Formula One 2019: Charles Leclerc's maiden win to Ferrari's hot pursuit of Mercedes, talking points from Belgian Grand Prix

  • Charles Leclerc did well to dispel all pre-race doubts of Ferrari’s inability to win by clinching his first-ever victory in Formula 1. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finished second and third respectively, clinching a double podium for Mercedes.

  • Sebastian Vettel, who started second, struggled to match Leclerc’s pace and could only manage to finish fourth. The surprise result of the race was Alexander Albon’s fifth-place finish on his Red Bull Racing debut.

  • Formula 1 now moves to Monza, the venue of the Italian Grand Prix, also Ferrari’s home race. It was way back in 2010 when Fernando Alonso last powered Ferrari to victory in front of the tifosi.

The 2019 Belgian Grand Prix was a display of sheer speed and engine power as Ferrari used the advantage of their package to finally clinch their first win of the season. Charles Leclerc did well to dispel all pre-race doubts of Ferrari’s inability to win by clinching his first-ever victory in Formula 1. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finished second and third respectively, clinching a double podium for Mercedes. Sebastian Vettel, who started second, struggled to match Leclerc’s pace and could only manage to finish fourth. The surprise result of the race was Alexander Albon’s fifth-place finish on his Red Bull Racing debut.

Opening lap shenanigans

The short dash from the start line to the La Source hairpin usually makes for an interesting opening lap. Aside from gaining or not losing ground, drivers are eager to get a clean exit from the hairpin to ensure that they carry maximum speed up Eau Rouge and down the long Kemmel Straight — the most common overtaking spot of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. At the start, Vettel lost position to Hamilton, only to snatch it back on the Kemmel Straight through the sheer straight-line advantage of his Ferrari power unit.

However, it was Kimi Raikkonen, the King of Spa, who became the first ‘Victim of Spa’ after a tangle with Max Verstappen. Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo suffered from floor damage that compromised the Finn’s race, while Verstappen’s car picked up steering damage that saw him crash out of the race at the barriers of Eau Rouge much the disappointment of the thousands of Dutch fans in the stands. For the ninth time in 13 races, the Safety Car had to be deployed — this time to allow marshals to recover Verstappen’s car.

However, just when the first Safety Car period was declared to end, Carlos Sainz Jr’s Mclaren parked up on the circuit, prompting race direction to extend the Safety Car period by a few more laps. After the race, the Mclaren driver revealed that he faced power unit issues on the formation lap itself, also explaining why he started the race 6-8 seconds after everyone else.

Ferrari’s gameplay

At the front, the two Mercedes drivers were in hot pursuit of the two Ferrari drivers. While Leclerc was able to open up an almost-comfortable five-second advantage, Vettel was only just managing to keep a charging Hamilton at bay.

The German’s defence was immensely aided by the power advantage of his Ferrari power unit. A DRS-enabled Hamilton could barely make inroads into the gap with Vettel, who was probably running higher engine modes to maintain track position.

In the laps leading to Vettel’s first pit-stop on lap 15, Hamilton and Mercedes exchanged radio messages discussing Vettel’s lack of speed and reducing straight-line power advantage. Finally, to avoid being undercut by Hamilton, Ferrari’s rolled the dice and decided to pit Vettel earlier than expected. It was only six, seven and eight laps later that the leading trio of Leclerc, Hamilton and Bottas pitted respectively. After the first round of pit-stops, Vettel emerged as the leader, prompting fans to ask if Ferrari had compromised Leclerc’s race to gift Vettel the race win.

However, it only took a few laps for Leclerc to chase down Vettel, whose tyres were nearing the end of their racing life. After a team order from Ferrari, Leclerc-Vettel swapped positions and once Hamilton overtook Vettel on lap 32, the race became a shoot-out for the win between Hamilton and Leclerc. Vettel, whose request for new tyres went back and forth before finally being accepted, pitted again on lap 34, relinquishing his 3rd place to Bottas.

Could Mercedes have won?

Hamilton’s chase of Leclerc was noteworthy. The race simulation data from Friday’s practice sessions had long indicated that Ferrari would struggle against Mercedes come the race, and they did. In the last 8-10 laps, Hamilton drove the wheels off his Mercedes to reduce the gap to Leclerc from 8 seconds down to less than 1, when they crossed the finish line. But could Mercedes have won? If Hamilton had pitted on the same lap as Leclerc or if Hamilton wasn’t held up twice by Vettel, we could’ve had a different winner for this year’s Belgian Grand Prix.

That said, it would be unfair to not compliment Vettel for his team player role in helping secure a win for the team. Despite lacking the pace, he did well to hold up Hamilton in the race twice — giving Leclerc that much more time to add to his narrow margin, one that came handy in the closing laps. Also, after being unlucky to have not won in Bahrain and Austria, Leclerc was lucky to have assistance from backmarker traffic in the closing stages and a yellow flag on the last lap, courtesy Antonio Giovinazi’s accident.

