5 things we learned from Friday practice for the Belgian GP
Friday had a bit of everything in terms of weather at Spa, while Max Verstappen had the high of topping the times and the low of ending up in the barriers. Does he have a car capable of challenging for the win and helping him recapture the lead of the drivers’ standings from Lewis Hamilton? And where does everyone else stack up? Let’s look at what we learned from Friday running in Belgium…
1. The weather remains impossible to predict at Spa
One minute, the sun breaks through the clouds and Spa-Francorchamps is bathed in wonderful warmth. Mere minutes later, you’re reaching for the umbrella as the sun disappears, the light drops and the rain falls – at varying intensities.
Trying to predict the weather in the Ardennes Forest, where F1’s longest track is nestled, is a fool’s errand. Instead you just go with the flow, with quick reactions and solid preparations – with plans for everything from A through to Z – the key to success around here.
On Friday, both one-hour practice sessions were essentially dry, while support series F3 and W Series had to deal with the wet stuff. The forecast at the time of writing, for what it is worth, suggests rain will become more prevalent as the weekend goes on, so it’s almost certain Pirelli’s intermediates or wets will be required at some point.
With rain on the horizon, it makes choosing a direction for set-up tricky. Low downforce is the way to go if you want to be strong in Sectors 1 and 3, but high downforce is better for Sector 2 and of greater use should the heavens open. It will, however, leave you exposed and potentially a sitting duck on the straights. Decisions, decisions.
2. Red Bull showing encouraging pace
Red Bull, like Mercedes, opted to split their programmes in FP1 so they could try both lower and high downforce set-ups – with Max Verstappen saying he stayed with the same direction for both practice sessions (believed to be low downforce) and was happy with how the car felt.
It wasn’t the ideal end to FP2 for the title contender, the Dutchman losing control of his RB16B and crashing into the Malmedy barriers. But up until that point, he looked quick out there, particularly on lower fuel, and the stats back that up, with our data suggesting Red Bull are 0.15s quicker than Mercedes.
Their long runs weren’t so impressive, with Red Bull around 0.2s per lap slower, but both Verstappen and his team mate Sergio Perez – the latter flying high after re-signing with Red Bull for another year – reckon they will be in the fight with Mercedes. Maybe a first Spa win since Daniel Ricciardo triumphed in 2014 could be on the cards…
3. Mercedes with the edge in long runs
Lewis Hamilton admitted he and his Mercedes team have some work to do overnight to deliver a car that feels comfortable underneath him – and while they certainly do have something to find in qualifying trim, they can be very happy with their efforts when they dumped fuel in the car.
Their rival Daniel Ricciardo said they looked particularly quick on the mediums with fuel in the car versus the rest of the field, while Mercedes trackside chief Andrew Shovlin said Hamilton had some vibrations on his long run “that won’t have helped” his balance.
Shovlin added: “It's hard to know quite where we stand; the circuit is very power sensitive so going up and down on modes can give big swings in lap time. But the car seems to be working as it should and it looks like we're there or thereabouts on pace. Hopefully we can make some further progress with the car overnight.”
With Bottas needing to have a car that is primed to overtake, given his five-place grid penalty for his antics in Hungary, the Finn has gone for a low downforce setting. “It feels good,” he said. “It’s going to be close with Red Bull no doubt so we just need to find marginal gains tonight.”
4. McLaren seem to have edge over P3 rivals Ferrari
McLaren arrived at Spa expecting a challenging weekend, but they showed promise on Friday, with our data showing they were the third quickest team in terms of short run pace. And while they drop to fifth in the long run pace ranking, there’s only a tenth in it between Aston Martin and Alpine.
Lando Norris reckoned the car felt “pretty dialled in” and they made some “good improvements” from the first to second session – on a day when they were running updates to their brake ducts. And while Daniel Ricciardo’s position didn’t look too promising – Ricciardo finishing FP2 in P15 to Norris's P9 – the Australian lost several tenths when he came up behind the Haas of Nikita Mazepin.
Ricciardo reckons McLaren are “there or thereabouts” with Ferrari in terms of pace, though admittedly there is a little bit of an unknown with regards the red cars after Charles Leclerc crashed in FP2 to disrupt their data gathering.
Ferrari are eighth in our qualifying graphic, but that is something of an anomaly, with not enough representative data to get a good read. Carlos Sainz admitted it was challenging to find the right balance in cool conditions, while Leclerc explaining the car didn’t feel as good in FP2, even if they didn’t change much.
Ferrari were more than a minute behind the leaders at the end of last year’s Belgian Grand Prix. But they look closer in 2021 – and if they find something overnight, we could be in for another tight tussle between two of F1’s most famous names.
5. Alpine and Aston Martin could spring a surprise
Alpine arrived in Belgium on the crest of a wave, following their first Grand Prix victory courtesy of Esteban Ocon, with Fernando Alonso’s fourth giving them a combined tally that was enough to lift them two places to fifth in the constructors’ championship.
And they appeared to carry that momentum onto the track at Spa, with Fernando Alonso – sporting an ultra-cool visor cam in FP2 – saying his Alpine “felt fast” right out of the blocks, with team mate Ocon encouraged by the pace they showed early doors.
Q3 should be on the cards for both Alpines judging by our data, though it will be a tight scrap with Aston Martin. And it’ll be the green cars who will likely be the greatest threat based on our long run numbers, too, with Lawrence Stroll’s outfit best of the rest in third in this metric, albeit only 0.03s quicker per lap than Alpine.
There’s quite a chasm between Mercedes and Red Bull and then the rest of the field, but that is to be expected on a track that is between 2 to 3 km longer than most on the calendar. And as many a driver said on Friday, the weather can change things dramatically – and that means the formbook going out the window.