It’s time for battle to resume in the F1 title fight – but will Hamilton or Verstappen set the pace at Spa?
The jet skis have been parked and draped in covers, the boats moored, and the swimming pool inflatables deflated. The summer break is done and it’s time to crack on. And that was the overwhelming vibe in the Spa paddock on Thursday, with the grid bouncing around excited to get back racing.
And what a place to do it, Belgium’s majestic Spa Francorchamps, seven kilometres of driving nirvana. Nineteen corners – 10 to the left, nine to the right if you were wondering – make up one of the most exciting racing challenges in the world. And with unpredictable weather thrown in, the circuit nestled into the Ardennes Forest seems to have its own weather system, this Grand Prix tends to be a belter.
It’s the perfect scene, then, for championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen to pick up the most exciting title battle Formula 1 has seen in years. Speaking to Verstappen on Thursday morning, for an interview to run on F1TV’s pre-race show, the Dutchman came across as very relaxed.
The summer break came at a good time for him, after two difficult race weekends that curtailed his impressive momentum and saw him lose a sizeable lead in the drivers’ championship to Hamilton, with Red Bull also ceding control in the constructors’ standings. He and the team have had a reset – all teams had a mandatory two-week shutdown in August - and they are raring to go.
“I think we’re very positive,” said Verstappen. “We had a lot of good races – just the last two didn’t go our way, out of our control. Yes, I’m very positive, the team is looking forward to getting started again and there is still of course a lot of races to be held.”
Mercedes certainly have the momentum, the upgrade they brought to Silverstone hauled them back into the fight with Red Bull, and the reigning world champions were able to wrestle back control of both championships. Mercedes have traditionally been stronger at Spa, helped in large part by their power advantage.
But Red Bull's engine supplier Honda have made big gains in this area, while the RB16B is an all-round competitive package, so it would be foolish to not think they will be in the fight for pole and the victory. Verstappen, though, is playing things down as usual.
“The last two weekends, they were very quick,” said Verstappen. “I think Hungary in general they were very strong but we have to see again here. For sure they will be quick here. Traditionally this track hasn’t been the best for us, because of the long straights. I know that we definitely did close the gap a bit in terms of top speed but we are still not there. But I do think compared to last year for sure our car is a lot better, our top speed is better. But how good it is going to be against them? It is difficult to say.”
Hamilton was one of those drivers who was keen for the break to end – and who can blame him? He’s the one in the ascendancy now and knowing that Red Bull present a huge threat, the seven-time world champion will know he needs to make hay while the sun is shining.
“The break was definitely much-needed but it felt too long at the end,” said Hamilton. “I was definitely excited to get back to work and I’ve just missed working with the team, missed being in the car so I was definitely very keen quite early on to get back. It seemed a little bit prolonged but having that time is very precious naturally so just trying to remain grateful for the spare time you do have and trying to use it to the best of my ability and we’re back which is great.”
He added: “I think we’ve definitely upped our game. In terms of taking time to reflect to look where we’ve been and where we are going, I have no doubts we will take another step forward in our processes and how we apply ourselves. It’s been a real positive thing to see.”
Traditionally, Hamilton is brutally strong in the second half of the year – his consistency in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018 obliterated the field as he sailed to the titles in each of those campaigns. So that’ll boost his confidence on the resumption of this fight. The difference, this time, though, is that he has a much sterner challenge from his chief rivals. But he’s certainly not afraid.
“I don’t feel like I am more wary than I was at the beginning of the year [of Verstappen’s challenge],” said Hamilton. “We knew how quick they’d be at the beginning. We’ve obviously seen the speed and the competitiveness of them in the past. Of course, as we’ve got through the season they’ve got stronger and stronger.
"It’s been harder for us as we’ve gone on. We’ve had a bit of a difficult patch but we’ve got back, in terms of operating, to how we have in the past to a good place but it’s going to be close, it’s going to be tough this second half of the season. The first half was definitely one of the toughest and it’s going to be pretty much the same in the second half, if not more difficult.”
There’s nothing in it on both counts. Hamilton leads Verstappen by just eight points after 11 races, with Red Bull a mere 12 points adrift of Mercedes in the constructors’ championship.
With the duo having the edge over their respective team mates Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez, there’s a consistently a high chance of them not only lining up alongside each other on the grid, but also going wheel to wheel. And that is an enticing prospect, given what we’ve seen so far this season – and that neither has any intention of changing the way they go racing.
And that is just one of a number of storylines weaving through this season. Ferrari made it in front of McLaren into P3 in the constructors’ championship on the eve of the summer break. And while they were well off the pace last year at Spa, finishing more than a minute behind, they have turned things around in 2021 and should offer sterner opposition. McLaren, meanwhile, are expecting a tougher time in Belgium.
Daniel Ricciardo will be hoping that isn’t the case, the Australian glad of the break to recharge and reset after a difficult opening half of a campaign where he has been overshadowed by Lando Norris. Spa is a circuit he likes, where he won at in 2014, and where he turned things around at Renault, which unlocked a run of results that included two podiums.
And then there’s Esteban Ocon and Alpine, first-time winners in Hungary. They’ve got a huge boost in confidence, with a result that catapulted them up two places to fifth in the constructor’s championship. Ocon isn’t letting the win get to him, though. When we spoke this morning, he said it’s already in the past and he’s only looking for the next one. It’s that kind of mentality that bodes well for his and Alpine’s future. Plenty, then, to look forward to.