Belgian Grand Prix: Hamilton Claims Pole as Force India Impress in Rain-Affected Qualifying

Lewis Hamilton has claimed his 78th pole position in Formula One, setting a time seven tenths quicker than title rival Sebastian Vettel as rain showers shook things up in Q3 at Spa-Francorchamps.

The Brit now holds the record for the most pole positions claimed at the circuit, beating the previous record of four poles held by Juan Manuel Fangio and Ayrton Senna.

Ferrari had looked as if they had the edge coming into qualifying, with the Scuderia setting the fastest times in every practice session as well as in Q1 and Q2. However, when the rain started to fall in Q3, the pendulum swung in Mercedes’ favour. Sebastian Vettel managed to significantly improve his lap time in the final runs of Q3 as the track began to dry but it wasn’t enough to overthrow Lewis Hamilton at the top of the timing screens. He will start the race tomorrow in P2.

2018 Großer Preis von Belgien, Samstag – Steve Etherington

Force India, or Racing Point Force India if you want to be pedantic, saw both of their drivers put in superb performances. Esteban Ocon – whose future is uncertain amid rumours of Lance Stroll being drafted into the team as soon as Monza or Singapore – qualified an amazing P3. Team-mate Sergio Perez recovered from a huge moment coming out of Eau Rouge and going into Raidillon to post the fourth quickest time. There must be something in the Force India water at Spa, for this is the circuit where Giancarlo Fisichella claimed pole for them in 2009 and where previous incarnations of the team, notably Jordan Grand Prix, have always run well.

Also putting in a great performance was the Haas of Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman had been surprisingly off the pace all weekend, but he managed to get it together when it mattered and qualified P5.

Kimi Raikkonen had been looking particularly strong all weekend, but Ferrari made the strategic error of only giving him enough fuel for one lap in Q3. This meant the Finn was confined to the garage towards the end of Q3 at precisely the moment when the fastest laps were being set on track. He ended up P6.

The Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will, like Raikkonen, definitely not be satisfied. Thanks to a mix of strategic error and the low-drag trim they had been running, they ended up P7 and P8 respectively and over four seconds away from Hamilton’s pole time.

2018 Großer Preis von Belgien, Samstag – Wolfgang Wilhelm

The other Haas of Kevin Magnussen qualified P9, nearly three seconds behind his team-mate, and Valtteri Bottas rounded out the top ten having failed to set a time in Q3. The Finn came into qualifying carrying engine penalties and knowing that, whatever happened, he would be starting the Grand Prix from the back of the grid.

Outside the top ten, the main surprise came in the form of Renault’s Carlos Sainz being knocked out of Q1 by the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson.

Not so surprising, however, was the pace of the two McLaren cars. It is turning into a home race to forget for Stoffel Vandoorne – the Belgian had been slowest in FP1, FP2, and FP3, and that trend, unfortunately, continued into Q1. This was McLaren’s worst qualifying of the year so far, with Vandoorne’s team-mate Fernando Alonso also failing to make it out of Q1 and qualifying P17. They will, however, get bumped up a couple of places thanks to the engine penalties given to Valtteri Bottas and also to Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.

 

Featured image: 2018 Großer Preis von Belgien, Samstag – Steve Etherington

Norris to make McLaren FP1 debut in Belgium

McLaren reserve driver Lando Norris will make his F1 race weekend debut at the Belgian Grand Prix, taking over Fernando Alonso’s car for Friday practice.

The running will mark Norris’ third time driving McLaren’s MCL33, following appearances at the in-season tests in Barcelona and Hungary, and could be followed by another FP1 drive next weekend at Monza.

McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran called the Friday practice role “part of [Norris’] ongoing development”. He added that the team would “take a strategic view race-by-race” whether to give Norris any more outings in future Grands Prix.

Zak Mauger, LAT Images / FIA F2 Media

Coming after Alonso’s decision to leave F1 at the end of 2018, it’s understood that McLaren will use Norris’ Friday performances to judge whether he is ready for a promotion to F1 for next year in place of Stoffel Vandoorne.

Norris had been tipped to join McLaren in 2019 after storming to an early lead in this year’s Formula 2 championship. But a run of varying results in the mid-season triple header, which led to George Russell taking the title lead in Austria, have raised questions about whether next year is too soon for the 18-year-old to make his F1 debut.

Norris is currently 12 points behind Russell in the standings, and has one win to Russell’s four.

Joe Portlock / McLaren

Renault to trial 2019 aero at Spa

Renault director Cyril Abiteboul has said that the team will begin trialling concepts for its 2019 car at Spa this weekend, as focus at Enstone turns towards the new wing regulations coming for next year.

