SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — Max Verstappen made victory seem easy from 14th on the grid at the Belgian Grand Prix. Drivers have won from lower grid positions in F1 history, but rarely has it looked so effortless. He crossed the line 17.8 seconds ahead of teammate Sergio Perez, who started 12 places ahead of him in an identical car. Put simply, he was unbeatable.
Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise. A quick look at Verstappen’s 93-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship tells you everything you need to know about how well he’s driven this year. But it doesn’t tell the whole story either. At many races this season, Verstappen has had to fight or chase rivals in close battles decided in the final laps, and yet it all went so easily at Spa-Francorchamps.
“I don’t think we expected that,” he said after his victory on Sunday. “But you know, sometimes it’s nice when things surprise you in a positive way. And yes, it was really fun to drive around here this year.
“Obviously we knew that when you start 14th we have our difficulties for the race but we stayed out of trouble on lap one which wasn’t easy – it was very hectic in front of me – and when everything had calmed down with the safety car, it was literally just a matter of overtaking one car on each lap.
“When I was back in third place and saw that my tires were actually doing quite well, I knew there was a good chance we could win the race.”
But that still doesn’t explain the lead over teammate Perez. When asked why one of his drivers was so much faster than the other, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner was keen to divert attention from Perez’s performance to shed some light on how good Verstappen was.
“I think Max was just in a league of his own today,” he said. “Not just today, but all weekend.
“He qualified on pole for the whole qualifying session with two sets of soft tires and didn’t even do the last race so it was a great performance for him this weekend.”
Perhaps the clearest indication of Verstappen’s dominance at Spa was the battle for the fastest lap. Ferrari, in an attempt to snatch the fastest lap point from Red Bull at the end of the race, switched Charles Leclerc to soft tires during a late pit stop. Leclerc came up behind Fernando Alonso, which wasn’t part of Ferrari’s plan, but he was then able to use the Alpine driver to activate his Drag Reduction System (DRS) on the Kemmel straight, giving him a higher top speed than he did otherwise would have had .
Considering he was low on fuel, the softest tire compound and using the DRS, one might have expected Leclerc to secure the bonus point. In fact, he was a whopping 0.630s off Verstappen’s previous fastest lap, set on lap 12 laps earlier on medium tires and no DRS.
“You can understand that they are aiming for that one point [for fastest lap]’ Horner said. “But it showed the pace: even with the DRS uphill and a soft set of tires and 30 kilos less fuel than Max, Max’s lap was still the fastest from his first lap on the final sprint.”
Why was Red Bull so quick at Spa?
One of the more interesting features of this year’s title fight was the performance swing between Ferrari and Red Bull from circuit to circuit, but never as far as Spa. It’s hard to believe that Leclerc’s Ferrari is the same one that took pole position from Verstappen at Paul Ricard just last month and was poised to win the race before losing control and spinning into the barriers.
The difference at Spa was huge as Verstappen qualified 0.7s ahead of the fastest Ferrari despite just one attempt at a fast lap in Q3. His performance in the race then doubled that lead, leaving Ferrari behind not only in terms of overall lap time but also in terms of tire degradation.
“I think there was a real difference [in performance] between us and the Red Bulls this weekend,” said Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto on Sunday evening. “I think Red Bull today is just a faster car compared to what we have in terms of efficiency, because at Spa you need efficiency from the aerodynamics and the drive unit, but we also had tire degradation that we are looking into have to because they were stronger in terms of tire degradation.
“So I don’t think it was a breakaway, they’re just faster than us. I hope that we certainly won’t see the gap that we saw today in the next few races because Spa has always widened the gaps. ” It’s a long track and whenever you have an efficiency advantage it’s amplified and very noticeable at a track like this.
“So yes we hope to come back for the next few races to be closer whilst still believing they have a slightly faster car.”
When Binotto speaks of “efficiency” in this context, he is referring to the amount of downforce a car can generate while minimizing drag. It’s an important compromise at any circuit, but even more important at Spa, where downforce is essential for the high-speed corners in the middle sector of the lap and minimizing drag is crucial to ensure a competitive top speed on the straights in sectors one and three.
At other circuits where straight-line speed is less of a factor in lap time, teams can apply downforce to the car without having to worry too much about the drag trade-off. But at Spa that compromise is always at the top of every team’s mind and having a car like the Red Bull that generates efficient downforce without sacrificing drag is a ticket to victory.
