What better way to throw down the gauntlet than with an emphatic statement of intent? And while doubtless Max Verstappen has had little time for Shelley in his short, hectic career, his win at the Belgian Grand Prix assuredly boomed: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Echoing Ozymandias’s grand declaration, this was a victory giving notice of his and Red Bull’s superiority, rolling across the echo chamber of the Ardennes mountains.
Formula One has thrown up some great races this season but this time out at Spa-Francorchamps was an afternoon only Verstappen will savour. Yet it was not without significance on two levels. For Verstappen at the sharp end of the title fight, his pace and control would have left little but despair for his rivals; while for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in their struggle to return to a competitive pace, a wretched weekend could not finish soon enough.
On paper Verstappen’s win should have been the stuff of a classic. That it was not was indicative of just how dominant he and Red Bull were in Belgium. He took the flag from 14th on the grid, coming through the field to do so. Yet with such a pace advantage, instead of the breath-holding visceral thrill so many passes should have entailed, they were barely noticeable. This was a Sunday drive, dog in the back, head out of the window enjoying the wind in its face watching the opposition slip past inexorably, one by one.
Verstappen finished 17sec up the road from his teammate, Sergio Pérez, in second and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in third. Neither had come even close to staying with the Dutchman.
The world champion had a real advantage in qualifying and, but for his grid penalty for taking a new engine, would have been on pole. As it transpired, the sanction was but a minor inconvenience. He had been quietly confident of coming back and such is his precision and composure at his point in his career that few doubted he would at least make it to the podium.
Such small beer was not on the agenda. When the lights went out he delivered a masterclass with an alacrity that was extraordinary. His passing was exemplary, albeit in a car that was demonstrably quicker than the midfield he was dispatching. He was up to 10th by the end of lap one, then eighth a lap later, his victims powerless as he largely breezed past on the Kemmel Straight.
Two more fell on the restart after a safety car and by lap eight he passed George Russell’s Mercedes for third. Sainz pitted and Pérez moved over shortly afterwards. The Dutchman had taken only 12 laps to secure the lead with insouciant, disarming ease. He was untouchable, as he acknowledged.
“If you look at the whole race weekend, then yes it was the most dominant of my whole career,” he said. “The car has been incredible. I don’t think we expected it but it’s been nice. I was overtaking one car every lap and I knew there was a good possibility I could win the race.”
From there he was unassailable, cruising to the fastest lap and opening a gap of almost 20sec while barely breaking sweat, which perversely made what was quite some achievement seem less impressive. If it may have been underwhelming for the fans, bar the swaths of the orange army who once more bounced their way with joyous abandon through every lap), its import will not be lost on the rest of the grid.
This was Red Bull displaying an advantage perhaps not seen since the one Mercedes enjoyed in the opening years of the turbo-hybrid era. Their pace was simply incomparable. “They were on another planet this weekend,” Sainz said pointedly. He would know having wrestled the best he could from his Ferrari, which, it should be noted, also had a brand new engine this weekend but his fastest lap was 2.6sec slower than Verstappen’s car. Sainz was observing Ferrari’s rapidly downgraded Pluto to the vast, dominant mass of Red Bull’s Jupiter.
Verstappen now has nine wins this season and eight races remain. With Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc managing only sixth from 15th place the defending champion now leads Pérez by 93 points and Leclerc by 98. Within moments of the flag falling in Belgium the talk began of when, not if, he will secure his second title.
For Mercedes, who have enjoyed similar dominance in the past, Spa could not have been a greater contrast. As Red Bull gave notice of a rapid offensive, the momentum of a Mercedes fightback simply ebbed away. On a high after success at the last round in Hungary, here they were woefully down on pace all weekend which was exacerbated when Hamilton clashed with Fernando Alonso, who finished fifth, on the opening lap.
Hamilton’s car was damaged and he was forced to retire. The seven‑times champion held his hands up for the incident but it was indicative of a driver trying to seize every tiny chance he has because his machinery is not up to scratch. His teammate Russell made it to fourth but was as far from the leader’s pace as Mercedes have been all season. There is no sense that the fug of frustration and disappointment will be alleviated anytime soon.
With Mercedes having for so long set the standard, Red Bull and Verstappen have definitively taken it on this season. Spa was a display of their ominous control, revelling in Verstappen’s poetry in motion.
Esteban Ocon was seventh for Alpine, Sebastian Vettel in eighth for Aston Martin, Pierre Gasly ninth for AlphaTauri and Alex Albon 10th for Williams.