri Bottas 18, Max Verstappen 15, Daniel Ricciardo 13, Esteban Ocon 10, Alex Albon 8, Lando Norris 6, Pierre Gasly 4, Lance Stroll 2, Sergio Perez 1

Constructors:
Mercedes 43, Red Bull 23, Renault 23, McLaren 6, Alpha Tauri 4, Racing Point 3

Another Spa weekend to forget for Carlos Sainz at McLaren, this year he could not even start. [Image from McLaren].

It was a story of mixed fortunes at McLaren. On the unlucky side was Carlos Sainz. The Spaniard has not had the best of luck this year but looked to be carrying on from his strong performance in Spain when he out-qualified his teammate by over three tenths. Unfortunately, his luck seems to be out at Spa. Last year, an engine issue forced him to retire after the first lap. This year, an exhaust issue on his lap to the grid meant he didn’t even take the start. Given how his teammate performed. It was all the more disappointing ‘Having started from P7 and seeing how the race unfolded, we definitely missed a very strong chance to score big points and get a good result’. He will be hoping his misfortune does not carry into Monza like it did last year too.

Lando Norris recovered from a slightly disappointing Qualifying with a fairly strong race performance to finish 7th and just behind Alex Albon. [Image from Race Fans.net].

Lando Norris had a decent showing in Belgium. The Brit was in the top 10 for most of the weekend and maintained his record as one of only four drivers to qualify in the top 10 at every race this year although he was out-qualified by Sainz after failing to get a slipstream. Norris lost a couple of positions on the opening lap after going wide at turn 5. He didn’t feel comfortable on the soft tyres and after pitting behind the Safety car his race came to life in the second stint as the car got ‘better and better towards the end’. He passed Stroll with 10 laps to go and almost took 6th from Albon on the final lap. He felt he needed just one more lap and while he drops to 6th in the Championship, 7th is still an overall positive result for driver and team.

Given that they have performed well at Spa in the past, Racing Point were fairly disappointing. The pink cars have finished 6th and 10th last year; 5th and 6th in 2018 so given their impressive performance levels in 2020, they were being touted as a possible podium contender. Instead, neither car qualified in the top 6 for only the second time this season and only finished 9th and 10th in the race. Getting both cars in the points is a positive result for any midfield team but ut shows how much progress they’ve made this year when Team Principal Otmar Szafnaeur stated it ‘was the goal today, but we had hoped to be higher up the order at the end’. They just did not have the pace we have come to expect from them this year.

Lance Stroll had the stronger weekend in the pink panthers. The Canadian had never qualified higher than 15th in Belgium before this weekend when he put his car into Q3 and but behind his teammate in 9th after locking up on his final lap. He made up for it in the race getting past his teammate on the opening lap and was up to 7th before pitting behind the Safety Car. Racing Point, unsure the tyres would last split their strategies here and pitted the Canadian. He didn’t have the pace to battle Ocon but he was still maintaining position in 7th until weak tyre management caught up with him with Norris and Gasly finding there way past and only just finishing ahead of his teammate after what he described as ‘a difficult race’.

Sergio Perez had the short straw in terms of strategy reacting to the safety Car but provided some good entertainment on his charge back into then points. [Image from RaceFans.Net].

Sergio Perez has a fairly strong record in Belgium and after a very positive Friday practice, it was slightly disappointing to see him qualify 8th, a result that even surprised him. Losing ground in the opening couple of laps did not help his race but the turning point for his race was the Safety Car. It raised eyebrows when Racing Point did not pit him as he stayed out longer on the soft tyres he started the race on but the Mexican ‘didn’t think it had a big bearing on the race’. That is questionable. He was already losing places when he pitted on lap 17 but was able to use his fresher tyres to climb his way from last into the points but would not have liked being past by Gasly four laps from home as he finished just behind Stroll.

In the concord agreement, the ten teams agreed to stay in the sport until 2025, prize money is going to be more evenly distributed which is expected to benefit teams with smaller budgets such as Racing Points, Haas and Williams but judging by their performance in Belgium Ferrari too. The Scuderia, courtesy of being the longest competing team in F1 retain their veto which is important to them as Team Principal Mattia Binotto stressed before the Grand Prix weekend, ‘We have maintained what we call the protection right, or the veto right, which is important for Ferrari because of what Ferrari represent for the entire F1 and the history. So overall, yes, satisfied. You can always get more, you can get less, but what has been achieved is an important result.

Kimi Raikkonen loves Spa and finished the weekend as the lead Ferrari powered car. [Image from formula1.com].

