If all three practice sessions were any indicator, you might think that Red Bull and Renault had a shot at keeping Mercedes honest in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. Impressive sector times from both teams were there or thereabouts with the mighty Mercedes duo while Ferrari languished at the back of the grid. Could anyone upset the Mercedes? Would the “Party Mode” engine mapping ban this weekend drop a proverbial anchor on the Mercedes cars? Friday’s practice would suggest that might not be the case and as the ban is not in effect yet, Merc didn’t use party mode at the last race. That’s pace-in-hand.
The bigger tactical question for the teams is trimming out the car for speed in sector’s one and three or add downforce for sector 2 with a 43s impact under load. There is two ways to approach the track and find the time.
Haas F1 were out first and rightfully so. They had experienced engine troubles on Friday with engine changes and they needed the running. They were also keen to run nose-to-tail in order to give each other a tow and it gave Romain Grosjean a three tenths advantage on their first attempt.
Max Verstappen’s first run in his Red Bull was a 1:43.408s and was instantly eclipsed by Carlos Sainz in his McLaren by eight hundredth of a second. Daniel Ricciardo jumped ahead of Sainz by a thousandth.
It was both Mercedes who clubbed everyone by nearly a full second on their first runs with Lewis Hamilton leading Valtteri Bottas by two tenths. The Racing Point duo of Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll looked very competitive in practice but their first runs were only enough for 7th and 10th, Stroll elating Perez.
With three minutes left, the teams were out for they final runs in Q1. IT was a traffic jam through turn 9 with teams trying to position themselves for a slipstream. The two Ferrari’s were not nose-to-tail for a tow, however, despite the rest of the teams in 2×2 order.
Sebastian Vettel pushed Charles Leclerc down into 15th and very close to elimination. George Russel put his Williams in between the Ferrari’s while Kevin Magnussen took a trip into the gravel on his last run.
Out in Q1- Raikkonen, Latifi, Giovinazzi, Magnussen, Grosjean
The Ferrari’s came out nose-to-tail after Leclerc radioed that he needed a tow at the end of Q1. Charles felt it was a fine line between a tow and the aero disruption usually associated with following a car too closely. Perhaps the track conditions in Q2 were leaning toward a tow.
Mercedes were first out and running Medium compound tires with Hamilton setting a purple second sector under 43s with a 42.850s. Was Mercedes taking advantage of their superior shove int he back to overcome a higher downforce configuration to attack sector 2?
The Renault duo of Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo slotted 4th and 5th on their initial runs on Soft compounds. Both Ferrari’s were in the elimination zone on their first runs and Vettel was on the Soft compounds.
Racing Point attempted their runs on the Medium compounds and that left both cars in the elimination zone as both McLaren and Alpha Tauri were running too well in order to let the pink cars slip into the top ten. It would most likely prompt a Soft compound run to get out of the elimination zone.
Both Racing Points out on Softs and Stroll set a purple performance in Sector one. A 5th and 7th. Carlos Sainz jumped to 4th with Alex Albon and Max Verstappen jumping to 3rd and 4th int heir Red Bulls.
Both Alpha Tauri’s failed to get into Q2 and shockingly both Ferrari’s were also out. After setting pole last year, Ferrari’s secret discussions with the FIA and alleged correction of their power generation in 2019 seems to have left the engine gasping and the sector times show they are in a serious lack of shove in 2020.
Out in Q2- Leclerc, Vettel, Russell, Kvyat, Gasly
Pole was 1:42.5s in 2019 and Mercedes looked planted in their Sector 2 configuration. Both Mercedes were out first with Hamilton leading Norris and Bottas. The Renault’s were running nose-to-tail.
Hamilton went purple in Sector 2 again and set a 1:41.451s track record. Bottas slotted in second with Ricciardo in 3rd, Verstappen in 4th and Albon in 5th. Bottas was .578s off Lewis’s provisional pole and Ricciardo was just four tenths off Bottas.
With 3:40s left int eh session, all the cars came out for their final laps. This attempt, Bottas was on Hamilton’s tail with Ricciardo on Ocon’s tail to try and make a run at Bottas. Hamilton set yet another fastest Sector 2 and improved his pole by two tenths.
Verstappen moved put to third with Albon in 5th. Ricciardo aborted his lap and will start 4th. The Racing Point duo could do no better than 8th and 9th with Perez leading Stroll.
Possible Strategies per Pirelli:
The optimal strategy for the 44-lap Belgian Grand Prix is on paper a one-stopper, but as usual the tactics in Belgium will be heavily influenced by the weather. Aside from the possibility of rain, estimated earlier at 80%, ambient and track temperatures will also play a part.
The fastest theoretical strategy is to start on the soft tire for 18 laps and then complete the race on the medium. The exact opposite can work too.
Second-quickest is another one-stopper, with the soft for 16 laps and the hard for 28 laps, while a two-stopper is feasible as well: start on the soft for 14 laps, then medium for 16 laps, then soft for 14 laps.
Slower is a one-stopper using medium for 20 laps and hard for 24 laps – but all the strategies listed above are actually quite close, so it will come down to individual race circumstances when deciding the best solution.
- Speed. Hamilton’s pole time on soft was not only nearly 1.3 seconds faster than last year’s pole, but the Mercedes driver also set a new track record at Spa four times during qualifying (including on the medium tire) eclipsing the previous benchmark from 2018. The first seven cars in qualifying were all faster than last year’s pole.
- Weather. A lot is always said about variable conditions at Spa, but it’s all true: weather will be the determining factor when it comes to strategy, especially with a considerable possibility of rain tomorrow. This will point teams towards a flexible strategy to allow them to take advantage of changing circumstances.
- Strategy. The top three cars – Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen – will all start the race on the P Zero Yellow medium tire, having used it to set their best times in Q2, while the rest of the top 10 behind them will start on soft.
- Renault. Both cars have been quick all weekend, with Daniel Ricciardo qualifying fourth and Esteban Ocon sixth.