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Leclerc vs the Red Bulls and more unpredictable weather – What To Watch For in the Belgian Grand Prix
From Max Verstappen needing to make his way forward to Charles Leclerc on pole, and from McLaren’s ongoing resurgence to the unpredictable weather, we highlight some key areas to look out for on race day at Spa-Francorchamps…
1. Verstappen looking for victory from P6
Friday saw a scintillating performance from Max Verstappen in qualifying when he was quickest by over 0.8s in tough conditions, but it wasn’t a lap that earned him pole position for the Belgian Grand Prix…
That’s because Red Bull opted to change some of Verstappen’s gearbox components this weekend, exceeding his limit for the season and earning a five-place grid penalty. So first in qualifying becomes sixth on the grid, alongside Oscar Piastri on the third row.
The reason Red Bull opted to take the penalty at Spa-Francorchamps is in part due to the huge advantage the team had at this venue a year ago, where Verstappen won by nearly 18 seconds despite having started 14th on the grid due to a power unit penalty.
The Dutchman was in the lead as early as Lap 12, and then pulled away from the field at more than half a second per lap.
Given the fact Verstappen feels he has an even more competitive car this year than Red Bull had delivered in 2022, he has to remain the favourite for victory even with the grid penalty – but he will have to fight his way through some quick cars to do so.
2. Leclerc’s hopes from pole
The last time Charles Leclerc started on pole position at the Belgian Grand Prix, he went on to take victory. That was his first ever win in Formula 1 as he triumphed for Ferrari back in 2019.
Asked how confident he is of repeating that result this weekend, Leclerc replied: “Not confident, especially with the two Red Bull guys right behind. I think they've got a much better race car than we have…”
And it’s hard to disagree with Leclerc given the performance we’ve seen from Red Bull so far this season, but he’s also in the best position to maximise his result. Sergio Perez has tended to be in range more often of the two Red Bulls and should Verstappen hit any trouble then Leclerc might be dreaming of a victory, but he will certainly be hoping to follow the Red Bull pair home at the very least.
A good start will be crucial to those hopes, though, as we saw with Lewis Hamilton’s race being compromised by being overtaken into the first corner in Hungary, leaving him vulnerable on the exit and dropping him to fourth at the time – which is where he would go on to finish.
3. McLaren chasing a third podium in a row
One of the most intriguing aspects of recent races has been the major step forward from McLaren, who scored 70 of their 87 points in the previous three rounds heading into this weekend.
With the Sprint seeing Oscar Piastri start from the front row for the first time, the team added ten further points thanks to Piastri’s second place and Lando Norris coming home in sixth. So they continue to edge closer to the top four in the constructors’ championship and show no signs of slipping back from contention after their impressive recent pace improvement.
But on Sunday’s grid the two McLarens are fifth and seventh with Piastri and Norris respectively, and that provides a different challenge to the previous rounds that have yielded the biggest returns.
Instead of starting high up and showing the pace to hold onto such positions, this time around McLaren are going to need to try and move forward in the race if they want to continue their podium run after back-to-back second places for Norris in Britain and Hungary.
4. Ricciardo’s recovery drive
It’s only the second race weekend of Daniel Ricciardo’s return to F1, and back-to-back Grands Prix – including a Sprint here – have made for an intense start to life back at AlphaTauri, but there have been a number of encouraging signs that suggest we could be in for an entertaining Sunday from the Australian.
In Hungary, his race was compromised by the first lap incident that took out both Alpine drivers, but an impressive final stint saw Ricciardo climb back into the same position he’d started from as he completed 40 laps on medium tyres. Then he showed strong pace on Friday in the wet at Spa, but a slight error saw him exceed track limits in Q1 and drop out in 19th place.
He then qualified 11th in the Sprint Shootout and ran eighth for a spell, looking to be in with a chance of a first point before slipping behind George Russell and Esteban Ocon in the closing laps.
Starting on the back row but looking comfortable in his new surroundings, Ricciardo could be on the move as he tried to get close to the points battle.
5. More rain?
Part of the challenge of Spa-Francorchamps is the unpredictability of the weather, and it has been on full display throughout this weekend so far with a wet/dry Friday and Saturday. Both sessions on Saturday were delayed due to the rain, with the Sprint seeing heavy downpours right as the grid was ready to clear, leading to the start being pushed back by 30 minutes.
Fortunately Sunday is not looking quite as threatening, but it’s impossible to rule out a threat of rain even on the sunniest days given the track’s location in the Ardennes, and there is an increasing chance of a shower during the race.
At this point the official prediction is for a 40% chance of rain at some stage, with some of Saturday’s showers bubbling up near the track and giving relatively little warning as they intensified.
That means the teams will have to be on their toes when it comes to strategy, and Spa can be particularly difficult on that front given the length of the circuit which means it can be raining heavily in one part of the track but completely dry in another.