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SPA, BELGIUM - JULY 29: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB19 leads Oscar Piastri of Australia driving the (81) McLaren MCL60 Mercedes during the Sprint ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on July 29, 2023 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Belgium Sprint: Verstappen master of the wet as Piastri shines

SPA, BELGIUM - JULY 29: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB19 leads Oscar Piastri of Australia driving the (81) McLaren MCL60 Mercedes during the Sprint ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on July 29, 2023 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Max Verstappen won the third Formula 1 Sprint Race of the 2023 season at Spa-Francorchamps, mastering the tricky wet conditions, and fending off a brief challenge from Oscar Piastri.

The race started behind the Safety Car, all cars on full wet tyres, but once the racing started after five formation laps, Piastri pitted from second for Intermediate tyres, while Verstappen copied him one lap after that.

The Dutchman exited from the pits behind Piastri and started reeling the Australian rookie in, but had to wait for another Safety Car, this time because of Fernando Alonso crashing at Pouhon.

Once the stricken Aston Martin was cleared, Verstappen made quick work of Piastri following the restart, the McLaren young star having to settle for second. Nevertheless a respectable drive from the Aussie who can now boast a top-three finish, as it doesn’t count as a podium.

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Behind Piastri, Pierre Gasly drove a solid Sprint Race for Alpine, dealing with race-long pressure from Lewis Hamilton. The Frenchman was third, while the Briton was seventh having received a five-second time penalty for an incident with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez who had to retire.

Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc were fourth and fifth, while Lando Norris was sixth in the #4 McLaren MCL60.

Hamilton was seventh and teammate George Russell took the final point-scoring position, eighth for Mercedes.

What the top three said

Verstappen said after winning the Sprint Race: “It was a safer call (to stay out for lap one) – I could come in first and then be blocked by other cars, there might be a Safety Car and then you lose out massively. I didn’t mind to stay out.

“We lost one position and we know we are quick and we could see that when we put the inter tyres on we were flying. The car was quick, tyres were holding on, just tiny little issues (with the brakes).

“I need to pass a few cars tomorrow. The biggest risk is just lap one, turn one, it’s always very tricky there. As long as we stay out of trouble we have a quick car,” the Red Bull star concluded.

Second-placed Piastri added: “Very, very happy. We tried our best when the Safety Car came in and led a few laps. I tried my best but we were no match for Max

“Nice to be up therein P2. Apart from Max our pace was really strong, so full credit to the team again. The last three weekends it’s been pretty special compared to where we have been so I can’t thank them enough for for the car.

“We’ve still got a little bit of work to do to get right to the top but it’s a little nicer to be up there,” he concluded.

An elated Gasly commented: “It feels amazing, I’m extremely happy to finish in the top three especially here at Spa which feels some kind of home race for us without the French GP.

“It was very difficult conditions. I’m extremely happy, we pitted at the right time and managed to hold off Lewis until the end. It does feel very special to do it here at Spa, I have a thought for Anthoine (Hubert) and I’m just extremely pleased for the whole team.

“I gave it everything, I could see Lewis coming back and getting closer. I was just trying to stay focused on my driving, making clean laps. It wasn’t easy but I gave it all and it paid off. I’m super happy for all the guys and will go for it all tomorrow,” the Frenchman concluded.

How the Sprint unraveled

As was the case with the Sprint Shootout earlier today, the start of the Sprint Race was delayed due to heavy rain. Just before the Sprint Race was scheduled to begin, rain hit Spa-Francorchamps hard, and as a result the FIA decided to delay the start until 17:12 local time.

The original start time was delayed 35 minutes following the delay of the Shootout as the regulations dictate that the start of the Shootout and the Sprint Race should be four and half hours apart.

Soon the rain intensity increased and the initial tentative start time (17:12) was no longer valid, as the race control announced the session will be delayed without giving an exact time.

“Latest update is that the rain is expecting to stay around until about twenty past, then they expect to start the race behind the Safety Car,” Norris’ race engineer reported over the radio.

At 17:22 local time, race control announced that the Sprint race will kick off at 17:35 local time… And indeed the sun shone and the teams started dismantling the awnings covering the cars.

It was also announced that the formation lap will start behind the Safety Car on Wet-Weather tyres.

And right on time, the formation lap started the Safety Car leading the pack with at least two laps expected before the 20 F1 cars are unleashed to race.

On the second formation lap, Russell reported that track conditions are suitable for the Intermediate tyres. While Verstappen’s engineer informed him there were four formation laps planned followed by a rolling start.

Verstappen soon reported that the track was drying quickly and claimed the Intermediates will be the tyre of choice, as the race director opted for an extra formation lap.

The Safety Car left the track as Verstappen controlled the start and opted to keep going while several drivers decided to box for Intermediate tyres.

Piastri pitted from P2 while Gasly, Perez, Hamilton, Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll, Alex Albon, Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg all came in as well.

Verstappen and Red Bull decided to box for Intermediates as he tried to build the gap to more the four seconds from second placed Leclerc.

Leclerc also pitted and had a slow stop, while Verstappen returned to the track in second place behind Piastri, with ten laps of racing remaining.

At that point the order was: Piastri, Verstappen, Gasly, Perez, Hamilton, Sainz, Leclerc, Norris, Ricciardo, and Esteban Ocon.

Verstappen soon launched his attack on Piastri the gap between the top two less than one second, and soon the Red Bull ace has a look at the McLaren.

And after four laps of racing, Alonso brought out the Safety Car, as he binned his Aston Martin at Pouhon (Turn 11), a rare mistake by the Spaniard. That would help relieve the pressure off Piastri, but he needs to nail the re-start.

Alonso was trying to overtake Hulkenberg and took too much kerb, spinning several times before ending up in the  gravel.

“Ok Max, so intel is Piastri left hand side tyre is already suffering,” Verstappen is told over the radio, he responds: “Yeah I’m not surprised. He’s drifting everywhere.”

The Safety Car was in at the end of Lap 5, and Piastri had a clean start, but Verstappen was right behind him and had the job done on the Kemmel straight right after coming out of Radillon.

Behind the top two, Gasly, Perez and Hamilton were contending for third place, the #44 Mercedes attacking the #11 Red Bull relentlessly, with Sainz lurking behind.

Hamilton soon passed Perez as well as both Ferraris, Sainz and Leclerc, as Perez seemed to be dropping back as footage showed his RB19 suffering a damaged sidepod while he reports having to grip.

The Mexican continued his free fall down the order even going into the gravel at one point, while replay showed Hamilton’s from left tyre hitting the Red Bull sidepod as they fought for position.

Up front, Verstappen was flying free over three seconds clear of Piastri while Gasly was starting to come under pressure from Hamilton.

The stewards soon announced the Hamilton/Perez incident will be looked into, while Red Bull decided to box the stricken #11 RB19 and retire it.

Hamilton was soon slapped with a five-second time penalty for his incident with Perez while Verstappen was complaining about his brakes saying he can’t “wake them up.”

In the end, Gasly was able to hold his position against Hamilton’s attacks and finished third, while the seven-time F1 Champion dropped to seventh due to his penalty.

The top eight were: Verstappen, Piastri, Gasly, Sainz, Leclerc, Norris, Hamilton, and Russell.

Belgium Sprint Results

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