Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Spa-Francorchamps, 2023

For once, Verstappen’s rivals may be closer in the race than qualifying

2023 Belgian Grand Prix Friday practice analysis

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Last year at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, Max Verstappen produced the defining weekend performance of his second world championship-winning campaign.

Despite securing the fastest time in qualifying, he started 14th position as a result of grid penalties due to power unit parts changes. No matter, Verstappen was in the lead of the race by lap 12, which said more than any pundit’s plaudits could about the gulf in performance between Red Bull’s RB18 and its rivals – and between the two drivers tasked with driving it.

In 2023, it’s hard not to have a strong sense of déjà vu. While this year’s Belgian round is a sprint weekend, meaning the grid for Sunday is already set, the situation appears to be the same. Verstappen may not be on pole or even in the top five positions when the grand prix begins, but just one day into the weekend, it feels like the soon-to-be three-times world champion will be especially tough to beat around Spa once more.

Just like in 2022, Verstappen’s penalty was not a matter of necessity, but a strategic decision. With its high average lap speed, multiple long straights and flowing, sustained corners that emphasise the exceptional efficiency of the RB19’s aerodynamics, Red Bull know this is perhaps the best circuit for Verstappen to take the hit of a gearbox penalty. Especially when it’s only five places.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Spa-Francorchamps, 2023
Pole-winner Leclerc is realistic about his slim victory hopes
“I think it’s still the best place to do it,” Verstappen said after qualifying. “I think Sunday looks more and more dry. So that’s why we still went for it, basically.”

As with every sprint round, teams have only a single practice session where they can dabble with set-ups and have their drivers acclimatise with the circuit before they are locked in to four competitive sessions for the rest of the weekend. But in typical Spa fashion, rain denied everyone the benefit of any dry running during the practice hour, with Verstappen himself only completing two gentle reconnaissance laps over the entire session.

But from the dry laps at the end of Q2 and Q3, it is possible to make some observations about the front running cars for this weekend – especially how they got to their various grid positions for Sunday. Verstappen took pole position by eight tenths of a second, a depressing margin for his rivals, but one he admitted had been inflated by the circumstances.

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Naturally, Verstappen was strongest over most of Spa’s seven kilometres, but the bulk of his eight tenths of advantage was achieved by the exit of Stavelot – five kilometres into the lap. Over the two-kilometres run from Stavelot, through Blanchimont and the chicane to the finish line Charles Leclerc, Sergio Perez, Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz Jnr all lost minimal time to Verstappen.

That is perhaps not all that surprising, given that entire final section is effectively one flat-out corner in the dry and a single braking zone for a chicane, but it also shows that on what was the most critical lap of entire weekend, the Red Bull was virtually matched for top speed by the Ferrari and the Mercedes of Hamilton. That is also shown in how little time Verstappen gained on his rivals along the 1.5km full throttle stretch from the exit of La Source, up through Eau Rouge and Raidillon and along the Kemmel Straight until hitting the brakes for Les Combes.

This is conspicuous because of the obvious difference between the top five qualifiers and the three behind them. Oscar Piastri in sixth, his team mate Lando Norris behind him and George Russell all threw away time to Verstappen and the cars ahead along the straights on their final Q3 laps – this trio well over 10kph slower than the two Red Bulls at the fastest points on the track. That suggests that the McLarens are running a set up with more downforce than their rivals, perhaps with the expected rain over the rest of the weekend in mind. But the difference in the Mercedes between Hamilton and Russell did not require speculation.

Hamilton (left) has a thinner rear wing than Russell (right)

“They’re two very different rear wings and configurations,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff explained. “You can see that Lewis is just able to extract more performance off that.”

Russell is running a higher downforce level than Hamilton with a larger rear wing. Wolff explains that the decision was made with tyre degradation for the grand prix in mind.

“He has a bit of a barn door in the back,” described Wolff. “That can be advantageous for tyre performance on Sunday. It didn’t help today so we need to assess why it didn’t.”

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At McLaren, Piastri and Norris were been beaten by both Ferraris and Hamilton’s Mercedes into the ‘best of the rest’ spot they have held the last two rounds. But with Norris hampered by floor damage and Piastri admitting that he “left time on the table”, it seems McLaren will be itching to take the challenge to their rivals on Saturday throughout the sprint sessions.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Spa-Francorchamps, 2023
Floor damaged compromised Norris’ performance
“I think the pace in the car is still quite good,” said Piastri, who will start fifth on the grid on Sunday courtesy of Verstappen’s penalty.

