The Belgian Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features BBC 5 Live commentator Jack Nicholls.
Charles Leclerc fended off a late charge from championship leader Lewis Hamilton to convert his third pole position into a maiden victory at an emotional Belgian Grand Prix.
Hamilton came within 0.981 seconds of depriving the Monegasque driver a memorable first win, which Leclerc later dedicated to fallen friend and former rival Anthoine Hubert, who died on Saturday evening in a Formula Two crash at Eau Rouge.
Ferrari had been favourite all weekend, but though Mercedes boss Toto Wolff described his two-three finish ahead of Sebastian Vettel as good damage limitation, there were opportunities for the German marque to completely overhaul Ferrari and cause an upset were a series of small imperfections avoided on race day.
Ferrari’s favouritism sprung from its class-leading power unit, which has become the outright most powerful a little more than five years into the current engine era. Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps richly rewards engine power, particularly in this high-downforce Formula One age that’s turned some of its high-speed turns into easy-flat straights, especially for the frontrunning trio of teams.
The Italian team topped every practice session and Leclerc dominated qualifying, taking pole by three-quarters of a second from the Mercedes drivers and even teammate Vettel, who qualified a distant second to complete the front-row lockout.
But despite Ferrari’s convincing pace over a single lap, Friday practice suggested it couldn’t sustain that same performance over a race distance, with long-run simulations forecasting Mercedes would wrest the advantage over an extended stint on both the soft and the medium tyres, comfortably so with the former and more modestly so with the latter.
Ferrari would have to rely on its straight-line speed advantage — albeit blunted by full fuel tanks and setting the engine in race mode — and could also count on substantially cooler ambient temperatures on protecting the rear tyres from overheating as they slipped under the low-downforce aero set-up to keep itself ahead, which it only just managed to do with one of its cars.
The race-winning move
Leclerc was able to immediately build a buffer to the field from the lead, but Vettel couldn’t follow, instead spending his first stint defending against Hamilton’s attempts to slipstream him out of the first turn.
The power mismatch meant Hamilton couldn’t make any real impression, and as the first pit stop window opened at lap 15 Mercedes made moves suggesting it was attempting to undercut the German — but Ferrari pounced first, bringing Vettel in at the end of that lap for a new set of mediums.
However, rather than splitting Mercedes’s strategy, both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, now in third, stayed out to target Leclerc. It gifted Vettel the undercut — he emerged ahead of Leclerc, Hamilton and Bottas once they each stopped on laps 21, 22 and 23 respectively — but with a six-lap tyre offset disadvantage.
From this moment Vettel was switched into the rear-gunner role, which was decisive in delivering Leclerc victory.
Leclerc took five laps to close the five-second deficit to Vettel and be waved past with a team order on lap 27. By lap 28 Hamilton, who had rejoined from the pits 10 seconds behind Vettel, caught up to the now second-placed Ferrari, but the German’s defence was obdurate against the Briton, expertly deploying his straight-line speed advantage to keep Hamilton just out of reach.
It took until lap 32 for Hamilton to find his way past, by which point Leclerc was 6.3 seconds up the road. The gap stayed stable early, Hamilton cooling his car after the assault on Vettel, by from lap 37 the gap began shrinking, slowly at first and then in chunks, until two seconds separated them with two laps remaining.
Leclerc’s tyres were now badly worn, but by keeping himself tidy through Eau Rouge he was able to twice keep Hamilton far back enough to neutralise the slipstream threat down the Kemmel Straight into Les Combes. Ay the chequered flag just 0.981 seconds split them.
Hamilton lamented that one or two additional laps likely would’ve been enough to get the job done — or, expressed differently, the four laps he spent stuck behind the recalcitrant Vettel prevented him from getting the job done.
It was another weekend on which Vettel was outclassed by his younger teammate, but rather than the Ferrari pit wall equivocation familiar from earlier in the season, little time was wasted using Vettel first as bait for Mercedes and later as a roadblock to ease his teammate’s way to victory.
A late stop for new soft tyres after Hamilton scythed past dropped him to fourth — Bottas would’ve snatched the podium from his with or without the stop — which ensured he took home the consolation point for fastest lap.
Pirelli had suggested a two-stop strategy with two stints on softs and one on the medium would be similarly quick to the one-stop, but Vettel couldn’t extract much pace from the red-walled tyre in his first or last stint, and the cooler temperatures meant drivers generally struggled less to make the distance with just one stop.
Though Mercedes fell victim to Vettel’s defence of his teammate, there were several small mistakes that culminated in Hamilton having slightly too much work to do with too little time at the end of the race.
The first was allowing Leclerc to execute the undercut. Whereas Hamilton trailed the Monegasque by 4.3 seconds at the start of lap 21, he rejoined more than seven seconds behind after his lap-22 pit stop.
Part of that added deficit came from Mercedes finger trouble at Hamilton’s pit stop. Whereas Ferrari executed a clean 2.4-second tyre change for Leclerc, Hamilton was stationary for 3.6 seconds — notably more than the 0.981 seconds separating the pair at the flag.
Had Hamilton pulled the undercut trigger and had an equally fast pit stop, he could have faced a deficit of just 2.4 seconds at the start of the second stint — little enough to reach Vettel at the same time as Leclerc and potentially force Ferrari into a difficult situation with team orders. Leclerc would’ve been under pressure for virtually the entire second stint and Hamilton would’ve been in prime position to pounce as soon as his tyres began falling off the cliff.
DRS trains and engine gains
The midfield battle should’ve been easily won by Lando Norris, who catapulted himself to fifth at the first lap and took advantage of Romain Grosjean bottling up the rest of the pack with his struggling Haas machine that was slow through the corners but equipped with brand-new Ferrari engines to keep him ahead down the straights.
By the time Grosjean made his stop on lap 16 the gap from Norris to the rest was a very safe 15 seconds. However, it couldn’t protect the Briton from a power engine failure as he crossed the line to start his final lap, robbing him of what would’ve been a career-best finish.
Midfield frustrations of getting stuck behind the Haas cars meant most of the contenders stopped early, which worked a treat for Alex Albon and Daniil Kvyat, who’d started from the back of the grid and were running the contrastrategy, starting on mediums and switching to softs late. By the time they switched to the grippier tyre, their chief rivals were on the harder rubber that’d already seen several laps of wear, making them easier prospects to pass.
A similar strategy was being deployed by Antonio Giovinazzi, who was on track for points before a crash just a few laps before the end of the race.
Ricciardo’s longest shot
Renault had hoped for so much more from Belgium after qualifying in the top 10, albeit with Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg starting 10th and 12th respectively with power unit penalties. The team’s race was undone at the first turn, however, when Ricciardo picked up floor damage in a crash with Lance Stroll and Nico Hulkenberg losing places in the chaos.
Ricciardo returned to the pits for a new set of mediums and persisted with the race, rising to seventh behind Giovinazzi by half distance. However, with only used sets of tyres remaining in his allocation, the team left him to take the chequered flag on the one set.
It was a bad gamble. Taking Giovinazzi as an example, the Italian stopped on lap 29 for softs and had recovered to ninth before crashing out of the race. Ricciardo, on the other hand, didn’t stop and was helpless in his tumble out of the points to 14th behind even the hapless Haas cars.
Hulkenberg was somewhat fortunate to finish eighth thanks to Giovinazzi and Norris’s retirements, but points were certainly on offer for Ricciardo despite his first-lap clash if only Renault was willing to take the chance on a pit stop.
The winner’s strategy
Charles Leclerc: soft (used) to lap 21, medium (new) to lap 44.