There is simply nothing stopping Max Verstappen at the moment, not on his way to a stunning victory at the Belgian Grand Prix, and not as he heads inexorably towards a second successive world championship.
The Red Bull driver’s first title may have been won in dramatic and controversial circumstances in Abu Dhabi last year, but the only questions that remain about his second is when he will achieve it.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said after Sunday’s race at Spa-Francorchamps that it would be by the time Formula 1 leaves Europe.
Since that’s in two races’ time and there will still be six races left at that point, that’s highly unlikely. But shortly after that, whether in Singapore or Japan, it now seems clearly possible.
When it arrives, you will deserve it. His driving this season has been second to none, and at Spa that was the case more than ever.
On pole by more than 0.6 seconds; consistently faster than anyone else in the race by at least a second. He was, as his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez put it, “on another level.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner described it as “a phenomenal performance”.
“Max was just in a league of his own,” Horner said. “And not just today; the whole weekend. He’s excelled here in the past and today he’s basically crushed it.”
Horner added: “Max, since winning that championship last year, he has taken another step. In many ways it has freed him up and he is driving at an unbelievable level.”
“A driver who is completely one with the car and is at an absolutely purple point in his career.”
Records under threat
It was Verstappen’s ninth win in 14 races, and at the moment it’s hard to see how anyone else will win another race this season.
They probably will, of course. Red Bull surely cannot be as dominant in the remaining eight races. Or maybe they can.
Certainly the single-season record of 13 wins, held jointly by Michael Schumacher with Ferrari in 2004 and Verstappen’s Red Bull predecessor Sebastian Vettel in 2013, looks vulnerable.
In fact, Horner described this as “probably one of the most dominant performances we’ve had as a team since 2010 (he meant 2011) or 2013. It falls in with that period, and I don’t think we’ve ever won.” a race that starts from 14th on the grid”.
In 2013, it’s worth remembering, Vettel won the last nine races in a row. Verstappen is already on a run of three, heading into his home race at Zandvoort next weekend, a race he utterly dominated last year in his close championship battle with Lewis Hamilton.
‘The car has been amazing’
Verstappen acknowledged that this was, in terms of an entire grand prix weekend, the most dominant performance of his career. Even a penalty for using too many engine parts, which saw him start the race 14th on the grid, didn’t slow him down too much at Spa.
By lap 12, he was in the lead for the first time after Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz made his first pit stop from the lead; seven laps later, after his first pit stop, Verstappen had it for real. And that was the last time anyone saw him.
“The car has been amazing from the first practice,” said Verstappen. “We didn’t expect it to be like this, but it’s nice when things surprise you positively and it’s been really nice to drive around here.”
“We struggled to start 14, which wasn’t easy, it was very hectic in front of me, but once it all settled down we literally overtook a car every lap and when I saw the softs holding up I knew there was a good chance that we could win.” the race.”
Horner said that “fighting for the lead on lap 18 was beyond any of our predictions – when you look at the pre-race diagrams it looked like at the last pit stop we could be close to the podium.”
Others had already seen the writing on the wall. Mercedes’ George Russell said after qualifying that he expected Verstappen to win. And up and down the paddock on Sunday many more agreed.
How well Verstappen and Red Bull behaved in Spa. A small vignette in the last part of the race proved it.
He set the fastest lap, on medium tyres, on his first lap of his final stage, still with 13 laps of fuel in the car. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc made a late pit stop to try to recover it, in a futile attempt to limit the damage to the championship.
It went wrong, like so many things have happened to Ferrari this year.
Leclerc exceeded the pit lane speed limit because Ferrari’s backup system after an early failure was miscalibrated. He was overtaken by Fernando Alonso’s Alpine for fifth when he rejoined the track. And he couldn’t come within 0.6 seconds of Verstappen’s time, even though he had an empty tank, soft tires and DRS assistance for overtaking and a trailer when he passed Alonso.
To add insult to injury, Leclerc was penalized five seconds for the pit lane violation, which relegated him behind Alonso, and the loss of a further two points.
Why was Red Bull so fast?
How to explain such dominance, in a season in which Red Bull and Ferrari have so far been so close that it is difficult to say which team has the fastest car?