Leclerc was quick to dedicate his first-ever race win to F2 driver Anthoine Hubert, who passed away on Saturday during the F2 race. “I've got a dream since being a child that has been realized (winning with Ferrari). We've lost a friend. I would like to dedicate my 1st win to him. I can't enjoy fully my 1st victory, but it will be in my memory,” said the race-winner.

Albon tames the Bull

After a high-profile mid-season switch to Red Bull Racing, all eyes were on Albon through the weekend of the Belgian Grand Prix. How the Thai-British driver would fare was unknown, given his lack of experience in Formula 1.

In qualifying, the team decided to take an engine penalty, thus not giving us the most appropriate qualifying comparison. In the race, Verstappen’s opening lap crash meant that even a race-comparison wasn’t possible.

However, Albon’s P17 to P5 in the race captured everyone’s interest. The Red Bull racer was one of two drivers in the top-10 who made the alternate tyre strategy (medium-soft) work. Apart from that, Albon pulled off gutsy overtaking moves on track, his best being the last lap overtaking on Racing Point’s Sergio Perez for 5th place.

Historically, Racing Point, and previously Force India, have enjoyed success in terms of big points score at Spa. Like Baku, there is something about the Spa-Francorchamps that suits their car and this year too, their pace was evident. Perez, who announced a three-year extension with the team only a few days ago, managed to get into Q3. In the race, Perez ended his eight-race points scoring drought to finish sixth, while Lance Stroll benefitted from last lap retirements to claim the final point in 10th place.

Norris — Driver of the Day

While Leclerc-Hamilton battled at the front, it was Lando Norris who drove a lonely race in fifth place for a large part of the Belgian Grand Prix. After qualifying 11th, Norris stayed clean at the start and settled in fifth place early on. However, a power unit issue on the penultimate lap of the race meant that Norris couldn’t bring his Mclaren home in fifth place — he was eventually classified 11th. It was for the fourth time this season that Mclaren failed to score with either cars. Ironically, all power unit manufacturers suffered from reliability issues throughout the weekend.

Toro Rosso - Double points

Daniil Kvyat, who agreed at being disappointed in being overlooked for a promotion to Red Bull, drove a strong race to finish seventh. Likewise, for Pierre Gasly, who was understandably disappointed at being demoted, a ninth-place finish in a Toro Rosso would feel like good redemption. However, in the case of Gasly, it was the last lap retirements of Giovinazi and Norris that brought him into the points. In fact, Giovinazi’s last-lap error and the crash took away from the good race the rookie had in Spa. He pulled off some interesting overtaking moves on Gasly and Ricciardo to climb into the points. He was running in seventh place before ending his race in the barriers.

Hulkenberg follows Vettel’s lead

Given the news of his ouster from Renault and no confirmation of his whereabouts for 2020, Hulkenberg could well be racing in the last few races of his Formula 1 career. In Belgium, the German driver attempted a similar strategy as Vettel (early first stop followed by a late-race stop for soft tyres) to fight his way back into the points. In fact, Hulkenberg’s overtakes on the last and the penultimate lap saw him jump two places to finish eighth.

Haas' issues

The Magnussen-Grosjean duo of Haas was possibly the most-overtaken drivers in the Belgian Grand Prix. The Haas drivers, who started in the top-10, went backwards in the race as they struggled to keep pace with their rivals. In fact, Magnussen was embarrassingly overtaken by one driver at a time from lap 10 to 14, at pretty much the same spot of track and while using DRS.

Grosjean, on the other hand, had animated radio exchanges with the team, telling them to back off when they reminded him to keep pushing harder to be eligible for scoring points. The strange part about Haas’ issues is that they are largely tyre related. However, what is stranger that 13 races into the season and the team is yet to find a permanent solution.

In the Drivers’ Championship, Hamilton extended his lead on Bottas by finishing ahead in the race. Hamilton’s 65 points lead means that his sixth Drivers’ Championship will be won sooner rather than later. Leclerc’s win brought him to within 12 points of Vettel’s overall tally.

Daniil Kvyat’s strong finishes in the recent races saw him jump up to the eighth place, two points ahead of Raikkonen. In the Constructors’ Championship, Mercedes are a commanding 145 points ahead of Ferrari, while Red Bull are a further near-70 points down. In the mid-field, Racing Point was the biggest gainer as they moved to being just three points away from Renault in seventh place.

In only a few days time, Formula 1 will arrive in Monza, the venue of the Italian Grand Prix, also Ferrari’s home race. It was way back in 2010 when Fernando Alonso last powered Ferrari to victory in front of the tifosi. Will they be able to repeat success in Monza too? The early indicators suggest that like Spa, Ferrari’s package will better suit the team in Monza. But also like Spa, trust Mercedes to make a fight out of it, and this time, hopefully, Max Verstappen too.

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Updated Date: Sep 02, 2019 09:52:36 IST