“Obviously Ferrari seem stronger this weekend, so it’s not just two teams fighting for second best, it’s more like three, possibly four. So it’ll be a tricky one, but I think we can have another crack at it tomorrow.”

Leclerc will inherit pole position for Sunday’s main event – the second time he will start at the front for the grand prix during a sprint race weekend this season. But despite being the closest to the championship leader and apparently solved the struggles he’s had in changeable conditions over recent months, the Ferrari driver admitted he was “not confident” about his chances of fighting for a win on Sunday at this early stage.

“Especially with the two Red Bull guys right behind, I think they’ve got a much better race car than we have,” he said.

“I mean, it’s great to be starting first and I think it gives us a good chance to have a great result. But to say that we’ll target the win, I think it’s probably a bit too optimistic.”

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But before drivers think about their chances for the grand prix, they now have to put everything that took place on Friday aside and reset from zero for the sprint sessions. With a second three-stage qualifying session in the morning and a 15-lap race in the evening, this would typically provide a much clearer idea of what to expect from each of the teams on Sunday.

However, the weather will have plenty to say about that yet again. The showers that soaked the Spa circuit at various intervals throughout Friday seem set to be sustained on Saturday. Current forecasts show a 40% chance of rain both in the lead up to sprint race qualifying and during the session itself, and a higher chance when the sprint race begins at 4.30pm local time.

With the conditions for the sprint race currently as unknown as the grid, it’s difficult to know what to expect to happen. Except that, whatever the weather, Verstappen will remain the driver to beat.

Qualifying times

PositionNumberDriverTeamQ1 timeQ2 time (vs Q1)Q3 time (vs Q2)
11Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’58.5151’52.784 (-5.731s)1’46.168 (-6.616s)
216Charles LeclercFerrari1’58.3001’52.017 (-6.283s)1’46.988 (-5.029s)
311Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’58.8991’52.353 (-6.546s)1’47.045 (-5.308s)
444Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’58.5631’52.345 (-6.218s)1’47.087 (-5.258s)
555Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’58.6881’51.711 (-6.977s)1’47.152 (-4.559s)
681Oscar PiastriMcLaren-Mercedes1’58.8721’51.534 (-7.338s)1’47.365 (-4.169s)
74Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’59.9811’52.252 (-7.729s)1’47.669 (-4.583s)
863George RussellMercedes1’59.0351’52.605 (-6.430s)1’47.805 (-4.800s)
914Fernando AlonsoAston Martin-Mercedes1’58.8341’52.751 (-6.083s)1’47.843 (-4.908s)
1018Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’59.6631’52.193 (-7.470s)1’48.841 (-3.352s)
1122Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT1’59.0441’53.148 (-5.896s)Missed by 0.364s
1210Pierre GaslyAlpine-Renault1’59.5111’53.671 (-5.840s)Missed by 0.887s
1320Kevin MagnussenHaas-Ferrari2’00.0201’54.160 (-5.860s)Missed by 1.376s
1477Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’59.4841’54.694 (-4.790s)Missed by 1.910s
1531Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’59.6341’56.372 (-3.262s)Missed by 3.588s
1623Alexander AlbonWilliams-Mercedes2’00.314Missed by 0.294s
1724Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo-Ferrari2’00.832Missed by 0.812s
182Logan SargeantWilliams-Mercedes2’01.535Missed by 1.515s
193Daniel RicciardoAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT2’02.159Missed by 2.139s
2027Nico HulkenbergHaas-Ferrari2’03.166Missed by 3.146s

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2023 Belgian Grand Prix

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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6 comments on “For once, Verstappen’s rivals may be closer in the race than qualifying”

  1. I don’t think so when it went drier Max was flying if the race is dry expect him to win.

    1. Well, if it’s wet I’m expecting him to win as well.

      1. Precisely.

  2. @macleod

    I agree with your prediction, though I also think the “I dont think so” assertion does miss the point of the article a little.

  3. I doubt

  4. I mean if there’s one take away from such a dominant performance to spin this, this was it. Not that Max won’t clear the field by the end of the first stint, but a definite A for effort.

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