Belgium marked the 1,000th Grand Prix Ferrari engines have competed in but it was an extremely painful one. Ferrari powered cars occupied six of the eight lowest positions in the timesheets throughout as the power unit deficiencies were brutally exposed. While the engine is the main issue, it is not the only one as surely Ferrari should have enough to finish ahead of customer team Alfa Romeo. You do have to wonder what was in the confidential arrangement Ferrari came to with the FIA over the winter because the difference from 2019 to 2020 is unbelievable. Every team had gained time-based on last year bar Ferrari who had lost over a second. Something is not quite right in the functioning of the team but it will be even more painful at Monza. The only saving grace for Binotto and co is that the Tifosi will be at home…

The highest placed Ferrari powered car was the Alfa Romeo of Kimi Raikkonen, would you believe it? The Iceman has a fantastic record at Spa and in practice showed better pace this his former team. It was slightly disappointing he did not get into Q2 by just a tenth but the 2007 Champion beat his teammate by twice that margin for 16th. Raikkonen had a strong race drive despite a sluggish launch going into anti-stall with moves on Russell and Magnussen in the opening couple of laps. Having got past Leclerc in the pits behind the Safety Car, his race highlight must have bene passing former teammate Vettel along the Kemmel straight but getting ‘stuck behind Kvyat’ meant even that was not enough for his first point of 2020 as he could not keep Gasly and Perez behind. He finished 12th and while disappointing, it is still another strong weekend.

Ferrari feared they might have qualified on the back row of the grid on pace alone for the first time since 2009. Both drivers got out of Q1 and it was Charles Leclerc taking the inter-team honours out-qualifying Vettel for 13th. What a change of fortunes it was for him though. The young Monogasque was on pole and took his maiden win at Spa last year. Twelve months later and his highlight was his opening lap charge from 13th to 8th. From there, he went backwards as he fell back down the field and being passed by his teammate before the Safety Car. He was forced to pit twice for two lengthy stops as Ferrari addressed air leakage on the car. He was clearly frustrated with the team on team radio and in his post-race comments but even two-stopping he was still only close behind his teammate.

Charles Leclerc’s awkward team radio messages. [Source F1/Twitter].

While Sebastian Vettel finished the weekend as the lead Ferrari, it wasn’t quite straight forward for the four-time World Champion. The German struggled for pace compared to Leclerc for much of the weekend and qualified only ahead of Russell in Q2 for 14th. Vettel did not get the same lightning start as his teammate but dictated strategy by starting on the Medium tyre and passed Leclerc on lap 10 and then one-stopping to end with a set of Hard tyres. That allowed Vettel to finish ahead of his two-stopping teammate but he was powerless to keep former teammate and friend Raikkonen behind as he finished 12th. Post-race, Vettel said, ‘We tried everything with both cars, but we were just too slow. I hope the situation on this circuit doesn’t repeat itself’. The fear for Ferrari at Monza is that it will…

The worst classified Ferrari powered car was the one that failed to finish; Antonio Giovinazzi. The Italian was always on the back foot after missing FP1 with a technical issue and qualified two-tenths adrift of his teammate. After an impressive opening lap from 18th to 14th, all of that was undone by his crash on lap 10 at Les Fagnes which triggered the safety car. Describing the incident, he said, ‘the car just snapped on the exit’. Giovinazzi crashed out at Spa last year and it could’ve cost him his drive if not for a strong response in the following races. He’ll need to something similar but even that might be enough with Ferrari Academy drivers Callum Illot, Mick Schumacher and Robert Shwartzman all battling at the top of the F2 Championship and chopping at the chance to make the jump to F1.

Antonio Giovinazzi and George Russell’s incident which brought out the Safety Car. [Source from F1/Twitter].

The unfortunate victim of the incident was George Russell. The brit avoided the car but could not avoid the stray wheel which hit the front right of his Williams, damaging his front suspension and sending him into the barrier. There was nowhere he could go but he was left feeling lucky for having the halo. Up to that point, it had been a decent weekend for Russell who reached Q2 for the 5th time in 7 races and over half a second faster than his teammate in the process. Another strong qualifying performance was hampered by a sluggish start which saw him go wide at turn 5 as he lost a couple of positions but he did feel in a good rhythm to that point.

Even without the crash though, Russell warned ‘it would have been a long and difficult race for us out there’. That proved to be the case for Nicholas Latifi after qualifying 19th despite feeling he had the pace for Q2. The Canadian didn’t ‘have a good feeling with the car’ from the start and would likely have finished behind Russell if not for the Brits crash. Two-stopping, he enjoyed the final stint passing Magnussen and getting to within five seconds of the Ferrari’s but finished 16th in a Haas sandwich. After seven races, his race craft and pace seems ok but Latifi needs to make more ground in Qualifying.

