George Russell stakes his claim at F1's top table: 2021 Belgian GP qualifying report


George Russell starts second for the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix after splitting the title contenders in a qualifying session where Max Verstappen took pole and Lando Norris crashed out heavily

George Russell and Max Verstappen shake hands after 2021 Belgian Grand Prix qualifying

The front row pair for the 2021 Belgian GP

John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

After a month to contemplate an absolutely spellbinding first half of the season, F1 is back, at Spa.

Red Bull and Max Verstappen must have spent at least some of the break wondering how they are behind in both championships. The stats say that Lewis Hamilton is 6:5 up against Max in terms of both qualifying and race results. The laps led picture is very different – Max has headed 403 racing laps; Lewis, just 128.

For Verstappen, the previous two races put a big dint in his championship aspirations, through no fault of his own. But Mercedes has clearly made a step forward and, rather than playing it down, Hamilton is now admitting that he’s confident going into the second half, and there will be more to come.

Red Bull, meanwhile, is getting all its ducks in line by confirming Sergio Perez for 2022 so that the Mexican can concentrate on assisting its championship bids without worrying about his contract of employment.

After a four-week break, Spa and its micro-climate was almost bound to throw in a curveball, and so it proved. It’s tricky enough to decide wing-settings at Spa on a dry track, balancing the straightline speed requirements of sectors one and three versus the downforce so beneficial through sector two. But add in rain and its likelihood 24 hours on, and it becomes even tougher. If you think it’s going to be dry, you’ll go low downforce; if you’re expecting rain, you’ll crank on more wing. Then, if it’s dry, you’re a sitting duck on the Kemmel Straight…

Yuki Tsunoda qualifying for the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix

Yuki Tsunoda lost out in Q1 again

Lars Baron/Getty Images

After a slight delay due to wet conditions, everyone except the two Williams drivers took to the track on the full wet tyre for Q1. When George Russell went almost 5sec quicker than anyone else, with Latifi 2sec clear, it was obvious what the correct call was and everyone filed straight in for the green-walled Pirellis. Russell was still fifth at the end of the session, a hint of what was to come, and Latifi escaped Q1 too, for the first time since Imola. Williams apart, the eliminees weren’t much different from typical dry running – the two Haas cars, the two Alfas and Yuki Tsunoda, who exited in Q1 for the seventh time in 12 races.

Top of the time sheet at the end of that opening session was Lando Norris. And he was there again at the end of Q2, a couple of tenths clear of both Mercedes and driving with supreme confidence. A first F1 pole looked like a distinct possibility. But then, between Q1 and Q2 the rain worsened and there was some debate about whether Q3 should have been started when it was.

Sebastian Vettel thought not. His Aston Martin was one of the first out and he radioed in that there was too much water and recommended a red flag. Norris himself reported a bit of aquaplaning but wasn’t about to back off. He had a sniff of pole in Austria and you sensed that he believed it here too, with the rain a great equaliser. Plunging down the hill into Eau Rouge he kept his foot flat but lost the car midway through the challenging left-right-left sequence. Such is the downforce of the modern F1 car that Eau Rouge in the dry is practically an extension of the straight. But in the wet, not so. The McLaren snapped left and Norris sustained a heavy sideways impact before being spat back onto the track, shedding debris in a series of gyrations, before coming to a halt.

Vettel, approaching the scene, was told about the shunt. “What the xxxx did I say!” he stormed. “What did I say? Red flag. It’s unnecessary. Is he okay?

Lando Norris spins off in qualifying for the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix

Benoit Doppagne/AFP via Getty Images

Lando Norris crashes out of qualifying for the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix

Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Wanting to find out for himself, Seb slowed up over the brow, drove to where Norris was still in the cockpit, came to a stop and checked, not leaving until he’d had a thumbs-up from Lando.

It’s always a tricky one, this. Should race control always be led by driver radio comments? The health and safety generation – and I’m not aiming that at Vettel – would say yes, absolutely, always. But then you’ve got the opposite view, which is that the best drivers in the world should have to drive to the prevailing conditions unless everyone is skating off left, right and centre. Without talking to Norris, it’s tough to know whether or not he aquaplaned off the road or whether he simply went in too hot.

“We can’t wrap them in cotton wool,” said Toto Wolff. “This is motor racing, Spa and F1.”

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His opposite number at Red Bull, Christian Horner, also had some sympathy for the FIA’s Michael Masi, “It’s tough because things change so quickly. I mean, just a few minutes earlier we were discussing whether to run intermediates, so it’s incredibly difficult for the race director.”

