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Formula 1 Belgian GP

10 things we learned from the 2023 F1 Belgian Grand Prix

From the latest hirings and firings to a Formula 1 tyre being “pointless”, there were many areas of focus during this year’s Belgian Grand Prix – even if Max Verstappen and Red Bull dominated once again. Here’s the key moments to debate during the summer break

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, 1st position, takes the chequered flag

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This year's edition of the Belgian Grand Prix yielded yet another Max Verstappen masterclass as the Dutchman waltzes away with the Formula 1 title.

Born in Belgium, Verstappen cruised to victory at his second home race to extend his advantage in the championship to a whopping 125 points over Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez, having won the last eight races.

While battles for the lead were effectively non-existent and the front four finishers enjoyed somewhat solitary races, there was plenty of food for thought in the race's aftermath as F1 moves towards its customary summer break.

Here's the 10 key talking points from the pre-summer Spa weekend.

Verstappen continues to scale new heights in 2023

Verstappen continues to scale new heights in 2023

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

1. Verstappen dominance is reaching new heights...

A gap of 22.3 seconds separated Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez at the flag. Perez started on the front row alongside the pole-by-default Charles Leclerc as Verstappen took a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, and the Mexican collected the lead on the opening lap with relative ease. But he'd face a fight to keep it, once Verstappen made his way through the order.

Not that Perez had the resources to put up much of a challenge. Once Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc had been passed, Verstappen hacked away at his team-mate's lead and breezed past on the 17th lap. Compared to his 2022 ascent from 14th to first in the space of 12 laps, this year's efforts were comparatively leisurely, but it was still inevitable that Verstappen would steamroller his way to the front once again.

PLUS: Belgian Grand Prix Driver Ratings

It was a day where Verstappen could have started from the pitlane and won. The Dutchman suffered a slight brown-trouser moment during the mid-race smattering of rain, which left the track surface feeling greasy and enforced a snap of oversteer during Eau Rouge.

"It was just a bit more slippery than I thought it would be," he reckoned. "I mean, it happens, you quickly try to correct it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Luckily, at that speed as well, you have quite a bit of downforce on the car."

Verstappen and Lambiase radio squabbles became a highlight of the Belgian GP weekend

Verstappen and Lambiase radio squabbles became a highlight of the Belgian GP weekend

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

2. ...but he and 'Red Bull's Jason Statham' probably need a holiday apart

Every now and again, Verstappen and his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase air their disagreements on the radio - but that's true of any driver-engineer relationship. During Q2, Verstappen was particularly peeved at the "execution" of his run plan and reckoned he should have done two hot laps in succession, prompting Lambiase to cut him back down to size: "OK, and when the track was two seconds quicker for your final lap and you didn't have any energy left, how would that have gone down? You tell me what you want to do in Q3 and we'll do it".

Verstappen's reaction, if any, was not broadcast, although he apologised to Lambiase after securing pole - who quipped that he was "slowly getting used to it."

That said, they continued to resemble an old, married couple attempting to decide on which shade of magnolia to paint their living room in over the race. Wary of the tyre degradation on the slicks, which had been masked until Sunday as none of the other sessions had been run in completely dry conditions, Lambiase prompted Verstappen to "use his head" in conducting his tyre management obligations. Thus, the ex-Force India man was not particularly pleased when he saw Verstappen light up the timing screens on the soft rubber post-pitstop, concerned that his driver was going to expel all of the tyre life in one glory run at the fastest lap. Verstappen suggested that he could push harder and that the team could do "pitstop practice", but 'GP' denied that request.

"GP and Max have been together since the first race that Max stepped into the car," reflected team boss Christian Horner, who waved away any concern of internecine warfare between the two. "Max is a demanding customer. And you've got to be a strong character to deal with that, and GP is our Jason Statham equivalent, I guess. They certainly look alike and he deals with him firmly but fairly.

"There's a great respect between the two of them and that's comes out of a mutual trust that you must have between an engineer and a driver. There's no counselling required."

Nonetheless, the break probably comes at a helpful time - unless, of course, their families had booked an all-inclusive trip to Lanzarote together. In that case, the in-car soundtrack might be a further bone of contention...

Has Ferrari finally found a way to master the Pirelli tyres?

Has Ferrari finally found a way to master the Pirelli tyres?

