Every world championship in Formula 1 is won through the combined efforts of the many races held during a season, each one equal in the points it contributes to the final total.
Max Verstappen will surely finish his 2022 season as world champion for the second successive year. But his otherworldly performance during the Belgian Grand Prix may well prove to be the iconic drive that second title will always be remembered by.
As Formula 1 returned to Spa-Francorchamps, a spate of power unit grid penalties throughout the field promised fans would be treated to an intriguing grand prix to restart the season. They were taken by Verstappen and his closest championship rival Charles Leclerc, plus Esteban Ocon, Lando Norris, Zhou Guanyu, Mick Schumacher and Yuki Tsunoda. They were all relegated to the rear, while Valtteri Bottas changed a smaller number of parts which enabled him to sit ahead of them on the grid.
Verstappen had been in a league of his own on Saturday, taking pole by six tenths of a second before handing it over to Carlos Sainz Jnr, the fastest of those unburdened by grid penalties for the weekend. Sergio Perez, who would start from the front row alongside the Ferrari, had no hesitation about giving away exactly what his tactics would be for the start of the race.
“I think certainly you don’t want to be leading into Eau Rouge if there’s a car behind, really close by,” he said after qualifying. “Hopefully we can make the most out of it, get a good start and get the lead from Carlos early on.”
With the Red Bull driver having made his plans for the start crystal clear, Ferrari decided the best form of defence was attack. When the tyre blankets were removed on the grid minutes from the formation lap, Sainz was the only driver starting from the top 10 to reveal red-marked soft tyres on his car – clearly intended to give him the best possible traction out of La Source for the 25-second full-throttle run to the braking zone of Les Combes.
When the lights went out, Perez had to immediately abandon all hopes of getting past Sainz and worry instead about being double-teamed by Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton behind. The two champions were already by Perez before they had even reached the braking zone for La Source. As he aimed for the apex, George Russell cheekily nipped up the inside for good measure, demoting Perez three places before he’d even got through the first corner.
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But while Perez lost three places off the line, Verstappen had gained three. He was already in the top 10 by the time the field bolted past the endurance race pit lane and up Eau Rouge for the first time. Sainz had eight tenths over Alonso behind, enough to keep him ahead along the Kemmel Straight. Instead, Alonso was pressured by Hamilton who was more than close enough to make a move to the outside of him at Les Combes.
For a driver who so rarely makes errors, that Hamilton expected Alonso of all drivers to back out of their battle was a striking misjudgement on his part. As he cut to an apex already occupied by the Alpine, the rear of his car pitched into the air before slamming down on the asphalt with enough force to cause his Mercedes to begin instantly leaking fluid behind him.
In the melee of the pack, Verstappen was passed by Alexander Albon and briefly found Leclerc side-by-side with him heading down to Speakers’ Corner. But Verstappen stubbornly rebuked Leclerc’s advances around the outside to retain tenth.
Wounded, Hamilton fell back through the pack, his car indiscriminately spraying the field with fluid as they passed him. Verstappen got a coating exiting Stavelot and quickly took a tear off from his visor, releasing it from the right side of the cockpit where it was promptly hoovered up into the right-front brake duct of Leclerc’s chasing Ferrari – unbeknown to the driver.
At the end of the first lap, Sainz’s advantage was over two seconds from Perez with George Russell now in third thanks to Hamilton and Alonso’s fracas. But Sainz’s hopes of pulling any kind of a gap over Perez with his soft tyres were soon dashed midway through the second lap.
Down in 11th, Nicholas Latifi clipped birthday boy Valtteri Bottas after spinning on the exit of Les Combes, leaving the Alfa Romeo driver with nowhere to go but into the gravel. While Latifi was able to sheepishly carry on his way, Bottas was beached. As he climbed out to start his birthday celebrations slightly earlier than planned, the Safety Car was deployed. Hamilton had stopped his wounded W13 at Blanchimont in the meantime, which also needed to be recovered.
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With the field neutralised, Leclerc checked in on his progress up the order. “Position?” he asked.
“So at the moment you are P10,” Xavier Marcos Padros replied. “Verstappen, P8.”
“No…” Leclerc corrected his race engineer. “Verstappen is in front.”
“So you are P9, yeah…” Marcos Padros confirmed, before passing on far more pressing information to his driver. “The front-right brake temperature seems to be hot, but we are checking it.”
