Verstappen, who is expected to be cheered on by thousands of orange-clad fans from the Netherlands this weekend, ended up second in Free Practice 1, just 0.151s shy of the pace of Sebastian Vettel, who was trying out Ferrari’s ‘Spec 3’ engine for the first time. However, when the teams all turned up their engines for the FP2 qualifying simulations, Verstappen could only manage fourth, 0.691s off Kimi Raikkonen’s session-leading time, while team mate Daniel Ricciardo – who missed almost all of FP1 with an engine injector issue – was sixth.
So what were the Dutchman’s predictions for how his weekend was going to pan out?
“In qualifying, realistically fifth and sixth,” he said. “But in the race, you never know what is going to happen. The long run pace was not too bad, so I’m actually quite happy with that. We just need to find a bit more grip.”
Red Bull’s lack of grip at Spa is largely down to the extremely shallow rear wing angle both cars were seen to be running on Friday, as the team sought to remove as much drag as possible to overcome the horsepower shortfall of their Renault power units. That drag removal saw Verstappen clocking the fastest time in the power-sensitive Sector 3 section of the track during both of Friday’s sessions, while leaving him more vulnerable in the downforce-dependent run through Sector 2.
“It’s always going to be difficult when you have such low downforce on the car, but it was not too bad,” said Verstappen when asked about the resultant balance on his RB14. “For sure, we still have some room to improve.
“The last sector, we seemed pretty quick, but with the rear wing we have on the car, you expect to be like that. It’s just not easy to be in the second sector where you lose a lot of rear downforce and you're sliding around a bit more. We’re still trying to optimise that.”
Verstappen seemed more optimistic than his Australian team mate heading into Friday evening, however, with Ricciardo flatly telling the press “we weren’t quick enough today”.
“Short and long runs, we still need to find some pace,” said Ricciardo. “We need to try and figure out how to do that. We did make changes through this afternoon session. I feel we improved one thing but created another problem, so we didn’t find the optimum set-up through the changes we made.
“Obviously we missed some laps this morning. Maybe they wanted to give me more of a summer break, but I was ready to go! Hopefully tomorrow runs a bit smoother.”
Belgium also marks Ricciardo’s first weekend back in the car following his seismic announcement at the start of the summer break that he’d be leaving Red Bull at the end of the season to go to Renault. But Ricciardo was quick to bat away suggestions that there were any lingering tensions within the squad.
“It’s good, it is, honestly,” he said when asked about the atmosphere in the team. “I had a good bit of team time yesterday, spoke to everyone and everyone’s cool, everyone respects the decision. I think more than anything, everyone’s ready to kick on and finish the year strong.”