“I think this track played to our strengths,” said Horner. “We have a very efficient car, we found a very good set-up and Max was in phenomenal form on the very first lap in practice one.
“Obviously we made a strategic decision to take the engine penalty here and started 14th, which ended up being 13th technically [when Pierre Gasly started from the pit lane]. But of course Max still had to make his way through the field, and he did that very efficiently over the first few laps, allowing him to move up the front a lot quicker than we ever expected.
“After that, the pace we had with Max and Checo was enough to get past Carlos [Sainz] to bring home one of the most dominant performances we’ve had as a team since 2010 or 2013. It’s the same as it is now and I don’t think we’ve ever won a race starting from 14th on the grid.
Horner also hinted at another interesting theory for Red Bull’s advantage that wouldn’t explain the full extent of the gap but certainly could have helped.
At this weekend’s race, the FIA introduced a technical guideline to more effectively monitor the wear of the plank on the underside of the car. The wooden resin plank sits on the underside of all F1 cars to allow the FIA to measure how low teams drive their cars via six pre-cut gauge holes.
The plank starts the race with a thickness of 10mm and if after the race there is less than 9mm of plank left around the measuring holes the car will be considered illegal. The new technical guideline was designed to prevent teams from protecting the areas where the measurements are taken and to ensure that the measurement is consistent across the plank.
Due to compression at Spa’s most famous corner, Eau Rouge, the Belgian circuit is where the plank suffers one of its biggest hits on the calendar. To protect the plank, all teams at Spa had to ride higher and it appears Red Bull lost the least performance as a result. This was particularly gratifying for Horner after a series of reports ahead of the weekend suggested Red Bull would be hardest hit by the new controls.
“I think we’ve already seen that this year when we’re going a higher ride height, our philosophy is probably a little different than some of the others,” said Horner. “Maybe for the next race we’ll get a TD that we have to drive lower!”
Assuming the rivals can return to lower ride heights in upcoming races, losing a tenth of a second or two in the coming laps may help them.
The Max Factor
But even if the layout of the track and the subtleties of the setup at Spa-Francorchamps played to Red Bull’s strengths, it should not affect Verstappen’s performance. As he did on his way to victory from tenth on the grid in Hungary before the summer break, he measured his level of aggression perfectly as he pushed through the field to victory.
“Since winning that championship last year, Max has taken another step,” Horner said Sunday night. “It freed him in many ways and he’s riding at an incredible level.
“I think given his age and experience we are witnessing a drive at the moment that is totally one with the car and is in an absolute purple spot of his career.”
This weekend the conditions for a celebratory homecoming in Zandvoort are created. There was a party atmosphere at last year’s Dutch Grand Prix, albeit with a 67 per cent reduced capacity due to COVID concerns. Not only will the race sell out this year, but home fans will arrive knowing that Verstappen has all but sealed this year’s championship. However, Horner remains wary of the threat from Red Bull’s rivals.
“Zandvoort will probably be a bigger challenge for the newcomer [technical] Directive because it’s bumpy and bouncy there,” he said. “Layout-wise it’s probably more like Budapest, so Ferrari and possibly Mercedes could get back into the frame there.
“It’s just a different kind of challenge and obviously there are big expectations for Max when he goes back there as a world champion with the number one in the car. We saw the atmosphere last year and I think it’s just going to be step by step .” again this year.”
And Horner has made it clear there will be no premature celebrations until Verstappen and Red Bull have taken the title beyond the mathematical reach of Leclerc and Ferrari.
“I think you have to keep the pressure on because as soon as you don’t you make mistakes,” he added. “So we will approach Zandvoort with exactly the same discipline that we have done at every Grand Prix this year.
“There are no extra activities for Max compared to a standard weekend, but of course there will be a lot of noise at the circuit, but we will try to keep him in a bubble within the team to try and live up to expectations.
“As far as the championship standings go they look very healthy but things can change very quickly. We saw that when we left Australia when we were 46 points down and managed to reverse that within a few races.
“Our prerogative is race by race and the championship standings will take care of themselves. We just want to keep pushing that momentum.”
https://www.espn.com/f1/story/_/id/34481281/max-verstappen-making-winning-look-easy-here-how-doing-it Max Verstappen is making winning look easy — here’s how he’s doing it