Photo by: Michael Potts / Motorsport Images

3. Ferrari looks to be getting on top of tyre degradation

One consequence of the miserable weather lingering around the Ardennes over the weekend was the gaping chasm left in the teams' data sets for the three compounds of slick tyre. Sure, they'd run with them in the sprint race on a drying track, but that's a very different scenario to a dry surface with a build-up of temperature. Degradation perhaps looked to be greater than expected, and DRS trains further down the order seemed to exacerbate that on some of the midfield runners.

Ferrari hasn't had a particularly strong grasp on tyre wear over the past season-and-a-half, although recent improvements have hinted that the SF-23 is learning to be a little kinder on the Pirelli rubber it sports on-track. Results didn't exactly correlate with that as Ferrari struggled for overall pace at Silverstone and the Hungaroring, but Charles Leclerc's run to a podium at Spa-Francorchamps came with few hiccups in the tyre preservation stakes.

PLUS: The surprise star of Verstappen’s latest Spa masterclass

It's true that the Monegasque rarely had to contend with cars ahead of him, as the Red Bulls cleared off and there was no lapped traffic during the race's duration, but it was nonetheless a strong showing from a Ferrari team that has vacillated wildly between having the second-best car and only heading the midfield this year.

“I think it's a bit too early to say but it's been two or three races where we are managing our tyres better,” explained Leclerc. “I think today, this was definitely not the reason why we finished so far behind the Red Bulls. I think they were just quicker.

“But in terms of tyre management, we didn't have a huge degradation. And also looking at Mercedes behind, I was in control of the pace of my tyres. So on that, it looked good. We still need to keep an eye on that because sometimes, especially in very specific conditions, we sometimes get off the window of the tyres, the right window, and then we struggle quite a lot.”

Mercedes biggest enemy - bouncing - returned at Spa

Mercedes biggest enemy - bouncing - returned at Spa

Photo by: Erik Junius

4. Mercedes continuing to bounce back as bouncing back

There's a residual excess of drag in the Mercedes W14 that means it's not quite as potent in a straight line as the team would hope. Nonetheless, Hamilton managed to defend well from Verstappen's Red Bull until the creeping sense of inevitability consumed the early battle and the Dutchman got past. Although Hamilton attempted to catch Leclerc over the remaining laps in pursuit of a podium, the Ferrari was a little too quick for the Briton to catch.

Instead of burning his tyres out to try and reach Leclerc in the final few laps, Hamilton had such an advantage over fifth-placed Fernando Alonso that he could pit for mediums, come out ahead, and then string together the fastest lap of the race - and swiped the point on offer away from Verstappen's grasp. In the meantime, George Russell's horror start when he got stuck behind the slowing Oscar Piastri cost a hatful of positions, prompting Mercedes to conduct a rescue mission with a brave one-stop strategy.

As a whole, Mercedes nearly delivered the cliche of "maximising the result" on offer at Spa, despite encountering a renewed spate of bouncing along the straights.

"The main limiting factor today and yesterday was the bouncing, the car is just bouncing literally on every straight," explained team principal Toto Wolff. "Even Blanchimont was a corner that Lewis had to lift, which is an easy flat normally, and you’re bouncing on the straight, you overheat the tyres under braking, so that is a vicious circle and was the main limiting factor this weekend."

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Norris slid down the order as McLaren's weakness was exposed

Norris slid down the order as McLaren's weakness was exposed

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

5. McLaren's wet set-up preference hindered its grand prix pace

Mid-season overhaul almost complete, McLaren ended proceedings at the British and Hungarian Grands Prix with the second-best car in the pecking order. With the proliferation of wet weather at this year's edition of the Belgian round, McLaren targeted a higher-downforce set-up that allowed it to cling onto the road more easily when conditions were not particularly favourable. It worked well in the sprint race but, when it became clear Sunday's race was going to be dry, McLaren was left exposed.

Lando Norris's inexorable slide down the order demonstrated the weaknesses of the car's configuration in a straight line, and was unable to do a great deal on either the medium or hard compound of tyre as he slipped to the back once he'd called in for softs. But when the short spell of rain emerged, lap times around the field dropped by four to five seconds - except for Norris, who was in his element.

