SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — Max Verstappen made winning from 14th on the grid look easy at the Belgian Grand Prix. Drivers have won from lower starting positions in F1 history, but rarely has it been made to look so effortless. He crossed the finish line 17.8s ahead of teammate Sergio Perez, who, driving an identical car, started 12 places ahead of him. Simply put, he was unbeatable.
Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise. A quick glance at Verstappen’s 93 point lead in the drivers’ championship tells you all you need to know about how well he has been driving this year. But it also doesn’t tell the entire story. At many races this season Verstappen has had to fight off or hunt down rival drivers in tight battles decided in the final few laps, and yet at Spa-Francorchamps it all came so easily.
“I don’t think we expected it to be like this,” he said after winning the race on Sunday. “But you know, sometimes it’s nice when things positively surprise you. And yeah, it’s been really enjoyable to drive the car around here this year.
“Of course, we knew we had our difficulties for the race when you start P14, but we stayed out of trouble on lap one, which wasn’t easy — it was very hectic in front of me — and once everything calmed down with the safety car, it was literally just overtaking one car every lap.
“Once I was back into third place, and I saw that my tyres were actually holding on quite nicely with the, I knew that there was a good possibility we could win the race.”
But that still doesn’t explain the advantage over teammate Perez. Asked why one of his drivers was so much faster than the other, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner was eager to deflect attention from Perez’s performance to shine a light on how good Verstappen was.
“I think Max was quite simply in a league of his own today,” he said. “Not just today, but all weekend.
“He qualified on pole on two sets of soft tyres throughout the whole of qualifying and didn’t even do the last run, so it’s been a huge performance for him this weekend.”
Perhaps the starkest indication of Verstappen’s dominance in Spa was the battle for fastest lap. Ferrari, in an attempt to snatch the point for fastest lap from Red Bull at the end of the race, switched Charles Leclerc to soft tyres at a late pit stop. Leclerc emerged behind Fernando Alonso, which was not 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 would have had otherwise.
Considering he had a light fuel load, the softest tyre compound and the use of the DRS, Leclerc should have been expected to secure the bonus point. In actual fact, he was a massive 0.630s off Verstappen’s previous fastest lap, set on lap 12 laps earlier on medium tyres and without DRS.
“You can understand them going for that one point [for fastest lap],” Horner said. “But it demonstrated the pace: that even with the DRS up the hill and a soft set of tyres on and 30 kilos less fuel than Max had, that Max’s lap still stood as the fastest from his first lap on the final stint.”
Why was the Red Bull so fast at Spa?
One of the more interesting traits of this year’s title battle has been the swing in performance between Ferrari and Red Bull from circuit to circuit, but it has never swung as far as it did in Spa. It’s hard to believe that Leclerc’s Ferrari is the same one that just last month at Paul Ricard took pole position ahead of Verstappen and looked set to win the race before he lost control and spun into the barriers.
The difference in Spa was stark, with Verstappen qualifying 0.7s clear of the fastest Ferrari despite just one attempt at a fast lap in Q3. His performance in the race then doubled down on that advantage and left Ferrari not only trailing in terms of outright lap time but also tyre degradation.
“I think there has been a true difference [in performance] between us and the Red Bulls this weekend,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said on Sunday night. “I think that simply today the Red Bull is a faster car compared to what we’ve got in terms of efficiency, because at Spa you need efficiency from the aerodynamics and the power unit, but also we had tyre degradation that we need to look into because they were stronger in terms of tyre degradation.
“So I don’t think it has been an outlier, they are just faster than us. What I am hoping is that certainly the gap we have seen today we will not see at the next races, because Spa has always amplified the gaps because it is a long track and whenever you have an advantage in terms of efficiency it is amplified and very obvious in such a circuit.
“So, yes, we hope to be back in the next races to be closer while we still believe they have a slightly faster car.”
In this context, when Binotto says “efficiency” he is referring to the amount of downforce a car can generate while minimising the level of drag. It is a key trade-off 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 minimising drag is crucial for ensuring 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 pile downforce onto the car without worrying too much about the trade off in drag. But in Spa that trade-off is always at the top of each team’s mind, and having a car like the Red Bull that generates efficient downforce without compromising the drag level is a ticket to victory.
