The engineers may enjoy finagling the numbers that make their cars go faster but Formula One endured an altogether some more torturous and decidedly unwieldy calculations in deciding the grid for the Belgian Grand Prix. The one figure that matters and is singularly ominous for the world championship was Max Verstappen’s advantage over the rest of the field.
He set a lap that deserved pole position but as one of a full third of the grid beset by penalties it was Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr, who was second, that claimed the top spot.
As fans sat in the chill mountain air at Spa-Francorchamps doing the mental calculus, Mercedes were left with some unflattering figures of their own, such that Lewis Hamilton was left despairing over a car he said he could not wait to see the back of.
For the record, Verstappen delivered a mighty lap with a time of 1min 43.665sec, six-tenth up on Sainz in second. However, Red Bull had fitted a new power unit to the Dutchman’s car, beyond his allocation, instigating a back-of-the-grid penalty. With six other drivers taking similar sanctions Verstappen will start in 15th.
The musical chairs continued from top to bottom on the grid, and only two drivers will start within two places of their finishing positions in qualifying. Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez was third (second on the grid), Alpine’s Fernando Alonso in sixth (up to third), while Verstappen’s title rival, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, was fourth but, having also taken a new power unit, will start in 16th.
Mercedes had been optimistic going into the weekend but were to be sorely disappointed. Hopes were high for the first race since F1’s summer break after George Russell took pole and their two drivers a double podium at the last round in Hungary.
Yet Hamilton, no slouch round here with six poles and four wins, was seventh, almost two seconds back on Verstappen and Russell, eighth (promoted to what they know is an undeserved fourth and fifth on the grid). The seven-time world champion was blunt in his disappointment and frustration.
“We came here very, very optimistic we would be able to be close to half a second, who knows? To be 1.8 seconds behind, it’s a real kick in the teeth,” he said.
“It’s a car we continue to struggle with and I definitely won’t miss it at the end of the year. For me, it’s just about focusing on how we build and design next year’s car.
“The other two teams in front of us are in another league and our car looks so much different to theirs.”
The team principal, Toto Wolff, was equally forthright, describing it as his “worst qualifying session in 10 years”.
Nine races in 12 weeks lie ahead and they look like being a positively gruelling affair as Mercedes’ performance remains seemingly as unreadable now as it was at the opener in Bahrain. Hamilton’s record of having taken a win in every F1 season he has competed in looks under real threat.
Not least because the real optimism post-summer break will be in the Red Bull camp. Fears that FIA rules to clamp down on the bouncing that has plagued the entire grid may adversely affect the team appear to have been unjustified – Verstappen’s pace was fearsome here.
In Hungary he carved his way from 10th to the win and both Russell and Sainz said they believed he was in position to do similar here on Sunday. The Dutchman has no little confidence in his ability to do so.
The pressure is really on Leclerc. He trails Verstappen by 80 points and cannot afford to drop any more if he is to maintain his slender title hopes. He and Ferrari can ill-afford any errors on Sunday when even staying with the Dutchman may prove an onerous task.
Yet it is one that should be at very least entertaining. For all that the penalty system presents an ultimately unsatisfying qualifying showdown it has delivered a mixed-up grid that means the numbers should add to some thrilling racing.
McLaren’s Lando Norris, Alfa Romeo’s Guanyu Zhou, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and Mick Schumacher of Haas also all have the same penalties as Verstappen and Leclerc, moving them to the back of the grid for taking new power-unit components beyond their allocation.
Williams’ Alex Albon did superbly to claim ninth and move to sixth on the grid. Ocon was fifth for Alpine and will start in 17th and McLaren’s Lando Norris 10th to start in 18th.
Daniel Ricciardo was 11th for McLaren but will start in seventh. Pierre Gasly was in 12th for AlphaTauri and will start in eighth, with Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll 14th but starting ninth. Zhou was 13th and will be 19th, with Schumacher 15th but moving to 20th.
Valtteri Bottas was 20th but will start in 14th. He also had a penalty but not one shifting him to the back of the grid, allowing him to start in front of the other penalised drivers.
Sebastian Vettel was in 16th for Aston Martin and Nicholas Latifi in 17th for Williams. Kevin Magnussen was 18th for Haas and Yuki Tsunoda 19th for AlphaTauri. They will all move up six places.