RACE DEBRIEF

    Valtteri Bottas celebrated his birthday by setting the benchmark in the first practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix ahead of Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton by just 0.069s as dark clouds loomed over Spa-Francorchamps on Friday. Max Verstappen finished third, just 0.012s behind Hamilton.

    The Finn turned 31 today and came out swinging in FP1 at Spa, setting a fastest lap of 1m44.493 on soft tyres – the same compound used by every driver in the top-10 to set their respective flying laps. A late-lock up led to a puncture for the session leader, who joked: "I'm getting used to these punctures – I had one last week on my road car as well," as his session ended with five minutes remaining.

    READ MORE: Drivers still in awe of Spa, despite mixed emotions on return to track

    Soft tyre short runs began with just over 30 minutes of the session remaining, and Hamilton couldn’t match Bottas’s time, a mistake in sector three holding the defending champion back. Verstappen’s very impressive time – he was just 0.012s behind the second Mercedes of Hamilton – put him ahead of both Racing Points, as the Dutchman seems determined to put 2019’s Lap 1 retirement at this race behind him.

    Fourth-place Sergio Perez was the faster Racing Point driver, just 0.136s off top spot. Team mate Lance Stroll was another two-tenths off Perez, rounding out the top five.

    In contrast it was a worrying session for Ferrari, who ended up 14th and 15th quickest – ahead only of the two Williams in terms of the cars that set a representative lap time in the session.

    Formula 1 Rolex Belgian Grand Prix 2020

    Belgium 2020

    Practice 1 results

    POSITION TIME
    1 Valtteri Bottas BOT Mercedes 1:44.493
    2 Lewis Hamilton HAM Mercedes +0.069s
    3 Max Verstappen VER Red Bull Racing +0.081s
    4 Sergio Perez PER Racing Point +0.136s
    5 Lance Stroll STR Racing Point +0.375s

    Alex Albon made his debut for Red Bull at this track in 2019 and began the weekend just over half a second off his team mate for a P6 finish in FP1.

    In sequence, Renault and McLaren occupied P7 to P10 with Esteban Ocon fastest of the quartet, six tenths off top spot. Behind him was McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, who shrugged off a brief DRS issue to finish P8, then Daniel Ricciardo in P9 and Lando Norris P10 – reiterating just how close the midfield battle has been, and will be, this season.

    WATCH: PADDOCK PASS: The F1 grid reflects on an emotionally-charged return to Spa-Francorchamps

    AlphaTauri duo Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly were 11th and 12th, respectively, with Alfa Romeo's Kimi Raikkonen an impressive 13th.

    It meant that Ferrari had a disappointing start to the weekend. Charles Leclerc won this race for the Scuderia last year, but today he could only manage 14th fastest and 1.266s off P1. His team mate Sebastian Vettel was 15th, 1.686s off top spot, on the first day of what looks like being a difficult event for the team.

    FP1 Highlights: 2020 Belgian Grand Prix

    Williams’ Nicholas Latifi finished 16th, his team mate George Russell just behind in 17th and over two-seconds off P1.

    Neither Haas driver set a time after Romain Grosjean encountered power issues on his early out lap. Both he and Kevin Magnussen were kept in the garage without setting a time in FP1 as Haas examined their Ferrari power units. Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi didn’t set a time either, with unexplained issues.

    READ MORE: 12 months on, F1 and F2 outline plans to honour Anthoine Hubert’s memory

    Lewis Hamilton hasn’t won the Belgian Grand Prix since 2017 and will be looking to break what can be seen as something of a drought, given his relentless propensity for winning Grands Prix. However, Bottas and Verstappen will be doing their utmost to stop him, and got off to a great start given their FP1 times. Both are searching for a first Belgian Grand Prix win on Sunday – though with rain forecast, anything could happen once the lights go out...