Lewis Hamilton did what Lewis Hamilton does. He produced a superb qualifying lap to claim his sixth Spa pole. ‘”That one’s for Chadwick,” he said, in response to the news that 43-year-old Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman had succumbed to bowel cancer.
The constructors’ champions came to Belgium with an aero upgrade comprising a revised floor, barge boards and sidepod / turning vanes. As a measure of the job that Mercedes has done this year, Hamilton’s 1min 41.252sec lap – which put him half a second clear of team-mate Valtteri Bottas — was more than 2sec quicker than his 2019 third-placed time and 1.3s quicker than Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari pole from last year.
Okay, so Pirelli brought its softer C4 compound as this year’s Spa soft instead of the C3 used last year, so there was a bit of time there, but contrast the Mercedes progress with Ferrari’s predicament.
The FIA has stamped on whatever Ferrari was doing with its engine and the fuel meter last year, but nowhere more than Spa has the effect been more dramatic. Last year, the Ferrari was blisteringly quick in sector one, the flat-out full-throttle stretch interrupted only by La Source hairpin. The red cars were comfortably quickest through the speed trap approaching Les Combes at the top of the Kemmel Straight.
This time, Renault, running barely any rear wing, topped Friday’s speed figures there with 330kph while the Ferraris recorded 318kph…
Edging ahead of Williams: Charles Leclerc at the track where he was on pole last year
Florent Gooden / DPPI
It was no surprise when Matteo Binotto was quoted saying that his team just couldn’t get the tyres to work after a day in which Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel finished up 15th and 17th, split by George Russell’s Williams… Basically, had Ferrari cranked a decent rear wing on and loaded the tyres, they’d have been doing about 50mph on the straights. The cars didn’t look a handful, they were just slow, losing more than a second and a half to Mercedes in the twisty sector two.
Surely that couldn’t be Ferrari’s true level? The engines were turned down, right? And they were carrying fuel. Nope. In FP3 on Saturday morning it was just the same and there was the very real possibility that the Ferraris could fail to clear Q1.
In the end, Vettel and Leclerc hauled the SF1000 into Q2, where they managed to pip Russell and will start the race 13th and 14th…
“I doubt that we can suddenly start to fight Lewis, but there might be a bit of weather around tomorrow, so let’s see.”
In stark contrast to Mercedes’ advance, Leclerc’s lap was almost half a second slower than his 2019 pole – on softer rubber. Binotto and his troops cannot be looking forward to Monza and those 1000th GP celebrations at Mugello with too much relish…
Mercedes’ new main rival is, of course, Red Bull. Hamilton might have been out of their reach but Valtteri Bottas, who said he hadn’t got the tyres in properly for La Source and lost time there, certainly was not. Max Verstappen was gutted to miss the Finn’s front row time by a hundredth of a second.
Red Bull is always closer in the race but, weighing his chances, Verstappen said, “Looking at the half-second gap to Lewis, I doubt that we can suddenly start to fight him, but there might be a bit of weather around tomorrow, so let’s see.”
On Bottas’s trail: Verstappen qualified a hundredth behind the Finn
Stephanie Lecoq/AFP via Getty Images
Various meteorologists are predicting a 50-60 per cent likelihood of rain during the race but Mercedes seems to be on top of that, compromising its straightline speed potential for a bit of extra downforce to anticipate the possibility. Verstappen might be exceptional in the wet, but beating Hamilton in a Mercedes with extra downforce? A long shot at best.
Fourth quickest was a beaming Honey Badger. Daniel Ricciardo’s Friday performances have flattered to deceive in recent races but, at Spa, Renault delivered in qualifying too, with Esteban Ocon sixth, just over three-tenths slower, the pair of them sandwiching a happier Alex Albon.
Cyril Abiteboul’s team will be hoping that the rain stays away because the yellow cars appear to be running so little wing that they are in danger of going supersonic in sector one. Ricciardo in particular will be mighty interesting to watch on the long run-up to Les Combes on the opening lap, something he is well aware of.
“At the start of the race we are going to have a real opportunity. And I can defend, so I might have to get the elbows out. But yes, I’m hoping for a dry one!” While the Renaults might struggle in the wet, they could also find a one-stop race a tall order in such configuration. Bottas and Verstappen in particular will not relish the prospect of falling behind the yellow car on lap one, so it could all get a bit physical up at Les Combes first time around.
Spa has seen rain already this weekend and there’s a good chance of a wet race
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
With tows viable as much as 7sec behind the car in front at Spa, Albon and Verstappen worked well together at various parts of qualifying and although there was still more than four-tenths between them on Spa’s long lap, Albon is much better positioned for the race, one year on from his promotion to the Red Bull senior team. With the proviso that he starts on the soft compound Pirelli whereas both Mercs and Verstappen, in isolation, go to the grid on the medium compound. Albon was not sure he had the pace to clear Q2 on the yellow-walled tyre and played safe rather than take another confidence bashing.
Despite repeated questions about his performance relative to his super-talented stablemate, Christian Horner’s take is interesting.
“When Alex got in the car 12 months ago he did a much stronger job than Pierre [Gasly] had done up to that point. Alex has got a lot of talent that we haven’t seen come to the surface yet. His racing has been very strong but he’s struggled with the car over a single lap. And, of course, Max has been so strong at getting the most out of the car.
“You think back to some of the great drivers, whether it’s a Schumacher or a Senna, and being a driver alongside those guys was very tough. I think that’s a similar situation that the seat alongside Max has at the moment. Alex is only going to get better: he’s still pretty young and inexperienced. We’re doing all that we can to support and develop him.”
Albon has wanted a calmer car on corner entry than Verstappen is able to cope with and a new front wing has helped his cause in Belgium.
Expect a close midfield fight in Sunday’s race
Stephanie Lecocq/AFP via Getty Images
Carlos Sainz, just 0.04sec behind Ocon with the first of the McLarens, has gone a similar low downforce route to the Renaults and actually set the quickest sector one time of all on the first Q3 runs.
“We didn’t have a lot of choice because in higher downforce trim we’re a bit too draggy,” Sainz explained. “The session went well and I did a good first Q1 run and had two sets of new tyres for Q3. Last year Renault was half a second quicker than us here and we’re much closer, which is positive.” Normally a driver who excels in the rain, Sainz, like the Renault drivers, would likely appreciate blue skies at 2pm tomorrow. Although at Spa, of course, that guarantees precisely nothing by 2.10pm…