An impressive pass around the outside of Logan Sargeant showed the surplus of grip on board the McLaren at that phase, and his pace during the fleeting rainfall was enough to undercut a few cars and bring him into points contention. Although he had to hold onto the softs for over half of the race, Norris did well to sit in seventh and bring home a decent haul of points despite the clear disadvantage of the car in wet-weather trim. Nonetheless, the team has work to do to ready up a low-drag package for Monza, as there's still a slight shortfall at the top end of the McLaren's straightline speed.

"When we were in the mix of the other cars, it was starting to spiral negatively quite rapidly," explained team principal Andrea Stella. "So we have to very frankly admit that while this configuration gave us an advantage in the previous days, today was starting to be a significant issue. And then we didn't help ourself in a way by trying to give Lando free air and fitting hard tyres.

"So as a counterpart, though, I think because we had enough downforce in the middle sector, that's the reason why we could extend the run on the soft so long and actually retain competitiveness even when the rubber was almost finished on the soft tyres. So it came to help us. But, overall, let's say there's some learning we take out of this weekend."

Piastri sprinted to his best F1 results on Saturday, but his weekend effectively ended there due to a first corner clash

Piastri sprinted to his best F1 results on Saturday, but his weekend effectively ended there due to a first corner clash

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

6. La Source clash may have taken the shine off, but Piastri's still delivering on potential

Six of one, half a dozen of the other, is how this writer called the Carlos Sainz-Oscar Piastri incident in the post-race Autosport Podcast. Both drivers were to blame: Piastri was far too optimistic, while Sainz was not willing to grant enough space, and it overall ended both of their races.

 

But let's put that aside, as Piastri was otherwise the better of the two McLaren drivers over the rest of the weekend at Spa. The Australian outqualified Norris for both the sprint and the grand prix, having hurled his car onto the front row for the shorter of the two races. It was in the sprint where Piastri collected his first "big" F1 result, and placed second after his opportunistic pitstop granted him the latitude to lead the earlier laps.

“I thought the safety car was going to be in my favour, as it meant fewer laps to try and hold him behind," Piastri reflected of his sprint efforts. "But I looked out of Turn 1 [La Source] and I feel like I got a decent restart. I looked at the top of Eau Rouge and he was basically on top of me already. I couldn't keep him behind on the straight.

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“Clearly, we have a little bit more work to do. But I'm very happy to get the good points. I think apart from Max, our pace was really strong, so full credit to the team again. The last three weekends we've had, it's been pretty special compared to where we have been, so I can't thank them enough for the car. We've still got a little bit of work to do clearly to get right to the top. But it's a lot nicer to be up there and to lead my first laps was a day I won't forget.”

The 2021 F2 champion joined McLaren after a protracted transfer saga with Alpine, and the junior career pedigree that the Victorian came into F1 with put the pressure on him to succeed. It's good to see that Piastri is starting to deliver on his potential, and it's probably true that Alpine is kicking itself for letting him go. Oh, and on that note...

Szafnauer and Permane are the latest Alpine F1 management casualties

Szafnauer and Permane are the latest Alpine F1 management casualties

Photo by: Alpine

7. Alpine appears out of ideas as Szafnauer get the axe

Frederic Vasseur, Cyril Abiteboul, Marcin Budkowski, Otmar Szafnauer, and Bruno Famin. Since Renault returned to F1 in 2016 and bought out the Enstone outfit it had owned from 2001 to 2009, these five men have been nominated in the team principal role at the team. That's five changes of management in eight seasons.

Midway through the Spa weekend, it was announced by the team that Szafnauer was to be given his marching orders and replaced by Famin, formerly of the Renault powertrain operation at Viry-Chatillon. The Frenchman had been promoted to the vice president role at Alpine Motorsport earlier this month, but will now take on running the F1 team on an interim basis.

This followed Laurent Rossi's departure as Alpine CEO, as Renault Group grand fromage Luca de Meo elected to ring the changes. Long-time Enstone technical chief Alan Permane, who had been at the team since its Benetton days, has also been relieved from his post.

"We really thank them for all what they brought to the team, for a very long time for Alan, 34 years in Enstone," said Famin. "More recently with Otmar, but he secured the fourth place in the championship last year which was a good achievement but we were not on the same timeline to reach the level of performance we are aiming for. Mutually we agreed to split our ways, and that’s it."