The session was red-flagged while the debris from Norris’s accident was cleared. Lando himself was checked at the medical centre and then despatched to hospital for a precautionary X-ray on his elbow, the team hopeful that he can still race tomorrow.

When the session restarted, it was Lando’s buddy and fellow Brit George Russell who stole the headlines. The surface had dried a little but was still incredibly challenging, with lap times about 1.5sec slower than in Q1. With a little over a minute to go, Russell’s Williams was on pole, with a lap in 2min 00.086sec. Behind him, Hamilton was on a lap but when the No44 Mercedes broke the timing beam, it was a hundredth down on Russell!

Overview of Spa Francorchamps as Lewis Hamilton qualifies for the 2021 Belgian grand prix

Hamilton’s Mercedes was bested by Russell’s Williams at damp Spa

Which left Verstappen. Slower than Hamilton on his first lap, Max got the job done and stopped the clock in 1min 59.765sec to take his sixth pole of 2021. He was delighted, and so was his team principal.

“Sessions like that are high pressure and it’s a case of threading your way through, following conditions, not trying to pre-empt anything and it’s all about getting that last lap. Max did that superbly. But George’s lap was phenomenal too, and all credit to him.”

At Williams they were delirious.

“What a stonking lap!” Russell was told over the radio. It was too. He committed to Eau Rouge flat, which was brave, felt the car go light over the crest, hung onto it and knew he was on for a great first sector. For the rest of the lap he concentrated on precision, not taking too much wet kerb — although he still used a considerable amount, betraying his natural confidence in such conditions – got on the throttle as early as he dared and appeared not to make a single error.”

Williams of George Russell in qualifying for the 2021 Belgian Grand prix

Russell’s commitment brought him to within a whisker of pole

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

“If Toto hasn’t got the decision done yet, this puts him further towards a Mercedes!” commented Williams team principal Jost Capito. “He deserves to be in a car capable of winning championships.”

With the whole paddock pretty much taking it as read that Russell will be in a Mercedes next season, it will be intriguing to see his approach to racing Hamilton tomorrow, starting, as he does, between the title contenders!

And, as I said, wing levels will be key. A car that leads out of Eau Rouge on the opening lap can be vulnerable to a tow down the long Kemmel Straight into the chicane at Les Combes. And Hamilton may be well-placed to mount an early bid.

“You try to go for the best downforce set-up, which might not be best for today…” Lewis allowed. A hint that if the race is dry, he might be better positioned than a Red Bull running a bit more wing. Does George really want to be in the middle of all that? You bet he does!

Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying for the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix

Fourth on the gris os Ricciardo’s best startimg position with Mclaren

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Some eight-tenths behind Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo will start fourth for McLaren, his best qualifying position for the team, with Vettel’s Aston just 0.07sec behind. Pierre Gasly qualified his AlphaTauri in the top six for the ninth time in 12 races, with Sergio Perez seventh in the second Red Bull. Valtteri Bottas could only managed eighth with the second Mercedes, which means starting 13th when his five-place penalty for the Budapest shenanigans is applied.

Esteban Ocon partied all-night in Budapest after his Hungarian triumph and hadn’t been to bed when it was time to fly home, but has recovered sufficiently to put his Alpine into the top 10 and move to 6-6 in his personal qualifying battle with Fernando Alonso. He will line-up eighth, with poor Norris ninth if he’s fit, and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari 10th due to the Bottas penalty.

Two wet weather aces who are further down than might be expected, are Carlos Sainz, who starts 12th after he and Leclerc found the Ferrari tricky in the conditions, and Lance Stroll, who qualified 15th after failing to get his important second Q2 lap in, much to his displeasure.

This being Spa, predicting a winner is a mug’s game, but Verstappen needs to stop the rot and you just have a feeling he will do just that, at what is practically a home race, with Zandvoort next


2021 Belgian Grand Prix qualifying results

Position Driver Team Time (Q3)
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1min 59.765sec
2 George Russell Williams 2min 00.086sec
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 2min 00.099sec
4 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 2min 00.864sec
5 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 2min 00.935sec
6 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 2min 01.164sec
7 Sergio Perez Red Bull 2min 02.112sec
8 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 2min 02.502sec
9 Esteban Ocon Alpine 2min 03.513sec
10 Lando Norris McLaren No Time
Q2 times
11 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1min 57.721sec
12 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1min 58.056sec
13 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1min 58.137sec
14 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1min 58.205sec
15 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1min 58.231sec
Q1 times
16 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 2min 02.306sec
17 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 2min 02.413sec
18 Mick Schumacher Haas 2min 03.973sec
19 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo 2min 04.452sec
20 Nikita Mazepin Haas 2min 04.939sec