Max Verstappen denied George Russell pole position in an unpredictable qualifying shootout in Belgium, but predicting the race outcome will be as difficult as forecasting the weather.
Track action on Saturday was wet throughout, severe enough for the full-wet tyre to make an appearance in Q2 and only just good enough for intermediates during Q3, albeit after a lengthy delay allowed the worst of the rain to pass after Lando Norris wilted in the conditions with a high-speed crash at Eau Rouge.
He and other drivers, most vociferously Sebastian Vettel, had suggested over team radio that the track be red-flagged for the standing water, though race control clearly thought the circuit was still driveable just before Norris’s damaging off.
Spa-Francorchamps is a high-speed track, and though there’s a lot of talk about the Eau Rouge complex of corners in particular as being neutered by modern cars that can take it comfortably flat-out in the dry, it remains on the upper end of dangerous race venues simply for its velocity. In the wet the risk is magnified, the track still requiring high-speed commitment but depriving drivers of precious adhesion.
That’s the challenge presented by the race, with the forecast indicating rain throughout the afternoon and intensifying in time for lights-out. Race control may decide to start the race behind the safety car if the downpour intensity is consistently high to clear standing water enough to get racing get underway, but it seems almost certain that the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix will be serious wet.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 7.004 kilometres
Lap record: 1:46.286 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2018)
Track record: 1:41.252 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: very high
Tyre stress: very high
Asphalt grip: high
Asphalt abrasion: high
Safety car probability: 80 per cent
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 387 metres
Pit lane time loss: 16 seconds
Fuel consumption: medium
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.6 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.5 seconds
Wet grands prix run differently to regular dry races. Out goes the multitude of prerace possibilities and strategy options, in comes a reliance on the driver for their feel of the conditions and a dependence on the rain radar, at least as far as it can be trusted in this volatile part of the world.
Machinery will of course play a role in dictating the final order, though less so than in a dry race — consider George Russell’s sensational lap for P2, well beyond the regular performance envelope of his Williams.
Red Bull Racing’s naturally higher downforce package should go well in wet conditions relative to the Mercedes. Both teams opted to run low-downforce configurations for qualifying, but the RB16B can only go so low, in part thanks to its high-rake philosophy inherently adding downforce regardless of wing levels.
But the difference between the two cars is slim, and in Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen we have the prospect of a battle in the wet between two wet-weather masters.
So much of the strategy in a wet race is dictated by the driver, and what they learnt during FP3 and qualifying about the behaviour of the intermediate and wet tyres and the way the track dries can make or break their race.
Getting the timing right is especially important at Spa-Francorchamps, where the long lap offers unusually substantial gains to those who make correct early calls by delaying how quickly rivals can respond. But the call is also made more difficult by the nature of the climate at this track. Nestled in an undulating forest, parts of the course can be lashed with rain while other parts are sunny and drying. For that same reason the rain radar is of only so much use, with the weather tending to vary as it likes and with little notice.
Assuming the race gets underway on the full-wet compound, predicting when the tread blocks are worn down sufficient to warrant a change to a new set will be the first challenge. If the track dries, knowing when the standing water is shallow enough to be handled by the intermediate tyres will be a crucial second test.
The intermediate tyre is a versatile compound — it was surprising how well it handled what appeared to be a substantially waterlogged track in Q3 — and substantially faster than the full-wet. Getting the stop timing right for the switch to inters has the potential to gain a swag of time over a rival still labouring on the more extreme rubber.
Though the forecast suggests slick tyres are unlikely to figure in the race, the change from wet-weather rubber to slicks will be crucial to get right. Lando Norris has a small potential advantage here, having run the soft compound late in FP3 to get his eye in. Conditions were far from ready for slicks in most parts of the circuit, but he will have gained a little extra insight into the signs to look for in finding the transition point.
Predicting the outcome in heavy conditions is a mug’s game. If the weather outlook is correct, this is the kind of race the driver with the best feel, not simply the best car, can win.
We should be in for a fascinating afternoon.