Fresh off his summer break, Max Verstappen picked things up from where he left them in Hungary with a dominant victory at the 2022 Belgian Grand Prix.
It was the reigning Formula 1 Champion’s ninth victory this season, his third in a row, as he now leads the Drivers’ Championship by 93 points from teammate Sergio Perez; that’s right, not Charles Leclerc who now sits third, five points behind the Mexican.
Red Bull were supposed to be slower around Spa-Francorchamps, or so hoped Toto Wolff with TD039 finally in full effect, but a nasty surprise was in store for the Austrian and his team, as the energy drinks outfit were untouchable with their brilliant RB18, especially in the hands of Max Verstappen, who was – sorry for using this phrase again – on another planet.
Such was the dominance of Adrian Newey’s latest creation that even the struggling Perez was able to overhaul Carlos Sainz, the better Ferrari driver in Belgium, to take second, albeit over 17 seconds behind his teammate who cruised towards the end.
Despite all the action off track with Daniel Ricciardo losing his McLaren drive for 2023, as well as the ongoing legal battle between Zak Brown’s outfit and Alpine over Oscar Piastri, the weekend really belonged to Verstappen, as nothing could distract us from his supreme performance.
The only person who could stop Max Verstappen at Spa would’ve been Max Verstappen himself, but the Dutchman is operating at such a high level these days and with extreme serenity that there was no way he could’ve been held back.
Before, you would watch a flying lap from Verstappen and he would be so close to over the limit and bin it – Saudi Arabia qualifying in 2021 is an example – but there was never such an inkling at Spa as he drove with great command of his car and self-control.
Despite his grid penalty, Verstappen took part in qualifying with his first lap in Q3 so good he even got out of his car, without a final run, confident no one could threaten it.
At first one would expect he did all that to give Sergio Perez a tow in Q3, which did not happen with Red Bull purposefully targeting a P2 start for the Mexican.
Fair enough, but I had the feeling that Verstappen completed qualifying to prove a point, the point being TD039 or not, you can’t stop me, which also applies to Red Bull.
In the race, he was clinical as much as he was aggressive, biding his time through the mess of the first lap, and then hunting down the cars ahead of him without even breaking a sweat, and ultimately winning the race.
Verstappen did say after the race that he doesn’t expect to be that dominant all the time, which may be right, but what is definitely true, is that he and his RB18 now form a formidable package that will be haunting Ferrari and the rest of the F1 grid for the remainder of the season.
Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton: The Ugly Truth
What a humbling weekend Spa was for Mercedes and seven-time Champion Lewis Hamilton, with a slow W13, and an embarrassing first lap mistake by the Briton – his crash with Fernando Alonso.
First, Mercedes were hoping that after Hungary, where Hamilton finished second, and George Russell followed in third, they would have decent pace after the summer break, especially with the FIA’s TD039 being in full effect.
Toto Wolff was definitely hoping that Red Bull and Ferrari would slow down by the directive. But as we saw, Red Bull went faster and while Ferrari were not on it, we have to wait and see if it was just Spa-specific for them; in all cases, the TD did nothing to help Mercedes’ cause, which can also be said about the upgrade package they brought to Spa.
“Kicked in the teeth” in qualifying, the Silver Arrows were hoping for a better showing in the race, but Lewis Hamilton’s first lap botch up ended his race before it started, while Russell went on to salvage fourth.
What is worrying about the Hamilton-Alonso incident is that we haven’t seen that sort of mistake from him ever since he joined Mercedes. Let’s hope it’s a one-off but one cannot but be concerned about it, and the manner he walked away from his stricken car spoke volumes.
Now both Hamilton and Mercedes – evident from Wolff’s statements post-race – finally conceded that their ‘innovative’ W13 is a piece of crap not worth the effort of fixing.
Hamilton said he “won’t miss it”, while Wolff said it belonged in “a cave” not the museum, which sounded really odd coming from them, always wary of airing their dirty laundry.
What makes things worse, is that even if Mercedes start on their 2023 car, Red Bull and Ferrari are miles ahead with their cars, and should only get better next year, which may suggest that Mercedes will be playing catch up for the whole ground effect era, and that Hamilton will not bag that elusive eighth Title any time soon.
And for both of them, that is the ‘Ugly Truth’.
A penny for Charles Leclerc’s thoughts
One can only imagine what Charles Leclerc is thinking now, after another bruising race weekend where, instead of closing the gap to Max Verstappen, he dropped back even further losing one Championship position in the process to Sergio Perez.
The driver who seemed to be the Title favorite a few months ago now has to accept the fact that runner up is the best he might achieve this year, and for that he has to re-pass Perez and fend off teammate Carlos Sainz who is only 15 points behind, and on form.
Leclerc was unlucky to get that visor tear-off in his brake duct early on, which evidently caused a sensor failure that meant the Monegasque was caught over-speeding in the pitlane on his final pitstop, you know, the stop that was meant to help him get an extra point for fastest lap.
With Ferrari now even unable to judge gaps between cars, Leclerc emerged behind Fernando Alonso, and had to fight his way to regain fifth, which he lost again due to the time penalty for over-speeding in the pitlane.
The good thing is that Mattia Binotto did no blame the F1-75 this time, but the worrying thing is that Leclerc was not in his usual form all weekend.
Is there a sense of resignation from Leclerc? Could be, especially as 2022 will end up being the one that got away from him since nothing guarantees he will enjoy the same advantage he enjoyed at the start of this season in the coming ones.
A word on Daniel Ricciardo
Just ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, McLaren announced that Daniel Ricciardo will not be driving for them in 2023, as he accepted a payoff to vacate his seat for – as things seem to be moving now – fellow Australian Oscar Piastri.
With the level of performance Ricciardo has delivered since he joined McLaren in 2021, no one can claim to be surprised by that decision, but one can’t help but feel bad for a driver who was once a promising talent and an exciting racer.
But what baffles me the most is Ricciardo’s inability to adapt to McLaren machinery after two seasons of trying despite all that he said about the Papaya cars requiring him to drive against all his instincts.
With other drivers you see the decline coming, as was the case with Sebastian Vettel in the twilight of his Ferrari career, but with Ricciardo, it was more sudden.
It was as if another Daniel climbed into the McLaren cockpit and not the one we have got used to watching ‘sending it’ over the years.
Now one has to admit that he did not set the world alight in his Renault days as well, but with the state of affairs at the French team at that time, the Aussie could be given a free pass, as those yellow cars were no good, not to forget the way the team was managed in the Cyril Abiteboul days.
But there was no hiding anymore at McLaren, and despite how weird the McLaren cars’ DNA is, a driver of Ricciardo’s experience should have been able to crack the code much faster.
The way in which Ricciardo’s departure was made known also hurts, as it was Piastri’s tweet, that he won’t be racing for Alpine, that spelt the end for the Honey Badger at Woking, and not the official announcement.
I don’t know if Alpine would take him back, but a drive in a Haas or a Williams would be more painful for Ricciardo, and in such a case it would be better for him to bow out with dignity.