Belgian GP: Verstappen in a league of his own

Max Verstappen started the Belgian Grand Prix in 14th place, thanks to a grid penalty, but it made no difference to him as he surged ahead of the rest of the field to take the chequered flag. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, on the other hand, finished a lonely sixth to drop to third in the drivers’ championship.

Unstoppable: Max Verstappen celebrates his victory at the Belgian Grand Prix. With just eight rounds to go, Verstappen can seal the title as early as the Japanese Grand Prix if he nets another 11 points over the next four rounds.

Unstoppable: Max Verstappen celebrates his victory at the Belgian Grand Prix. With just eight rounds to go, Verstappen can seal the title as early as the Japanese Grand Prix if he nets another 11 points over the next four rounds. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Max Verstappen started the Belgian Grand Prix in 14th place, thanks to a grid penalty, but it made no difference to him as he surged ahead of the rest of the field to take the chequered flag. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, on the other hand, finished a lonely sixth to drop to third in the drivers’ championship.

After a four-week summer break, the Formula One bandwagon regrouped at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit for the Belgian Grand Prix. Teams are usually positive about their chances of success in the second half of the season after having had the time to analyse their mistakes from the first half.

In 2021, the title fight between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton went down to the wire. The gulf between the top two was much wider this year — Verstappen had an 80-point lead over nearest rival Charles Leclerc with just nine races to go.

Grid penalty

If Ferrari still had any hopes of mounting a title challenge, it needed to hit the ground running at Spa. But even before the weekend began, the team suffered a blow. Leclerc had to start from the back of the grid as he had been forced to extra power unit components beyond the mandated number that was allowed.

Verstappen, too, attracted the grid penalty for the same offence and the duo lined up 14th and 15th on the grid despite Verstappen setting the fastest time in qualifying. What was evident on Saturday (August 27) was that far from Ferrari taking the fight to the Red Bull, Verstappen was in a league of his own.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz inherited pole position from Verstappen and held off Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, who had a poor getaway. Perez dropped a few places before regaining his second position as Fernando Alonso collided with Lewis Hamilton.

Dominant win

Verstappen quickly got into the top 10 on the second lap and was cutting through the field like a hot knife on butter. It took only 10 laps for him to get right behind team-mate Perez. By the end of lap 12, Sainz made his first pit stop, allowing Verstappen to get into the lead.

From there on, Verstappen was in complete control of proceedings. He dropped behind Sainz after his first stop, but took just a few more laps to regain the lead. Such was his dominance that he finished 17 seconds ahead of Perez in the same car.

Lewis Hamilton (right) and Fernando Alonso (centre) collide while fighting for second place during the early stages of the race. Carlos Sainz (front) profited from the incident and regained his second spot.

Lewis Hamilton (right) and Fernando Alonso (centre) collide while fighting for second place during the early stages of the race. Carlos Sainz (front) profited from the incident and regained his second spot. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Leclerc finished a lonely sixth. He is now 98 points behind the leader and seven points behind second-placed Perez in the drivers’ championship.

With just eight rounds to go, Verstappen can seal the title as early as the Japanese Grand Prix if he nets another 11 points over the next four rounds. Whatever hopes Ferrari had of putting up a fight in the title battle now looks extinguished.

Developments on the track may have been a bit dull, but there were numerous off-track developments.

Driver contracts

A day after the Hungarian Grand Prix, Alonso announced a shock move to Aston Martin Racing to replace Sebastian Vettel, who will retire at the end of this year. Alonso’s announcement shocked his team Alpine, which was hopeful of signing the former two-time champion for another year.

Alpine had initially planned to loan its reserve driver and 2021 F2 champion Oscar Piastri to Williams for a year before bringing him to take Alonso’s seat a year or two later.

But with a seat now available, Alpine announced Piastri would take Alonso’s seat but the press release did not have any quotes from Piastri himself. A few hours after the announcement, Piastri took to social media saying he was announced as a driver without his consent and that he would not be driving for Alpine in 2023.

What seemed to have transpired is that Piastri’s management, led by fellow Australian and former F1 driver Mark Webber, seemed to have signed a deal with McLaren to replace the underperforming Daniel Ricciardo after he was not guaranteed a seat at Alpine.

At Spa, the first piece of the puzzle fell into place when Ricciardo announced he will leave McLaren at the end of this year. He had come to an agreement with his team that the partnership was not working. Ricciardo has been a pale shadow of his best and scored only 19 points; his team-mate Lando Norris has scored 76.

Special guest: Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne (left) with Red Bell team principal Christian Horner before the start of the race.

Special guest: Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne (left) with Red Bell team principal Christian Horner before the start of the race. | Photo Credit: Reuters

FIA Contract Recognition Board will adjudicate which team has the right to the services of Piastri, a driver who is yet to make his debut but is widely believed to be one of the most promising talents coming up.

Audi to join F1

Ahead of the Belgian GP, German premium automotive brand Audi announced that it will enter Formula One in 2026 and that it has registered itself as a Power Unit supplier.

Earlier in August, the FIA, the sport’s governing body, unveiled new regulations for Power Units that will come into force in 2026. The new engine rules will have more electrical power and use sustainable fuels that will ensure net zero C02 emissions. This move, along with cost caps for teams and power-unit manufacturers, has made the sport attractive for new automotive brands at a time when F1 is seeing a huge boost in popularity, especially in the U.S.

While Audi has not said which team it will partner with yet, it is widely expected it will buy into the Alfa Romeo Sauber team. Hours after Audi’s announcement, Alfa Romeo said it will end its title-partnership deal with Sauber at the end of 2023, paving the way for Audi to enter the fray.

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