First, there was a five-year plan to win regularly in F1 - following that, it became a 100-race plan. With more management upheaval, it's hard to see how Alpine breaks out of the hire-and-fire cycle more akin to a football team than an F1 outfit.

Alonso felt Aston Martin had pinpointed its recent problems

Alonso felt Aston Martin had pinpointed its recent problems

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

8. Aston Martin back to "normal" after technical tweak

Fernando Alonso's march to fifth at the Belgian Grand Prix proved to be Aston Martin's best result since Austria, as the team slipped back slightly following its impressive podium-gathering form at the start of the season. Head-scratching over recent changes to its AMR23 were perhaps responsible for the drop in form, alongside the improvements made by the other three teams - Ferrari, Mercedes, and McLaren - that it is battling to be best-of-the-rest with. Suggestions that the car hadn't reacted well to the Pirelli change in tyre construction appear wide of the mark.

Nonetheless, Alonso made a bright start to avoid any chaos on the opening lap and although he didn't have the pace to match the Mercedes and Ferraris ahead, he did well to keep a one-stopping George Russell at bay.

“I think the car felt fast today," said the veteran Spaniard, who celebrated his 42nd birthday over the weekend. "The guys did an incredible job again on the strategy, also on the pitstops. We made a few places also yesterday, even if we didn't finish the race.

“And yeah, I think today the car felt more normal. We had a few thoughts after Hungary, after Silverstone. So the team was making a few set-up changes also to the car and I think it paid off today. The car felt more normal, more competitive. I'm happy, and it's a good boost for summer.”

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04, Esteban Ocon, Alpine A523, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR23, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo C43

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04, Esteban Ocon, Alpine A523, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR23, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo C43

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

9. Drivers reckon wet visibility is even worse in 2023

After the FIA's unsuccessful experiment with a spray guard to improve visibility in wet conditions, the subject remained in vogue over the Belgian Grand Prix weekend - especially following the passing of Dilano van 't Hoff at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in heavy rain a few weeks prior.

Spray will forever be an issue with single-seater cars, owing to the exposed wheels and underbody effect, but the current F1 drivers reckon that the new generation of cars has made vision during wet weather even worse.

F1 veterans Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg said that the wet track during the early phases of the sprint races were worse than anything they'd experienced in the wet before, and suggested that the ground effect underbody of the cars were more susceptible to launching a more impenetrable spray behind the cars.

"In the end, obviously I'm glad we got the race done. Everyone I think is safe, but visibility... it's a shame," said Ricciardo. "I've been doing this for a while now, and I don't remember it like this. Obviously, the last few years it's been bad. But five, 10 years ago we raced in these conditions.

"We want to race, because the wet is also fun. But honestly, I think the onboard captures it well that we really don't see. Anything above probably fourth gear, you're just like this [crosses fingers]."

"I would say these ground-effect cars have made it worse. I've never known it to be that bad," added Hulkenberg. "It is a lot of guessing and hoping and you're just looking for those flashing lights. But at some point, the spray just gets so thick that you just lose the sight of that. So yeah, not great."

The Pirelli wet tyre could be hung out to dry

The Pirelli wet tyre could be hung out to dry

Photo by: Erik Junius

10. Even Pirelli agrees with "pointless" wet tyre call

“The extreme tyre is pretty pointless tyre, it's really, really bad,” said George Russell. “It's probably six, seven seconds a lap slower than the intermediate. And the only reason you'd ever run the extreme wet is because you'd aquaplane on an intermediate. So that needs to be substantially improved."

Russell's comments followed the sprint race at Spa where, as soon as the track was dry enough to go racing, everyone ditched the wet compound for the intermediate at the first opportunity. Usually, Pirelli is understandably defensive of its products having had to endure 12 years of drivers moaning, but motorsport boss Mario Isola surprisingly agreed with Russell's assessment.

"If the full wet tyre is used only behind the safety car, I agree with drivers that, at the moment, it is a useless tyre," Isola admitted. "So, we have to decide which is the direction we want to take for the future in order to develop the product that is needed for Formula 1.”

One suggestion was that the intermediate and wet compounds be "merged" into one single 'super-intermediate' design, and the resulting single wet tyre design would cut down on the number of tyres being brought to races. Watch this space...

F1 heads off into its traditional summer break and returns to action at the Dutch GP at the end of August

F1 heads off into its traditional summer break and returns to action at the Dutch GP at the end of August

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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