“Most of our resources are now focused in preparing for 2019,” Abiteboul said. “We are pushing on with aero developments, and will bring some concepts at upcoming races onto the R.S.18 that are ultimately destined for next year’s car.

“We have been offensive and decisive in the driver market [in signing Daniel Ricciardo] and now we have to do the same on both chassis and engine development.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Abiteboul also said that, despite looking ahead to 2019, Renault will still “keep bringing developments to this year’s car to find gains wherever possible”.

Technical director Nick Chester said that maintaining their development pace will be key in making sure Renault stays ahead of Haas and Force India in the fight for fourth in the Constructors’ Championship:

“We’re in a super tight battle in the midfield. We’re being pushed hard and we have quite a lot of work to do.

“The objective is to find raw car pace. We have to put more performance on the car to have a good fight until the end of the year. We have a new floor for Spa and some other bodywork parts to go with that, which should be helpful.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Steiner: Haas hopeful for “new opportunity” at high-speed Spa

Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has said his American team is looking forward to this weekend’s power-dependant Belgian Grand Prix, having struggled in the low-speed races prior to the summer break.

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Haas began July with its best result of the season so far, when Romain Grosjean finished sixth in Austria. But since then the team’s form has hit a considerable slump: at Silverstone, Grosjean dropped back from a top ten start to squabble with Saubers and McLarens outside the points, whilst in Hungary Kevin Magnussen was the sole Haas finisher in thirteenth, only three places higher than his disappointing qualifying position.

But Steiner believes that the engine-favouring characteristics of the upcoming races at Spa and Monza ought to bring about a return to form for the American team.

“We struggled a little bit in Hungary with it being a low-speed track,” Steiner said. “We are bringing some items for low downforce or low drag for Spa and Monza, and we are as confident as we can be that it works.

“If you’re good in Spa, you normally should be good in Monza too…so, let’s hope we are good in Spa.”

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Steiner added that Haas has “tried to hit the reset button” in its preparation for the second half of the season:

“Hungary certainly tested the team, but it showed how hard we work to overcome adversity while remaining positive. Belgium is a new race and a new opportunity. Everything is possible here. We will try hard and we will come back again.”

However, the Austrian did also confirm that Haas will revert back to using Brembo brakes this weekend, despite successful running of Carbon Industrie alternatives in Britain and Hungary, as they continue hunting for a solution to their recurrent braking issues: “At Spa we will be running Brembos to start off with and then we will see, but at the moment the plan is to run Brembos.”

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

In addition to that, Steiner said that there will be no major performances updates fitted to the VF-17 this weekend (besides the usual adaptations for Spa’s low-downforce demands), though the team is “working through the data we gained from our last wind tunnel test” ahead of a possible upgrade package for Japan or the United States.

Whether or not Haas opts to bring a last raft of updates in October will likely depend on the progress of its 2018 car development, which Steiner says has been complicated by the late mandating of the Halo system:

“We’ll [have to] work on how we get the weight down on other parts of the car because we are at the minimum weight, otherwise our car just gets too heavy [with the Halo]. We also need to find the best solution aerodynamically to integrate the Halo into the overall body.

“It’s head scratching. For sure, there is work to be done.”

Sauber bringing key aero update to Spa

Sauber will be completing its second major upgrades package of the season this weekend in Belgium, in a bid to offset its year-old Ferrari engine deficit.

Sauber F1 Team

The update—a new floor—will form the second part of a significant aerodynamic upgrade that began at the last round in Hungary, where new bodywork and an improved cooling system were fitted to the C36.

The is the first major update to the car since Sauber revised its floor, sidepods, brake ducts and bodywork during the race weekends in Spain—where Pascal Wehrlein scored the team’s first points of the season—and Monaco.

It is hoped that the completed second package will help Sauber to counteract the shortfall in power of their 2016 Ferrari power units, particularly with the Belgian Grand Prix and the following race at Monza providing some of the most engine-dependant racing on the F1 calendar.

Sauber F1 Team

Speaking about the upgrade to Autosport at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Marcus Ericsson said, “Hopefully this next update will work a bit better than the upgrade we got [in May] as it didn’t really give us the jump we had hoped.

“When we got the car working, like in Silverstone in the race, we could keep similar pace to the Haas cars, and Vandoorne wasn’t much faster. We are not too bad, when we get our car together.”

Nevertheless, the team will be wary of expecting too much from the new parts this weekend—especially as at the chassis-specialist Hungaroring, the first instalment of Sauber’s new aero package saw Wehrlein and Ericsson qualify on the final two rows of the grid, and finish the race two laps down and last of those still running at the flag.

