As Europe continues to fry during the driest summer in 500 years, on the track this weekend the temperature is set to be dialled up a notch further as Formula 1 returns for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps.
Reconvening from its now traditional summer hiatus, memories of Max Verstappen‘s Hungaroring victory of last month now seem far longer in the past.
Recording back-to-back wins for Red Bull for the third time this season, the Dutchman once more threatens to romp away into the distance and defend his title so controversially won last December in Abu Dhabi. But how different the standings might have been, had it not been for the further misfortunes of Ferrari and one Charles Leclerc.
Forced to retire for the third time this season after spinning out into the tyre barrier at Le Castellet, Leclerc could only muster P6 at the Hungaroring last time out – his joint-worst finishing position this season. So with nine races to go this term ahead of a triple-header of back-to-back race weekend, what will Belgium throw up this weekend?
Verstappen’s pivotal 2021 win
F1’s annual trip to Spa is often never short of incident and 12 months ago was no different as Verstappen took the chequered flag after a curtailed race in Stavelot.
Unofficially the shortest F1 race ever held, just two laps of the scheduled 44 lap-race was run due to hazardous conditions, as after hours of delays, a red flag brought the GP to an end after two circuits behind the safety car.
Despite half points being awarded for the top 10 finishers after the race, Verstappen’s 12.5 points ahead of British double of then Williams’ driver George Russell and Lewis Hamilton would prove decisive.
The first of a busy campaign from an arbitrary perspective for Race Director Michael Masi after widespread criticism for not attempting to race earlier, it was not as it transpired to be his least controversial decision.
Weather looks unlikely to intervene in this year’s edition on race day in any event, and Verstappen will be looking not only for a third win on the bounce and a ninth this season, but his second victory in the country of his birth.
Wolff ‘excited’ for season resumption
For Mercedes, the remainder of the campaign will likely be a case of damage repair. After by some considerable distance the Silver Arrows’ most difficult start to a campaign in the turbo-hybrid era, the seeds of hope however, were not only sewn but blossomed during late spring and early summer.
Finally getting to grips with the troublesome W13’s well-publicised porpoising issues, not only has George Russell been able to steer the good ship Mercedes through murky waters, but now so too has Hamilton joined the party. In fact, the seven-time world champion has bettered his compatriot’s finish in every race since Montreal.
Team boss Toto Wolff will of course remain realistic of Mercedes’ chances for what is left of the season, yes, but whilst the damage for the campaign has already been blazed, there is more than enough reason for optimism in the paddock. Indeed, as he told F1.com, the Mercedes’ boss is looking forward to an intense conclusion to the campaign, whilst also hinting that the gap in pace to both Red Bull and Ferrari is now closing:
“While we’re still not quite in the fight for victories, we’re getting closer, so we need to keep the momentum going and the pressure on.
“We’re set for an intense second half of the season, with nine more opportunities to find improvements, make progress and hopefully challenge Red Bull and Ferrari for wins.”
McLaren swansong for Ricciardo; Piastri waits
As the title race for the moment looks a one-horse race, the battle for McLaren to be the next best manufacturer behind Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes is being pitched by a game Alpine, who hold a four-point advantage after 13 rounds.
After the exertions of the Woking team last season, 2022 has seen McLaren hit by a sizeable reality check and despite Lando Norris putting together four successive P7 finishes or better – sealing a podium at Imola – teammate Daniel Ricciardo has attained just four points finishes; Form for the latter, which has come at a price.
On the back of widespread speculation, the news broke via F1.com on Wednesday that the 33-year-old and McLaren had mutually agreed to terminate their contract one year early, with Ricciardo continuing on until the end of the season. With no smoke without fire however, rumours that compatriot Oscar Piastri is set to take his place will now no doubt accelerate.
Taking a glance at the current standings, it is no small irony that the former Formula 3 and Formula 2 champion is Alpine’s reserve driver this season.
But relations between driver and team have soured significantly this month, after reports Piastri would be taking Fernando Alonso‘s seat following the Spaniard’s switch to Aston Martin in the light of Sebastian Vettel‘s rather surprise decision to retire. The Australian however, vehemently denied such claims on social media leading to an an ugly falling out in particular with Otmar Szafnauer, who has threatened legal action.
For the present time, Ricciardo remains a McLaren driver for nine more races. Finishing fourth at Spa for the last two seasons running, those hopes this weekend will be something of a pipedream but with something of a ‘free-hit’ to come for the remainder of the season and with prospective employers likely lining up for the man from Perth, his swansong could yet be a sweet one.
However, his results must drastically change for that to happen.
The Formula 1 Rolex Belgian Grand Prix takes place this weekend at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Stavelot.
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