“I think there is some smoke from the front-right,” Leclerc reported back before being given the call to pit at the end of the lap. “Argh! I think it must be a tear-off.” Leclerc’s hunch was spot-on. It took less than four seconds for his pit crew to resolve the problem, but it came at the cost of eight positions, leaving him one place further back than where he’d started the race.
With the race set to resume at the start of lap five, Sainz tried to take advantage of the final chicane to give himself a buffer over Perez behind. That appeared to backfire when he locked up and missed the apex by a country mile, but his error also forced Perez and the pack behind him to bunch up at the final corner, ironically allowing him the breathing space he had sought by accident.
As Sainz pulled away from Perez a second time, Verstappen resumed his charge through the field. He picked off Albon around the outside of Bruxelles with almost laughable ease before diving up the inside of Daniel Ricciardo into the final chicane thanks in part to the McLaren driver’s draggy rear wing doing him no favours. The following lap, Sebastian Vettel was his next victim into the Bus Stop. He’d gained three places in two laps, before DRS had even been activated.
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Once it was, Verstappen simply breezed past Alonso and up into fourth. Completing the seventh lap, Verstappen was already just five seconds away from the race leader having started 14th. With Verstappen running a second faster than anyone else on the track, fourth-placed George Russell was barely an obstacle for the Red Bull, Verstappen dispatching the Mercedes into Les Combes as if the pair were running in two different categories.
Eventually, complaints about tyres began to fill the radio waves around the Spa circuit. Ferrari called Sainz in to pit at the end of lap 11 for the medium compound. He rejoined sandwiched between Ricciardo and Lance Stroll in sixth. That also meant that Verstappen inherited the lead when he inevitably passed Perez on the next trip through the Kemmel Straight, but Red Bull were not worried about their now-leader’s tyres after seeing virtually everyone on the mediums struggling despite their supposed longer life.
Despite being starting the race on mediums, Perez was the called into the pits before his soft-shod team mate at the end of lap 14 for a second set having fallen almost four seconds behind his team mate over three laps. He came out well behind Sainz but just ahead of Leclerc and was fortunate not to get into trouble when he squeezed the Ferrari hard in the braking zone at Les Combes.
Verstappen made his first stop a lap later, moving onto the mediums and appearing from the pit lane just in front of his team mate who had made up three seconds on him with his new rubber. However, it would be as close as Perez would get again to the back of Verstappen, who quickly began reeling in Sainz ahead of him at a menacingly fast rate. Such was Verstappen’s superior pace, his engineer Giampiero Lambiase incorrectly assumed that the seven tenths of a second Sainz lost to him in the first sector of lap 17 must have been down to a mistake by the race leader.
By the stat of the next time, what had appeared inevitable was now imminent. After just 40 minutes and 120 kilometres into the 308km grand prix, Verstappen completed his charge from 14th to first by driving clean around the Ferrari with DRS along the Kemmel Straight.
Now free with a clear track in front of him, Verstappen began to stretch his legs, quickly getting smaller in Sainz’s vision ahead. Instead, Sainz and Ferrari now had to worry about Perez behind, who was also lapping easily quicker than him. Perez surgically grafted away the gap to the Ferrari until getting within DRS range at the start of lap 20. From there, it was simply a matter of time until Perez gave Sainz the same treatment Verstappen had given him three laps prior. The race was still not half-done, yet Red Bull’s third one-two of the season now seemed all but assured.
About half a lap behind Verstappen, the competition for the final points places was hotting up. Albon, ninth, was using his Williams’ remarkable top speed to his advantage and holding off a train of cars including Ricciardo, Stroll, Lando Norris and Zhou Guanyu. Ricciardo was well inside DRS range, but a shortage of parts at McLaren meant he was running an older, sub-optimal rear wing specification, which was doing him no favours in his bid to get past Albon.
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Following his enforced pit stop behind the Safety Car, Leclerc was now up to fifth, but his medium tyres were at the same threshold that many in the field had reached before they had taken their first stops. Looking at the queue of cars behind Albon, Ferrari saw a window to pit Leclerc and called him in for a final stop for another set of mediums.
“Okay, if you think they will last until the end of the race,” Leclerc hesitantly agreed.
Both Sainz and Leclerc were called in one after the other – Sainz for hards, Leclerc for mediums – with Sainz back out behind Russell and Leclerc successfully avoiding being caught behind the gaggle of cars chasing Albon. Red Bull covered off Sainz by boxing Perez two laps later, then the leader at the end of lap 30. But with Perez retaining a margin of over three seconds to Sainz and quickly pulling away, it was clear there would be no further threat to the Red Bulls from the third-placed Ferrari in the final quarter of the race.