It is likely this will be Sauber’s final big push to improve the competitiveness of the C36, before it turns its attentions fully to constructing next year’s challenger.

Sainz hoping for “third time lucky” at favourite circuit Spa

Carlos Sainz has said he is hoping for some good fortune at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, having retired from the event in both his previous entries.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

In his maiden season in 2015, Sainz’ race was cut short by a power unit failure on lap 32. Last year was even more frustrating: having climbed from fifteenth to seventh off the line, the Toro Rosso driver ran over debris on the Kemmel Straight and was forced to retire by the resulting puncture damage.

But the Spaniard has said that despite his disappointing F1 record there, Spa remains one of his favourite circuits:

“I really like racing in Spa because it’s a track that has a bit of everything. It has very long straights where good overtaking can take place, but also very nice corners—Sector 2 in particular is very nice and flowing.

“It’s tough to find a compromise regarding the balance of the car and the set-up for the long straights and Sector 2, but I enjoy the challenge.

“Spa is one of my favourite tracks but, strangely enough, I’ve never finished an F1 race there. Third time lucky, they say…”

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Sainz’ teammate Daniil Kvyat has also said he is looking forward to the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, describing Spa as a “legendary track” that’s “impossible not to [love]”.

The Russian has gone well at Spa in the past. He finished in the points in his first Belgian Grand Prix in 2014, and during his troubled stint at Red Bull in 2015 he finished fourth from twelfth on the grid; prior to that, Kvyat also won the feature race at Spa during his title-winning 2013 GP3 campaign.

Returning then to a circuit he enjoys and at which he has run well in the past, Kvyat will surely be hoping that Belgium provides a much-needed turning point for his 2017 season. So far this year, Kvyat has not only finished behind Sainz in every race the two of them have completed, he has also finished in the points a mere twice—a pair of ninth places in Australia and Spain—and sits clear of only Stoffel Vandoorne, Jolyon Palmer and Marcus Ericsson in the full-time standings.

Add to that the Russian’s continued attraction to controversial collisions (in particular, his clash with Sainz at Silverstone) and his equally punchy comments off track, and it’s clear that finding some solid form this weekend is an absolute must for Kvyat.

“Encouraging” first half of the season sets up Renault push in Spa

The Renault Sport F1 team has been buoyed by the progress made so far this season and is aiming to make further gains this weekend in Spa, according to lead driver Nico Hülkenberg.

Renault Sport F1 Team

“[2017 has] been very encouraging, especially in the last few races,” the German driver said ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix. “We’ve found a good balance with qualifying performance and race pace—Silverstone highlighted that—it’s at a better level now.

“We are heading in the right direction and are looking competitive, but we want to keep pushing ourselves.”

Hülkenberg also said that Renault’s momentum this season has mirrored his own: “I’m pleased with how the car is feeling and the progress we are making. This year’s cars and fun and faster, allowing me to push harder which suits my driving style a lot more than in recent years.

“It was a shame to finish how we did in Hungary (retiring on lap 67 with a brake issue), but in general there are positive feelings.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Part of Renault’s push this weekend will come in the form of software and hardware power unit upgrades scheduled for Belgium and the following race at Monza.

Although the updates are not part of a major development package, Renault engine chief Remi Taffin said the team is focusing on improving its reliability issues at two of the most power-hungry tracks on the calendar:

“Qualifying pace has looked good with Great Britain and Hungary exemplifying our ability to be the fourth-best team. It’s just a case of building on that and bettering the race pace.

“That comes from levelling up everything, we need to show off reliability and mileage and that is something we are giving close attention.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Any improvements to Renault’s engine reliability will come as a sure boost to Jolyon Palmer, who has so far taken the brunt of the French marque’s misfortune this season.

However, Palmer has conceded that reliability issues have not been his only obstacle in the first eleven races of 2017, with the Briton struggling to get to grips with the RS17 in the same way as his teammate.

“It’s been challenging,” he said, referring to the first half of his season. “The 2017 regulations mean a car that’s very different from before, so you have to relearn how to extract the maximum performance from it. Getting the right set-up is difficult and this is only compounded when you miss out on track time.”

But Palmer has also said that a refreshing summer break—in which he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro—and the prospect of returning to the “awesome” Spa circuit has given him fresh inspiration for the first of the remaining nine races:

“To drive it is simply immense. Nothing prepares you for heading flat out down the hill and then coming up the other side and down that straight. Pouhon will be an exciting corner this year, it brings a real challenge as it’s a very quick double apex left.

“I’ve had some good memories [at Spa] but I’m driven to make some more.”