The Belgian Grand Prix might’ve fizzles over a poorly timed safety car, but there was no disputing another spotless performance by Lewis Hamilton, who extended his championship lead to almost two clear race wins.
The lap 10 intervention to collects the crashed cars of Antonio Giovinazzi and George Russell came just late enough to prompt almost every driver to make their sole pit stop, but it meant the race devolved into a long single stint of unappealing tyre management largely devoid of action.
But a Mercedes one-two was always on the cards at a circuit that heavily favours engine performance. The Mercedes power unit has comfortably regained its status as the formula’s best, allowing the works team to pile downforce onto the car to protect its tyres through the middle sector without sacrificing straight-line speed to Red Bull Racing, effectively securing the result once the front row of the grid was locked out.
There was one notable exception to the monotony among points-scorers: Pierre Gasly, who executed the contrastrategy perfectly despite the safety car to maximise the AlphaTauri’s performance.
Spa-Francorchamps presents teams with a compromise proposition: sectors one and three are just about all straights, with only La Source and the Bus Stop breaking up the full-throttle runs, both of which are traction rather than downforce-limited, while sector two comprises medium and high-speed corners.
Set up the car for the straights and your tyres will suffer in the middle sector, dropping you time, but set it up for the middle sector and you’ll be too slow on the straights, making you a sitting duck to DRS and dropping you time all the same.
Higher top speed is ordinarily the way to go given that powerful slipstream in the race, but adding complication to the decision was the softer compounds brought to Belgium this year. The C2-C3-C4 combination is the same used at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, when Mercedes infamously struggled with blistering. So too was the weather a factor, with rain forecast for the grand prix.
Both prospects made running light on downforce unappealing for Mercedes, and it speaks to just how powerful the German engine is that it could run higher downforce than just about anyone else without losing speed in a straight line.
Some teams gambled more ambitiously, particularly Renault. Daniel Ricciardo noted that the RS20 felt better and better balanced the less downforce it ran with, so the team settled on a super-slippery set-up that brought him fourth on the grid and later the race.
Other teams couldn’t compromise at all. Ferrari, clearly underpowered this season, couldn’t live with most of the field in ultra-low-downforce configuration, but adding wing for qualifying and the race car added too much drag for every point of downforce. It qualified outside the top 10 and finished out of the points.
Hamilton took pole by half a second, but Bottas was confident starting from second might yet be an advantage thanks to that powerful slipstream out La Source.
The Finn got the marginally better start and should have had the perfect exit from turn one, but a wobble on cold tyres for Hamilton as he led his teammate out of the hairpin forced Bottas to delay throttle application, losing him the crucial momentum he would have needed to challenge into Les Combes and forcing him to defend against Max Verstappen instead.
By the end of the first lap Hamilton was 1.4 seconds up the road, crucially out of DRS range.
He nailed the restart on lap 15 to achieve the same end, and he managed his tyres perfectly thereafter. Concerns of a tyre failure late in the race — the show of the team’s Silverstone problems is long — were ultimately unfounded, with lock-ups down to a lack of tyre temperature on the cooling track rather than a lack of tread at the end of a long 33-lap stint.
It was a complete performance from Hamilton from qualifying to the flag.
Though there was little scope for Bottas to play with strategy in what was always likely to be a one-stop race, any hope he might have had was scotched by the lap-10 safety car. It was late enough for the one-stop window to be open, but it required the sort of management to make it to the end that meant Bottas was unable to mount a challenge.
It had the same chilling effect for most of the rest of the field with the exceptions of Pierre Gasly and Sergio Perez, as described below. The only notable winner from the safety car was Alex Albon, whose faster stop relative to Esteban Ocon enabled him to pinch back the fifth place the Frenchman had taken from him off the line.
However, the Thai driver was swapped to mediums rather than hards in the hope they would make the difference in an assault of Daniel Ricciardo’s slippery Renault. Ultimately it wasn’t enough to overcome the 4.7-kilometre-per-hour speed difference at the end of Kemmel, and the fading rubber left him open to a last-lap pass back by Ocon on the final lap.