The podium positions were seemingly set with over 10 laps of the race’s 44 still to run. With Leclerc only falling further back from fourth placed Russell ahead, Ferrari looked at the timing screens to see that Alonso was nearly 19 seconds behind him. The Ferrari pit wall began to debate whether to bring in Leclerc to attempt to go for the fastest lap bonus point. The only problem was, Alonso was keeping that gap fairly static as the final laps ticked away.
“If we increase the pace by three to four tenths, to open the gap to Alonso, we can attempt the fastest lap,” Marcos Padros told Leclerc. He instantly went half a second quicker, indicating his eagerness to capitalise on the opportunity.
“So at the moment, fastest lap is Verstappen: 49.4,” Marcos Padros confirmed. “Freaking hell,” came Leclerc’s reply. As the race reached three laps to go, Ferrari became increasingly convinced that this was a worthwhile pursuit for them.
“If we stop now, we will be one second ahead of Alonso,” Marcos Padros explained. “That will be to attempt for the fastest lap. So box this lap.”
Leclerc, however, was far from convinced. “I would not risk it this time,” he warned. “Up to you if you really want to try it, but I would not risk it.”
Ferrari, however, did want to risk it. But immediately their calculations appeared to be proven incorrect as he blended out of the pit lane not one second ahead of Alonso but barely a tenth in front of him as they charged up the hill. With no DRS for Leclerc, the Alpine zoomed by the Ferrari down the Kemmel Straight. It seemed as if Leclerc’s fears had been realised.
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Leclerc was wise enough to realise the benefits of keeping behind the Alpine until the start of the final lap to benefit from the tow as they exited La Source for the final time. He executed his tactic perfectly, flying past the Alpine with 16km/h extra speed by the time he reached the braking zone for Les Combes.
Not that Verstappen himself would likely care either way as he was far more occupied with showboating his way out of the final corner with a lazy powerslide to punctuate the climax of the most dominant performance of his career. Having aimed for “at least” a podium after qualifying, that he had cut through the field so rapidly to win by close to 20 seconds made it seem almost ludicrous that anyone had ever questioned whether he would win in the first place.
“Congratulations. Awesome drive,” Lambiase told his driver so casually it could almost be mistaken for sarcasm.
“Amazing Sunday, guys,” Verstappen replied. “Car was a rocketship all weekend. Unbelievable.”
Perez arrived across the line 18 seconds later to complete the one-two, with Sainz a further nine back. “Not easy,” Sainz summed up resignedly. “No, not easy,” Riccardo Adami agreed. “You did your best.”
Russell crossed the line in fourth, his pre-race prediction that he would spend the race in “no man’s land” having provedattempt final to snatch t accurate. But behind the Mercedes, Leclerc’s latest frustrating Sunday was about to get even more aggravating.
Not only did his fastest lap attempt fail to snatch the point away from Verstappen, but soon after taking the chequered flag it was confirmed that Leclerc would be moved behind Alonso in the classification after breaking the pit lane speed limit by 1km/h during his penultimate-lap pit stop.
“You did a good job,” Marcos Padros told his driver. But Leclerc was left lamenting his misfortune once again.
“Freaking tear-off,” he muttered, bitterly. “Freaking tear-off…”
Ocon claimed seventh from 16th on the grid, with Sebastian Vettel eighth in a solid result for Aston Martin and Pierre Gasly impressively delivering AlphaTauri’s first points since Baku despite starting from the pit lane.
Another striking result was achieved by Albon, who had resisted strong and sustained pressure over the second half of the race to take the final point in 10th, ahead of a train of five cars less than six seconds behind him at the flag.
“Yes! Yes boys!,” Albon roared over the finish line. “Fuck… that was one of the best races I think I’ve done. Oh my god…”
But not even Albon’s heroics could overshadow the stunning weekend that Verstappen had put together. Despite storming through the field to record statistically one of the greatest recoveries through the field the sport had ever seen, Verstappen’s demeanour was more like that of someone who had just enjoyed a pleasant afternoon stroll through the park.
“It was nice,” the race winner summed up. “I really enjoyed it, passing cars.”
“Of course, some of them are quite a lot slower than us, so it was quite easy to get them but you still need to get them as quickly as possible. So that was definitely the nice part of it.”
With his second world championship title now little more than a formality, there will still be some waiting for Verstappen to do until he will likely clinch the title with multiple rounds to spare. But with his home grand prix at Zandvoort awaiting him next weekend, the Dutch fans might as well kick off the celebrations in advance.
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