Magnificent Max, Stung Lewis and Same Old Prancing Horse!
Formula 1 racing post the summer break continued in pretty much the same vein, revealing Max Verstappen's majestic driving skills even starting 14th on the grid. For Lewis Hamilton it was insult upon injury in a case of the same old story as far as Ferrari and Charles Leclerc were concerned.
Magnificent Max again
If ever there was time for a local hero to put his track on the map, Max Verstappen could not have done a better job, finishing almost a full 18 seconds ahead of second finish Sergio Perez, and this after showing up 14th on the grid in a position rather usual for him. The Belgian-Dutch champion made light of what was an uphill climb (pun intended) at the iconic Belgian Grand Prix at the Spa Francorchamps, an iconic and ironically popular track which has become endangered in the frenzied dash to add more races to the F1 calendar.
Even the cushion of an 80 point lead over his second closest rival, Charles Leclerc, could not have meant a lot to Verstappen, knowing how it went down to the wire last season. Starting behind after several engine and component changes over the weekend, which rightly incurred the mandated penalties, it would have been little consolation that there were six other cars including Leclerc's Ferrari who were to suffer the same fate come Sunday.
That said, Verstappen got into his groove pretty early into the race weekend, driving in his own zone, even through qualifying where at one point where he had only to put down one good lap and sit back while the others scrambled for places.
Verstappen made history, becoming only the second F1 driver after Bruce McLaren to win consecutive races after qualifying 10th or lower on the grid. For Verstappen it was Belgium after Budapest, as it was the USA in 1959 and then Argentina in the 1960 season opener for McLaren.
With 9 wins for the season already and his first in the remaining 9 races spanning 12 weeks, the Dutchman is on a hot streak. Starting 14th on the grid after the penalties shook the line up on the track, Verstappen, unlike Leclerc and Hamilton, went about business as usual, flying through the cars ahead of him like a man possessed, and soon found himself challenging the top by the time the first pit stops arrived.
The maturity on the 24 year old's shoulders continues to be a revelation, Max appearing to be in a league of his own, rarely putting a wheel wrong on track and "on another planet" as his teammate, Sergio Perez, put it at the end. Verstappen seemed a picture of calm, focus and supreme control even as the rest of the field seemed in chaos, jostling for places. And it was no surprise in the end that Verstappen finished a comfortable first, once again showing that the champion has raised his own bar by leagues since winning his first world champion barely three quarters of a year ago.
Insult on injury
Although the expected fireworks that did not happen at the renovated Spa-Francorchamps circuit in terms of driver collisions, Lewis Hamilton capped off a difficult weekend by making an overtly aggressive, ill timed move that not only cost him the race but also, made him lose face, coming under fire from Fernando Alonso whose Alpine was hit in the process.
Hamilton seemed to take a line that was not his to begin with and his ambitious persistence ended up in his car lifting off the ground as it came in serious contact with the Alpine before finding the car undrivable and forced to be parked on the side of the road, battered and fuming from the fiasco.
As a solitary Hamilton seemed to walk alone back to the garage, apparently earning the wrath of the race stewards in the process for refusing the mandatory medical check up, Alonso, another multiple world champion, was radioing back to his team, slamming the seven time champion for the unwarranted aggression at the start of the race.
"Yeah, what an idiot closing the door from the outside. I mean, we had a mega start. But this guy only knows how to drive and start in first," stated the 41 year old Alonso, who recently created ripples in Formula 1 by surreptitiously signing a deal with Aston Martin racing for next year in a move that seemed in contravention of the young man theory in Formula 1 racing.
For Hamilton it was the end of the road. When asked, although Hamilton took responsibility for a move he need not have made, given his position of number 4 on the grid in a reshuffled line up, he was clearly slighted by Alonso's words.
This is what Hamilton had to say post race after what was a tricky qualifying weekend and a race he threw away by his own callousness, "It was definitely my fault today. I just didn't leave quite enough space and I paid the price for it. So, yeah, it wasn't intentional. It just happened.
"I don't really have a response to it (Alonso's remarks). I know how things feel in the heat of the moment. But it's nice to know how he feels about me. It's better that it's out in the open how he feels and like I said, it wasn't intentional. I take responsibility for it. That's what adults do."
A stinging weekend all around for Hamilton, who after a disastrous start to the season in a renewed bid for a record eighth world drivers championship title, did manage to finish on the podium five times consecutively before the summer break. A Did Not Finish would not improve his confidence or his mindset at the restart and he has no one to blame but himself. Although Hamilton did not surprisingly receive a penalty for causing a collision in the course of the race, it is interesting to see if any action will be taken in the aftermath.
Charles' Same Old Woes with Ferrari
If Charles Leclerc needed the break more than anyone else, given the growing frustration with his team over what began as a rather promising 2022 season with a potential world drivers championship on the cards, his mood would not have improved significantly after Ferrari managed yet again in what is becoming an endless train go embarrassments to botch up another race, this time at the Belgian Grand Prix. There was no restoring wounded pride for Scuderia Ferrari even with a second place for Carlos Sainz in the end.
Problems for the Ferrari started a day earlier in qualifying when in Q3, Leclerc seemed to slow down on his out lap, frenziedly asking his team why he had been put on brand new shiny hard tires and what he was supposed to do with it while he attempted to put down a lap worthy of pole. While his team instructed him to a drop the lap as per design, Leclerc found himself struggling to put up a good time.
Worse still, to his growing angst, Charles was to find out that his team had run out of time to refuel his car and change tires in time to lay down a second lap before the chequered lap and cut off in Q3, barely making out on track and not fully able to even give his team, Carlos Sainz, a proper tow in the end.
Although Leclerc started one behind Verstappen on the grid in 15th place, the concern of the two Ferrari drivers on Saturday about the pace on Max Verstappen's car came to bear on Sunday as Leclerc found himself fighting the elements within the garage as Verstappen made good use of the pace in his car as well as using his superior calm driving skills to make inroads quickly to the top of the leader board.
Almost immediately within four laps, Leclerc was already spewing anger as his team called him in for a change of tires and then found himself forced to make decision in real time once more as the engineers circled back to him in the middle of the race to ask him when he might pit and what tyres he wanted to use, when the information in the pit garage comparing across other teams would have been more to the point.
Ferrari's befuddling lack of improvement over the break was ironically more shocking than Lewis Hamilton's rash driving at the start of the race that called for virtual restart behind the safety car. That Hamilton's team mate, George Russell, was getting the measure of the two Ferraris at different points in the race would not have given Ferrari much faith. That Sainz, who began on pole after the reshuffled grid, could barely hold on and made it to third on the podium summed up Ferrari's problems perfectly.
But even that would not come close to the way Ferrari finished the race, even as Leclerc finally made his way through the midfield traffic to reach fifth place close to the end. With barely a lap or two to go, Leclerc made a third pit stop at the end, hoping to go for a flying lap that would earn him the extra one point for the fastest lap. Instead by the time Leclerc pitted and returned to the track, he lost his fifth place to Alonso, losing two points in the process with no time to catch up to the Alpine, leave alone leave burning rubber on track. To add insult to injury, he was even given a five second penalty for speeding in the pit lap!
Even with a clean get away at the start, Ferrari had no answer to the pace of Red Bull, this even after Sergio Perez made it to second place despite having a poor start himself. Verstappen not only clawed his way from 14th place but showed off his smart, mature, finesse packed, superior driving skills on track, making a rather superhuman effort of it, and even more significantly, told a rather a telling, inspirational story of a champion driver calmly and methodically making his own way to the lead even with the odds stacks against him from the outset.