RACE DEBRIEF

    The Formula 1 paddock was buzzing on Thursday at a gloriously sunny Spa-Francorchamps, as the class of 2022 returned to school for the final nine races of the campaign with plenty to talk about.

    The news machine was showing signs of mercifully slowing down after Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin caused quite a stir by announcing a partnership for 2023 on the morning after the Hungarian Grand Prix, just in time for teams to complete their mandatory two-week shutdown, which was installed to give staff time to recharge before going again.

    READ MORE: F1 ‘the only racing I’m interested in at this stage of my career’ says Ricciardo, as he fails to rule out 2023 sabbatical

    But it cranked back into life on the eve of this weekend’s race in Belgium when McLaren and Daniel Ricciardo announced they had “mutually agreed” to end their relationship at the end of this season – one year early.

    And that left so many questions.

    Where would Ricciardo race, if anywhere, in 2023? Would Oscar Piastri be named at McLaren? If Ricciardo doesn’t join Alpine, who will they sign alongside Esteban Ocon? Would Haas and Mick Schumacher continue? Will Zhou Guanyu be retained at Alfa Romeo? Who would Williams choose to partner Alex Albon? And would Yuki Tsunoda be retained at AlphaTauri?

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    Ricciardo is staying at McLaren for the second half of the season – but after that, his fate is unclear

    We didn’t get any answers to those on Thursday but there are lots of talks behind the scenes, leaving plenty of spice left in this addition of the silly season.

    When the driver market conversation was exhausted, it led the chatter nicely on to the track action – and there’s no shortage of storylines here either – namely the title fight.

    Ferrari arrive in Belgium, scene of Charles Leclerc’s first ever win back in 2019, refreshed and resolute to take the championship to Red Bull, who have a commanding lead in both standings, and keep the hope alive.

    READ MORE: ‘I still believe in the championship’ says Leclerc as he targets 'perfect' weekend in Spa

    Leclerc believes wrestling the crown is still possible, even if he is 80 points behind championship leader Max Verstappen, while his team mate Carlos Sainz has full belief the Italian team understand their struggles and can get wins consistently.

    There’s a strong belief Ferrari have the fastest car – or at the very least a car capable of winning Grands Prix – but they simply haven’t been able to put it all together. Will the tide turn this weekend?

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    Can Leclerc turn the tide on Verstappen?

    There’s an air of calm wafting around the Red Bull hospitality right now, but that shouldn’t be confused for relaxation. They know that things can turn the other way, just as fast as they turned in their favour and their full focus is on winning every race from now until Abu Dhabi.

    With Verstappen already on eight wins from 13 Grands Prix, he’s got a very good shot at getting the most race wins in a single season.

    Mercedes are huge outsiders for both championships but intriguingly are starting to find some form and could have much have a say in where the crowns ended up.

    READ MORE: Hamilton says first Mercedes win in 2022 'definitely' close

    Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton reckons a first Mercedes win is “definitely” close, while his team mate George Russell – who took the team’s first pole of the year in Hungary – reckons a new Technical Directive coming into force, focused around porpoising, might “shuffle the order up”.

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    Mercedes will be looking to continue to close the gap to Ferrari and Red Bull at Spa

    There’s been a change in the language Mercedes use when they talk about their chances, in that they are talking like they are in a position to start fighting back at the front on a consistent basis. Further evidence of whether or not that is warranted lies ahead this weekend.

    And then there’s the track changes to consider. Organisers have laid new asphalt at five corners, including at Eau Rouge-Raidillon, and added four gravel traps – with one down at Turn 1 (La Source) to make a classic, challenging track even more punishing.

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    Spa is a circuit where the driver can make the difference. At 7.004km, it’s the longest on the calendar and its wide span means that when the area’s quirky microclimate gets creative, you could have heavy rain on one part of the track and dry conditions on the other.

    The forecast, for what it is worth, suggests that rain will come on Saturday and it’ll only be very light – but it’s best to expect the unexpected round here.

    And with a few drivers on the cusp of engine penalties – and Spa traditionally a track where it’s wise to take them because you can overtake and make progress back through the field – we could find ourselves with a mixed up grid and a cracking Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon.