Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Spa-Francorchamps, 2023

Leclerc on pole, Perez leads the Red Bulls but Verstappen is the clear favourite

2023 Belgian Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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As an open development championship, the most critical factor that determines where each team ends up at the end of a Formula 1 race weekend is how fast their car is.

With the development race as intense as it has been over the last two seasons since the reintroduction of ground effect aerodynamics, the order has often changed from race to race, as teams bring upgrade packages throughout the season, boosting their performance level just a little bit more with every new part they fit onto the car.

But then, there are race weekends when having a well-designed and carefully-honed chassis is not enough – it’s how the car is set up that makes the most difference on the timing screen. And from the opening two days of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, it seems that has never been as true this season as it is at Spa-Francorchamps.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Spa-Francorchamps, 2023
Leclerc has pole for the first time since Azerbaijan
At seven kilometres in length, Spa is comfortably the longest circuit on the Formula 1 calendar. Featuring some of the longest flat-out sections of all 22 tracks drivers will race this season and a healthy variety of medium and high-speed corners with a slow hairpin and even a chicane thrown in for good measure, there are a few different approaches that teams can take to the historic Belgian circuit.

With just a single practice session on Friday, teams and drivers were forced to lock in their car configurations and set-ups for the rest of the weekend after an hour of running. To complicate that decision yet further, that session was held in wet weather, with many in the field not even completing a timed lap. As such, there’s been a variety of downforce levels on display this weekend – perhaps the largest variation that will be seen over the 2023 season.

Typically, teams will hone their wing and chassis settings over three practice sessions, but without that luxury on a sprint weekend like this one, drivers had to commit to their set-ups before they had even turned a lap in Friday’s qualifying session. Something that does not sit comfortably for many of the drivers.

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“That’s why I never really enjoy these kinds of weekends, because you just don’t have the time,” Max Verstappen admitted after Friday’s qualifying session for the grand prix.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Spa-Francorchamps, 2023
Gallery: 2023 Belgian Grand Prix sprint race in pictures
“I don’t think how advanced everything is in this sport that it should be like that: that on a Friday if you arrive with the wrong set-up, or you make the wrong call after FP1 that you’re stuck with it for the rest of the weekend, which basically also happened for us in in Brazil last year. It’s just super-painful.”

Although it was evident from the Friday afternoon qualifying session which set the order for Sunday’s Grand Prix, the two sprint sessions on Saturday demonstrated the different approaches to set up at the front of the field particularly clearly. There was no better example than at the Safety Car restart of the sprint race, when Oscar Piastri led the field away in his McLaren but was quickly swallowed up by Verstappen behind him as they crested the hill onto the Kemmel Straight.

With no DRS, just a conventional slipstream, Verstappen was over 15kph faster than the McLaren as he pulled out to overtake him, reflecting not only the natural raw speed of the Red Bull but also how much more drag the McLaren had from its higher-downforce set-up. It was evident even in qualifying earlier in the day, as Piastri and team mate Lando Norris were comfortably the quickest in the middle sector of the lap, which places much higher demands on cornering than the first and third sectors. But despite being passed so easily, Piastri is still satisfied that McLaren made the right call on their set-up.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘oh we should have run less wing’ but it’s not quite as simple as that,” he explained. “Some people’s cars work better at different downforce levels and when you’ve got one lap on inters in practice to see where everybody is, it’s pretty difficult to make decisions for the rest of the weekend. So I think we did the right call for what we could for our car.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have taken a much lower drag approach, down to him having a conspicuously slimmer rear wing than team mate George Russell. That gave Hamilton the benefit of around 5-7kph faster at the end of the straights compared to Russell during the sprint race, with the trade-off being that Hamilton was regularly having to lift off the throttle slightly into Eau Rouge and Blanchimont, while Russell could take those flat-out even in the damp intermediate conditions.

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For the grand prix, however, neither Mercedes nor McLaren will be on the front row. That privilege will go to Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari and Sergio Perez alongside him. Although starting from the best possible position, Leclerc admitted on Friday he expected a “very tricky” grand prix. He was not thrilled with fifth in the sprint race, but he was at least comfortable with how his car had felt over the 11 laps.

McLaren’s set-up leaves them vulnerable on the straights
“I was pretty happy in the race today,” he told media including RaceFans after the race. “There was a lot of overheating – I think it was a case for everybody, but we need to look into it. Especially if we find ourselves in those conditions tomorrow in order to make a step forward.”

Perez alongside will start on the front row for a grand prix for the first time since Miami seven rounds ago – coincidentally the last time he started ahead of his team mate on the grid. While his sprint race saw him struggling to match his team mate’s pace until contact with Hamilton put him out, Perez is eager to extend Red Bull’s record run of victories by breaking his team mate’s current streak.

“I will try my best,” he said. “I will try to get Charles at the start, which is always hard, but I think it’s also a long race, high deg. So anything can happen on Sunday, but we certainly have a good position.”

But Verstappen remains the favourite for a reason. Winning the sprint from pole was little surprise, but after he won at this very track from 14th on the grid a year ago, the prospect of him repeating that feat from sixth place feels easily within his abilities. Especially when his own car set-up appeared to suit the damp and drying conditions well on Saturday.

“We knew already over one lap we were anyway not bad, but also in the race it seemed like we were quite good on keeping the tyres alive,” Verstappen explained. So hopefully, we can do the same tomorrow if it’s dry.

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“Of course, I’m starting a bit further back. I need to be careful to not have any damage on the car. And as soon as I have a clean lap one, I think from there onwards we can move forwards.”

Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, Mercedes, Spa-Francorchamps, 2023
Hamilton is running a thinner rear wing than Russell
All four sessions so far this weekend have required a wet tyre of either variety, but while there is a risk that the grand prix could be affected by rain, it currently sits at a 40% chance – meaning it’s slightly more likely to remain dry than it is to see rain during the race. But at Spa, that can never be taken for granted.

If it does remain dry, Pirelli predict that there will be little difference between one and two-stop strategies. However, that is based on only theoretical data, as there have so far been zero high-fuel running on the dry compounds to base any calls on. Last year, using the same three compounds of C2, C3 and C4, there were three different strategies in the top three positions. Winner Verstappen started on softs to help cut through the traffic in the early laps before running two stints on mediums, while Perez ran mediums for his first two stints before fitting hard tyres for his final stint. None of the drivers in last year’s race attempted a one-stop strategy.

But with fewer cars to get by on his way to the front, Verstappen knows he can afford to play it conservatively on Sunday – especially during the start of the race.

“I need to pass a few cars, so I think the biggest risk is just lap one, turn one,” he explained. “Everything is always very tricky there.

“As long as we stay out of trouble, I think we’ll have a quick car.”

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Qualifying times in full

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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Sector times

PositionNumberDriverSector oneSector twoSector threeUltimate lapDeficit to ultimate lap
11Max Verstappen31.204 (1)45.697 (1)29.267 (3)1’46.168
216Charles Leclerc31.287 (3)46.4 (3)29.301 (4)1’46.988
311Sergio Perez31.336 (5)46.445 (5)29.264 (2)1’47.045
444Lewis Hamilton31.336 (5)46.505 (6)29.246 (1)1’47.087
555Carlos Sainz Jnr31.317 (4)46.515 (7)29.32 (5)1’47.152
681Oscar Piastri31.799 (10)45.852 (2)29.673 (9)1’47.3240.041
74Lando Norris31.617 (7)46.417 (4)29.635 (8)1’47.669
863George Russell31.63 (8)46.737 (8)29.438 (6)1’47.805
914Fernando Alonso31.24 (2)47.017 (9)29.586 (7)1’47.843
1018Lance Stroll31.662 (9)47.369 (10)29.81 (10)1’48.841
1122Yuki Tsunoda32.404 (12)50.88 (11)29.864 (11)1’53.148
1210Pierre Gasly32.293 (11)51.282 (12)30.096 (12)1’53.671
1320Kevin Magnussen32.514 (13)51.443 (14)30.203 (13)1’54.160
1477Valtteri Bottas32.822 (15)51.437 (13)30.435 (14)1’54.694
1531Esteban Ocon32.641 (14)52.23 (15)31.501 (16)1’56.372
163Daniel Ricciardo33.288 (18)54.976 (16)31.219 (15)1’59.4832.676
1723Alexander Albon33.22 (17)55.436 (17)31.508 (17)2’00.1640.150
1824Zhou Guanyu33.071 (16)55.483 (18)31.836 (18)2’00.3900.442
192Logan Sargeant33.356 (19)56.273 (19)31.906 (19)2’01.535
2027Nico Hulkenberg33.664 (20)56.741 (20)32.449 (20)2’02.8540.312

Speed trap

PositionNumberDriverCarEngineModelMax kph (mph)
144Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedesW14313.4 (194.7)
255Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrariSF-23311.7 (193.7)
314Fernando AlonsoAston MartinMercedesAMR23309.8 (192.5)
410Pierre GaslyAlpineRenaultA523309.3 (192.2)
516Charles LeclercFerrariFerrariSF-23309.1 (192.1)
663George RussellMercedesMercedesW14308.7 (191.8)
731Esteban OconAlpineRenaultA523308.3 (191.6)
811Sergio PerezRed BullHonda RBPTRB19307.9 (191.3)
922Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04307.6 (191.1)
101Max VerstappenRed BullHonda RBPTRB19307.2 (190.9)
1120Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrariVF-23305.7 (190.0)
1223Alexander AlbonWilliamsMercedesFW45305.6 (189.9)
134Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedesMCL60305.4 (189.8)
1418Lance StrollAston MartinMercedesAMR23305.3 (189.7)
1581Oscar PiastriMcLarenMercedesMCL60304.4 (189.1)
1624Zhou GuanyuAlfa RomeoFerrariC43298.9 (185.7)
173Daniel RicciardoAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04297.1 (184.6)
1877Valtteri BottasAlfa RomeoFerrariC43294.6 (183.1)
192Logan SargeantWilliamsMercedesFW45293.1 (182.1)
2027Nico HulkenbergHaasFerrariVF-23290.6 (180.6)

Over to you

Does Perez have a hope of keeping Verstappen behind? Are Ferrari fast enough to lead the charge against Red Bull?

Share your views on the Belgian Grand Prix in the comments.

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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8 comments on “Leclerc on pole, Perez leads the Red Bulls but Verstappen is the clear favourite”

  1. VER in the lead by lap 8. Win by only 10 seconds because he stops to take fresh tires to get fastest lap from PER. Then McLarens, Mercedes, Alpines, 1 AT, AMs, other AT. Haas’ run in the points until their race engineers do something idiotic. AR’s are slowed down by their new radical livery, dayglo green Hick decals.

  2. Coventry Climax
    30th July 2023, 0:52

    As an open development championship, the most critical factor that determines where each team ends up at the end of a Formula 1 race weekend is how fast their car is.

    I read two more paragraphs, then called it a day.

    Open championship?
    The speed of your car critically determines where you finish? (Let me help you here: When there’s a distance to be covered, and you want to be the first to cross the line, that’s generally achieved by being faster than the rest.)
    Intense development race?
    Order often changing from race to race?

    What did you smoke man?

    1. And do you have any left?

  3. Does Perez have a hope of keeping Verstappen behind? – No.
    Are Ferrari fast enough to lead the charge against Red Bull? – No.

    1. Ferrari – no

      But Perez does have a hope at least, out in front in the same car. He has kept ahead of Max once before this season on merit, no a priori reason it cannot happen again. Except for ‘external circumstances’ of course..

      1. Yeah if Max gets a Silverstone start and Perez can get ahead and build a lead there’s a 1% chance he might win.

  4. BLS (@brightlampshade)
    30th July 2023, 11:06

    Even if Max dnf’s I can’t see Perez winning this, his head has just gone. If it stays dry then he should get a podium, but in the wet he couldn’t even keep up with an Alpine yesterday.

  5. I just hope it doesn’t rain so heavily to stop the race. This is getting rediculous, me, a veteran F1 fan hoping it doesn’t rain. In Spa.
    As if the stupid DRS isn’t enough, they had to further impede real racing by not racing when wet. I’m almost done with this F1 “show”. This “racing” weekend just keeps adding insult to injury.
    Sorry for the rant, had to vent.

Comments are closed.