“I think this circuit has played to our strengths,” Horner said. “We have a very efficient car, we’ve found a very good setup and Max has just been in phenomenal form the very first lap in first practice.
“Obviously, strategically we chose to take the engine penalty here and started 14th, which became 13th technically [when Pierre Gasly started from the pit lane]. But of course Max still had to navigate his way through the pack and he did that very efficiently over the first couple of laps, so he hit the front far quicker than we could have ever expected.
“Thereafter the pace we had with Max and Checo was enough that he got past Carlos [Sainz] to bring home one of the most dominant performances that we’ve had as a team since 2010 or 2013. It’s right up there with that period and I don’t think we’ve ever won a race starting 14th on the grid.”
Horner also hinted at another interesting theory for Red Bull’s advantage, which would not explain the full extent of the gap but certainly could have helped.
At this weekend’s race, the FIA introduced a technical directive to more effectively monitor wear to the plank on the underside of the car. The wooden resin plank exists on the bottom of all F1 cars to allow the FIA to measure how low teams are running their cars via six pre-cut measuring holes.
The plank starts the race at a thickness of 10 mm and if less than 9mm of plank remains around the measuring holes after the race, the car will be deemed illegal. The new technical directive was designed to prevent teams from protecting the areas where the measurements are taken and ensure that the measurement is consistent across the plank.
Because of the compression at Spa’s most famous corner, Eau Rouge, the Belgian circuit is the track where the plank takes one of its biggest hits on the calendar. In order to protect the plank, all teams had to run higher ride heights at Spa and it seems that Red Bull lost the least performance as a result. This was particularly satisfying for Horner after a number of reports prior to the weekend had suggested Red Bull would be most impacted by the new checks.
“I think we have seen that already this year when we run a higher ride height, our philosophy is probably slightly different to some of the others,” Horner said. “Maybe we will get a TD for the next race that we need to run lower!”
Assuming rivals can return to running lower ride heights again at coming races, it may help them shed a tenth of a second or two at coming rounds.
The Max factor
But even if the track layout and setup intricacies of Spa-Francorchamps did play to the strengths of the Red Bull, it should take nothing away from Verstappen’s performance. As was the case 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 carved his way through the field to victory.
“Since winning that championship last year, Max has taken another step,” Horner said on Sunday evening. “It’s in many ways released him and he is driving at an incredible level.
“I think, given his age and experience, what we are witnessing at the moment is a drive that is completely at one with the car and in an absolute purple patch of his career.”
The scene is now set for a celebratory homecoming at Zandvoort this weekend. There was a party atmosphere at the Dutch Grand Prix last year, but that was with a reduced 67 percent capacity due to concerns around COVID. This year, not only will the race be a sell-out but the home fans will arrive knowing Verstappen has all but sealed this year’s championship. Horner, however, remains wary of the threat from Red Bull’s rivals.
“Zandvoort will probably be a bigger challenge for the new [technical] directive because it’s bumpy and bouncy there,” he said. “It’s probably more akin in layout to Budapest, so Ferrari and potentially Mercedes might come back into the frame there.
“It’s just a different type of challenge, and obviously there is going to be huge expectation on Max as he returns there as the world champion with the number one on the car. We saw the atmosphere last year and I think it’s only going to step up again this year.”
And Horner has made clear there will be no premature celebrations until Verstappen and Red Bull put 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 start making mistakes,” he added. “So we will approach Zandvoort with exactly the same discipline that we have done every grand prix this year.
“There are no additional activities for Max compared to a standard weekend, but of course there will be an awful lot of noise around the circuit but we will try to keep him inside a bubble inside the team to try to manage expectations.
“As far as the championship tables look, they look very healthy, but things can change very quickly. We saw that when we were 46 points behind when we left Australia and within a couple of races had managed to turn that around.
“Our prerogative is on each race one at a time and the championship table will take care of itself. We just want to keep this momentum rolling forward.”