Ferrari drivers asked themselves the same question.
Leclerc, who is now 98 points behind Verstappen in the championship, said: “If you look at Red Bull, they were on another level. They found something this weekend that worries us a little bit, because for now we don’t.” understand exactly.
“They’re still extremely quick on the straights, so it looks like they don’t have downforce. But then they come into the corners and they’re as quick as us. Or quicker. So it’s a bit of a concern.”
“Before we think about progress, we need to understand where it comes from, and for now it’s a big question mark because if you look at the midfield as well, the difference (with Ferrari) is more or less the same as in the first half. it’s from the season. Only Red Bull is much faster than everyone. So yeah, it’s weird.”
Team boss Mattia Binotto said he thought the difference was not “track specific”, as they say in F1. But then he contradicted himself saying that part of the explanation was due to the Red Bull’s aerodynamic efficiency. Ferrari also, he said, had worse tire degradation.
Part of the explanation lies in this answer. Sounds like it was car and track specific.
Aerodynamic efficiency, the ratio of downforce to drag, is important anywhere, but especially at Spa, where the track layout demands speed on the long, flat sections, but also downforce on the long, medium corners. and high speed. in the middle of the lap.
On top of that, the length of the lap accentuates the time intervals.
And on top of that is the matter of the cars’ ride height. All F1 cars benefit from running low to the ground. But at Spa, the teams have to make a compromise due to the huge compression at 300km/h as the cars pass through Eau Rouge.
This requires teams to lift the cars higher than they would for optimal performance if that compression didn’t exist. So a car that still generates strong downforce at a higher ride height, or loses less as ride height increases, will have an advantage, and that’s exactly what the Red Bull is.
“We’ve already seen that this year,” Horner said. “We’ve run a higher ride height. Our philosophy is probably slightly different than some of the others.”
In other words, the Red Bull generates the same (or more) downforce as other cars while running higher off the ground. Exactly what is needed in Spa.
“Our car is very efficient and this track suits it perfectly,” said Verstappen. “Some tracks coming up could be a bit more difficult and I’m hoping for a good battle with Ferrari again. It’s just that this track seemed to be perfect for the car.”
Meanwhile, Leclerc has all but admitted that the championship is over.
“It definitely looks extremely difficult now, especially after the pace they’ve shown today,” he said.
Verstappen will surely end his agony in no time, although it may take longer for Ferrari to overcome the repeated mistakes they are making in the pits.
Fall of Mercedes after the top of Hungary
After taking pole and a double podium finish in Hungary before the summer break, Mercedes was not at Spa. And there were a number of reasons for that.
First, their general nightmare of 2022 with tire temperatures: they couldn’t generate enough in the cold conditions of qualifying and therefore just didn’t have enough grip. Hence the two second gap to Verstappen, and being beaten by the Alpine and managing to be just 0.2 seconds quicker than Alex Albon’s Williams.
On top of that, they ran relatively high on the rear wing levels, perhaps optimal for a theoretical lap time, but not very useful in a race, so the car was too slow down the straights.
And they especially suffered from ride height issues.
As much of a problem as Eau Rouge was, the bottom two righties at the end of the midsector, known as Stavelot and Paul Frere, were even bigger.
They realized that they had to raise the car even higher than necessary for Eau Rouge to prevent the edges of the floor from wearing down. What costs more performance.
Still, after Lewis Hamilton outdid himself on the first lap by pushing Fernando Alonso too hard at Les Combes – as Hamilton admitted after the race – George Russell seemed to have a good chance of overtaking Sainz for third. .
But he found that by the time he got to two seconds, his tires were saturated and he couldn’t go any further.
Wolff admitted that Mercedes still has “massive performance changes that we really can’t get past”.
But he added: “We still have the ambition to win races this year. If I had told you that in Budapest, you would have said that it is quite possible. Today, to say that I look like a fool.”
“But there are some race tracks that will suit our car a lot more than now. Hopefully we’ll do well on Saturday, so that’s the ambition and at the same time a big focus for next year.”
“The positions among the top three teams are where they are. Finishing second or third makes no difference to me. However, I want the best possible race result every weekend to gain confidence in what we do.”