As the F1 drivers dusted off the cobwebs following the summer break, it was Sebastian Vettel who was quickest out of the blocks, with the Ferrari driver going fastest around the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Vettel finished the weekend’s first practice session 0.151s ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, whose RB14 was seen running a very shallow rear wing as the team sought to overcome their Renault power unit’s shortfall around the horsepower sensitive Spa track.
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Vettel’s chief title rival Lewis Hamilton was third for Mercedes, ahead of the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen and the other Silver Arrow of Valtteri Bottas in fifth. Daniel Ricciardo spent much of the session marooned in the Red Bull garage with an engine injector issue. However, the Australian headed out in the final moments of the session and finished up in sixth.
With both Mercedes and Ferrari unveiling new-spec power units for Spa, FP1 in Belgium was the first opportunity to see which team’s engineers had extracted the most power going into the second half of the season.
And while at first glance, it would appear that Ferrari came away from the session with the early advantage, it’s worth noting that both Mercedes drivers spent most of the session running on the medium tyres, while both Vettel and Raikkonen used the grippier soft tyres.
In the midfield battle, it was the newly-minted Racing Point Force India F1 Team – the same Force India team we saw before the summer break, but racing under a new team entry having come out of administration – who led the way, using their Mercedes power unit to good effect around Spa.
Esteban Ocon finished the session 1.428s off Vettel’s time in seventh, with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg - also running a new unit but set for a grid penalty as a result - 0.165s behind in eighth. Sergio Perez in the second Force India and Carlos Sainz in the second Renault were ninth and 10th, ahead of the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly, who arrived at the Spa having been confirmed as a Red Bull driver for 2019.
Given Haas’s strong performance at power-sensitive tracks so far this year, Romain Grosjean may have cause to feel disappointed with his first running at Spa, ending up in 12th and some half a second off Ocon’s time, while the Sauber pairing of Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson were 13th and 14th respectively.
15th was Brendon Hartley for Toro Rosso, while Lance Stroll was the fastest Williams runner in P16. Kevin Magnussen ended up 2.65s off the leading pace in 17th, complaining to his Haas team of a nervous rear end on his VF-18 car. He led Lando Norris, making his Grand Prix weekend debut for McLaren in place of Fernando Alonso, and 19th-placed Sergey Sirotkin, who provided the only real drama in what was a quiet session, spinning his Williams FW41 at Turn 8.
Bringing up the rear at his home circuit was Stoffel Vandoorne, who struggled with brake issues on his McLaren MCL33 during the session.