It was far from an easy Belgian GP for the Haas pair. [Image from Pitpass.com]

it was obviously a disappointing result but not unexpected. This is where we are right now. The only way forward is to get better.’ Those were the post-race words of Haas boss Gunther Steiner after a torrid weekend in Belgium. The American outfit was on the back foot from the start with both cars missing FP1 with unrelated engine issues and consequently, both cars fell out of Qualifying in Q1 having qualified well at Belgium in the previous two years. On a personal level, Romain Grosjean had a decent weekend beating his teammate by four-tenths in Qualifying and after a lock-up on the final lap allowed Leclerc through, finished just behind the Ferrari’s in 15th. Kevin Magnussen qualified last and his opening lap charge to 15th was his only highlight for the Dane as after two-stopping, finished 17th and last of the finishers. Overall, a disappointing weekend for Haas.

2020 Belgian Grand Prix Ratings

Drivers:
Lewis Hamilton 10, Valtteri Bottas 8, Max Verstappen 9.5, Daniel Ricciardo 10, Esteban Ocon 8.5, Alex Albon 7, Lando Norris 8, Pierre Gasly 9, Lance Stroll 7, Sergio Perez 7.5, Daniil Kvyat 8, Kimi Raikkonen 9, Sebastian Vettel 6, Charles Leclerc 6, Romain Grosjean 7.5, Nicholas Latifi 6, Kevin Magnussen 5.5, George Russell 7, Antonio Giovinazzi 5, Carlos Sainz 7.

Constructors:
Mercedes 9.5, Red Bull 8, Renault 9.5, McLaren 7, Alpha Tauri 8.5, Racing Point 7, Alfa Romeo 7, Ferrari 5, Haas 5, Williams 6.5

In the Driver’s Championship, Lewis Hamilton’s dominant performance leaves him with an almost two race points advantage on any other driver with the lead to Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas extended to 47 and 50 points respectively. They both have more than double the points of 4th placed Alex Albon (48 points) who surpassed Leclerc and Norris (45 points each). Daniel Ricciardo’s 4th place put him into 8th place while Esteban Ocon climbs into the top 10 at Carlos Sainz’s expense after the Spaniards DNS. Pierre Gasly is only five points behind (18pts) in 12th and above Sebastian Vettel. From 14th down, the standings are unchanged.

In the Constructors, well Mercedes and Red Bull are comfortable 1st and 2nd but the battle for 3rd is relatively tight with nine points separating McLaren in 3rd (68pts) to Renault in 6th (59pts). Renault’s big points haul helped them claw them back into contention. Ferrari did not score points and remain 5th (62pts) while Racing Point dropped a place after losing three points to McLaren and are now 5th. (66pts). Alpha Tauri are even more clear in 7th (20pts) while the bottom three (Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams) remain unchanged.

Seven races down, ten to go after the announcement of the final four races of the 2020 season. The Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul Park returns for the first time since 2011 wth the Herman Tilke designed circuit and its notoriously challenging turn 8 complex being sorely missed. That is one I will look forward to watching on November 15th, two weeks after Imola. That is followed a fortnight later with back to back races in Bahrain (29th November and 6th December) with the second of those taking the title of the Sakhir Grand Prix and raced on the outside layout. That presents challenges for the circuit organisers as well as the teams and drivers with lap times expected to be sub-one minute for the first time since 1974 French Grand Prix at Dijon. At 87 laps to make the 305km race distance, it will be the longest race in terms of lap this year.

Instanbul Park will host the Turkish Grand Prix for the first time since 2011. [Image from intercity park.com].

Abu Dhabi retains its spot as the final race of the season but that is pushed back by two weeks with the season finishing on December 13th, the latest end to an F1 season since 1962 which finished in South Africa on 29th December.

This means there will be four races outside of Europe this season and none in the America’s for the first time and the first time since 1986 Asia has not held a race with Vietnam expected to be cancelled along with China. That said, all things considered, If all this comes off then, Liberty Media and all those involved in getting this schedule of 17 race in 11 different countries together under the circumstances deserve immense praise. There are other routes F1 could have gone done as shown by Formula E who hosted their remaining six races all at one circuit in Berlin. They could also have abandoned the season altogether so again, they deserve praise.

Next, it is on to the temple of speed and one of the only circuits to have been a mainstay on the F1 calendar. It is usually a sea of red as the Tifosi flock to cheer on Ferrari but like the other races this year, there will be no spectators. It will perhaps be more of a surreal experience for the drivers than any other race so far but it is the first of three races in the country this year. It’s Monza and the Italian Grand Prix next!

Monza is next!

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