Throughout the storied, seven-decade history of the Formula One World Championship, rarely has a race seen such a remarkable result as the 2020 Belgian Grand Prix.Lewis Hamilton, flanked in an increasingly familiar way by Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen.
What unfolded around Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday was something that has occurred only a handful of times in the history of a championship spanning over 1,000 grands prix. It was a race where Ferrari – the most prestigious and decorated entity in Formula 1 – were reduced to mere also-rans.
The writing was on the wall from Friday. Practice was grim. Only 15th and 17th in the standings. At least Sebastian Vettel wasn’t panicking just yet.
“The car was difficult and tricky to drive, but I guess that also means that we’re not quite where we should be,” he said “We’ll reset and try again and try something different. I’m sure tomorrow will be a bit better.”
It wasn’t. On Saturday morning the four-time world champion was slowest.
Vettel and team mate Charles Leclerc successfully dodged the humiliation of elimination in Q1, but 12 months on from leading the field into La Source in 2019, Ferrari found themselves on the seventh row of the grid at Spa in 2020. The only team of the 10 to go slower than they did last year.
There were no excuses. Vettel admitted that the performance was a “true picture” of the team’s struggling pace. Leclerc was frustrated. For himself, for the team and the Tifosi’
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“I can understand the fans at home that are very disappointed,” he said. “Us drivers all try to make the best race possible tomorrow, even though we can’t expect any miracles.”
As Sunday dawned, it felt like a miracle would also be the only thing that could prevent Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen from taking up their customary positions on the podium that afternoon.
The six-time world champion had delivered another spirit-crushing lap to take his absurd pole position tally to 93. Bottas, however, was surprisingly confident. Given the choice of being ahead or behind his team mate on the long run up to Les Combes, he was quite happy to be second in line.
Behind the top three, it had been an outstanding Saturday for both Daniel Ricciardo in the Renault and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jnr – each empowered by the low-downforce, low drag-packages on their machines.
But Sainz, one of many in the field who counts the iconic Ardennes circuit as his favourite, was forced out of the Belgian Grand Prix before it had even begun. An exhaust problem on his reconnaissance lap dooming him to be the Spa circuit’s sole permitted spectator for the afternoon.
Hamilton, as expected, reached La Source ahead of Bottas when the red lights went out. Rounding the tight hairpin, Hamilton’s Mercedes broke traction under throttle, causing him to correct the car on exit. As the field flew by the old pit lane, Bottas, in theory, had Hamilton right where he wanted him. Except he was too close. He’d run out of road if he attempted to pass into Eau Rouge.
With Bottas left with no option but to ease off the throttle so to follow Hamilton over Radillion, his opportunity to draft his team mate along the Kemmel Straight instead became Verstappen’s opportunity to the Mercedes.
Thankfully for Bottas, Verstappen did not have enough momentum to slingshot past and instead had his mirrors filled with flashes of yellow as Ricciardo had a cheeky look up the inside of Les Combes. The pair fought side-by-side through Malmedy down to Bruxelles, with the Red Bull ultimately emerging in front.
Behind in the Ferrari, Leclerc had taken advantage of the opportunities offered in the inherent chaos of a Formula One start and had moved up four places to ninth, ahead of Lando Norris in the sole remaining McLaren.
Acutely aware of the performance advantage that his McLaren held over the Ferrari that weekend, Norris decided he’d much prefer to be ahead of Leclerc instead and looked to pass around the outside heading into Les Combes.
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Unfortunately for Norris, the fluid lost from Sainz’s exhaust failure prior to the race had to have ended up somewhere, and it was the sister McLaren which found it. Norris got crossed up and had to use the escape road, falling back to 12th.
And so, unexpectedly, Leclerc’s Ferrari was running in eighth after a successful move past Sergio Perez’s Racing Point at the Bus Stop on the opening lap. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad afternoon for Ferrari. After all, Leclerc always seems to find a way to pull out a decent result this year.
Then DRS was activated. In just five laps, Leclerc lost four places. First, Pierre Gasly. Then Perez. Then Norris. Then Daniil Kvyat. Each time, Leclerc unable to offer any form of effective defence.
“I’m struggling so much on the straights,” remarked Ferrari’s powerless driver as number 16 tumbled down the order.
Before the race, the conventional wisdom was that a one-stop strategy would be the way to go. The field settled into an early rhythm, with the three leaders out front all on mediums.
As the teams entered the early pit window on Lap 11, the race was suddenly neutralised by a violent accident at the exit of Fagnes that would spark a flurry of activity in the pit lane.
Antonio Giovinazzi lost control of his Alfa Romeo on the exit of the quick right-left thanks to a touch too much throttle followed by more than a dab of opposite lock. The resulting spin sent him spearing into the outside tyre barriers and bouncing him back across the track, into the path of George Russell’s Williams.
The force of the collision had jettisoned a wheel from the Alfa Romeo, which Russell was unable to avoid. Tens of thousands of pounds worth of meticulously manufactured suspension arms collapsed instantly on impact, leaving the Williams driver a mere passenger as he collected the outside tyre barrier.
With two heavily wrecked Formula 1 cars stricken on the circuit and large chunks of carbon fibre littering the track, the Safety Car was called upon to allow for clean-up, race control determining a red flag was not needed.
Giovinazzi admitted his mistake was down simply to pushing too hard, while Russell expressed his gratitude that, although he didn’t need it, the Halo had been there to shield his body from the errant wheel.
Over the next two laps, all bar Gasly and Perez pitted for new tyres. Although a one-stop was always the plan for the majority, it would be quite the ask to make even the hard tyres cover over 30 laps to reach the chequered flag.
Hamilton led the field away at the restart on lap 15. This time, Bottas’s problem wasn’t that he was too close to his team mate on the run up the Kemmel Straight, but too far.