Pierre Gasly was, perhaps surprisingly, the only driver to start the race on the hard tyre. Among the fastest at the speed trap but starting 12th on the grid, the Frenchman aimed to run long in the first stint to gain track position before swapping the medium tyre for a late-race dash up the order with his superior straight-line speed.
The hard tyre proved super-effective in the first stint, Gasly climbing to eighth in just three laps, but the safety car on lap 10 came at the worst possible time for his strategy, gifting the field a free stop and bunching up the pack.
But AlphaTauri left him out rather than banking eighth and setting up a defensive drive to the finish. Rising to fourth at the restart, he stropped two places before final stopping on lap 26. He fell to second-last, but with fresh medium tyres he was able to scythe rapidly through a midfield conserving ageing hard tyres to end the race eighth.
It was a strong result, but the poorly timed safety car likely prevented him from maximising the strategy, which might have yielded a battle for seventh or sixth in ordinary circumstances.
The Belgian Grand Prix is usually a strong race for Racing Point, formerly Force India. Even with its shift in aerodynamic philosophy, its Mercedes engine and Mercedes-inspired aero should have delivered it at least the third row on the grid and a similar result in the race.
However, right from the off the team was wrong-footed. The team used too many soft tyres on Friday and an extra set on Saturday morning on the ambitious belief it would need only four sets — plus one set of mediums for Q2 — to see it through qualifying.
But both drivers needed two runs to make it out of Q1. Then a combination of the medium tyre’s 0.9-second deficit to the soft and the team’s decision not to run its highest engine mode for its first lap in Q2 meant a third set of softs was required to guarantee a top-10 berth.
That left only one set for Q3, on which both drivers made mistakes in the final sector that left them eighth and ninth on the grid.
They weren’t to know it, but the staid nature of the race, with tyre management dictating no real overtaking chances, meant they couldn’t move up the order into a more natural position for the car — indeed both drivers were pipped by the fast-finishing Gasly for eighth.
The team doubted it could make a one-stop at the safety car window work and so split strategies, with Stroll making his stop and Perez staying out til lap 18, shortly after the resumption. It was aimed at giving him an offset for the end of the race, but he dropped to last behind the bunched pack and could only make it as high as 10th.
It arguably cost the team nothing, as Gasly past Stroll too, who stopped behind the safety car. The Canadian complained — as did most top-10 finishers — that his tyres were expiring late in the race, but then Perez is notably in better touch with the delicate Pirelli tubber, which might have been enough to secure eighth.
Finally we come to Ferrari, which endured its worst result in more than a decade. Not since the 2010 British Grand Prix has the Italian team had both cars make it to the finish without incident but still fail to score a point.
Moreover, Ferrari was the only team to have lapped slower at Spa-Francorchamps in 2020 than it had in 2019 — indeed Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari-powered Alfa Romeo beat both Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc on merit.
It’s no secret the team has been struggling with a lack of horsepower since its confidential agreement with the FIA over engine design during the off-season, but Spa-Francorchamps highlighted not only this but also Ferrari’s poor aero package.
In neither the low-downforce set-up it tried on Friday not the higher-downforce configuration is qualified and raced with was the car competitive, unable to manage its tyres with the former and uncompetitive in a straight line with the latter.
Knowing that the car wouldn’t be able to race aggressively, Ferrari nonetheless started Leclerc (P13) on the soft tyre with the intention of two-stopping. He slipped to 14th behind Vettel at the flag, only passing Romain Grosjean in a Ferrari-powered Haas on the final lap.
Vettel was also hear on team radio trying to prompt his team into strategising for the second week in a row — though, to be fair to the pit wall this week, Ferrari didn’t have any strategic options to improve during the race.
Williams rookie Nicholas Latifi, 16th, was within five seconds of Vettel in 13th at the finishing line despite making an extra pit stop. Not uch more needs to be said.
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 11, hard (new) to lap 44.