Meanwhile at Ferrari, Vettel restarted the race in 12th, while Leclerc had fallen to 14th after a long pit stop. In what was perhaps the most striking example of just how badly the SF-1000 was struggling, Vettel could only watch as former Ferrari team mate Kimi Raikkonen in the Alfa Romeo, with the same power unit at his disposal, cruised up alongside and then past him on the Kemmel Straight.
Seemingly unable to fight anyone bar the Haas cars and Nicholas Latifi’s sole remaining Williams, Vettel and Leclerc instead looked to provide each other with some entertainment.
Leclerc used DRS to make a run on the sister Ferrari. Vettel knew that outside moves at Les Combes are rarely pulled off and positioned his car accordingly. Leclerc almost clipped his team mate’s rear left as the pair rounded the left-hander, but any significant contact was avoided. It was a battle for 12th position.
Leclerc was brought in for a second stop and moved onto medium tyres. It was another slow stop, with Ferrari topping up pneumatic pressure on his car’s engine as a precaution.
Aware that his team mate had now pitted for a second time, Vettel was feeling less than enthusiastic at the prospect of running another 20 laps on his tyres and began lobbying the team to give him the same opportunity.
“Okay, I’m not going to pass these guys in front,” he said. “Think about pitting. I’m happy to box.”
“Understood,” came the reply. Ultimately, Vettel would have to endure it.
Out front, an all too familiar gap was emerging between the leading three and the rest of the field. This was aided by Gasly in the AlphaTauri running fourth, the only driver in the field yet to stop.
Ricciardo in fifth was enjoying a fantastic weekend in the Renault. Out-performing expectations on Saturday to line up fourth on the grid, the Australian was having a lot of fun exploiting his Renault’s preference for low-downforce, high-speed circuits.
Behind him, Alexander Albon was the only driver to switch to mediums under the safety car. While the Red Bull driver was able to keep in touch with Ricciardo, he was unable to mount any genuine challenge to him.
With no more strategy to play out, the Belgian Grand Prix began to enter a phase of acute tyre conservation as drivers tried to ask as little of their Pirellis as possible to stretch them safely to the end of the race.
Not for the first time this season, the race at the front was less a matter of ‘can they catch them’ and more ‘can they make their tyres last’. Fearing a repeat of the Silverstone failures, Mercedes picked up that Bottas had a vibration on his W11, but he assured them that it wasn’t a problem.
Hamilton made a rare error under braking for the Bus Stop chicane, running wide and taking to the inside escape road. Too far back to capitalise on this, Bottas instead emulated his team mate by making a near identical error a handful of laps later.
Despite the anxiety over making the tyres last, the laps were beginning to wind down with the gaps between the top three protagonists now too wide to suggest much potential for late-race drama.
Albon, however, was struggling. His medium tyres were worse for wear and the Red Bull was coming under a renewed attack from Esteban Ocon in the second Renault, who was also being caught by Norris in the McLaren.
Entering the final laps, Ocon was within striking distance. Despite a couple of opportunities with DRS, Albon was able to repel the attack. But on the final lap, Ocon had too good of a run along the Kemmel Straight and snatched fifth place. With Ricciardo fourth, that put a lock on Renault’s strongest result of the season.
Norris was not too far behind, but couldn’t make a move. “We just needed one more lap,” the McLaren driver lamented.
Hamilton duly ticked off the remaining laps to claim his fifth victory of the season and extend his already hefty early-season championship lead to 47 points over Verstappen. Bottas crossed the line just over six seconds behind, while Verstappen was just over six further seconds further down the road.
It had been a predictable result, but one that had been defined by the heavy tyre management that all three had reluctantly been forced to do. All three concurred after the race that the race had not been particularly exciting to drive.
Just as he had after qualifying, Hamilton paid tribute to the memory of actor Chadwick Boseman in parc ferme. Hamilton had previously expressed how inspirational Boseman’s role as Marvel superhero Black Panther had been not just to young people of colour across the world, but to him personally.
Ricciardo capped off Renault’s strongest weekend since the former Red Bull driver had joined the team in 2019 by setting the fastest lap of the race – despite team principal Cyril Abiteboul’s reluctance to allow him to turn up his engine. Ricciardo himself didn’t seem all that worried. “I was fucking pushing,” he laughed. “I fucking sent that one.”
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But among the finishers of the Belgian Grand Prix, the most outstanding result had to be the two Ferraris languishing in 13th and 14th place.
This had not been a race compromised by accidents or misadventure. This had not been a race where rain or an inopportune safety car intervention had struck at the worst possible time.
This was Ferrari finishing well outside the points simply because they had nothing else to give. An unfathomable reality.
But with the writing having been on the wall since Friday, there was little shock to be found among the Scuderia’s two drivers.
“It’s not unreal, it’s the reality,” accepted Vettel. “I think in any sport, you always have to face the reality, even if it’s very harsh.
“We didn’t crash on the first lap, have to change the front wing, were 20 seconds off the end of the field and came back to be 13th. No, we were racing hard. We raced without any big mistakes. And we finished 13th and 14th. So it’s the reality.”
The factors involved in why Ferrari’s power unit is lacking in performance this season are no mystery. That can be understood. But perhaps what’s most concerning for the team is that even team principal Mattia Binotto can’t explain why the team were beaten by Alfa Romeo, a customer team.
“Power and aero efficiency is the first part,” said Binotto “But that’s not sufficient to explain our performance of this weekend because anyway I don’t think that the pattern with our customer teams is where we are expecting to be.
“So there is something more which we are looking at which at the moment we do not [understand].”
And with just one week before the team race at their spiritual home of Monza, there’s not a lot of time for Ferrari to come up with answers for those unknowns. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that there’ll be no Tifosi in the stands.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken