Ten things we learned from the Belgian Grand Prix

While the on-track Formula 1 action at Spa-Francorchamps was a surprisingly tepid affair, there were still plenty of key talking points throughout the Belgian Grand Prix weekend. LUKE SMITH discusses the most salient topics

In a Formula 1 season that has been anything but normal, there was a welcome sense of routine brought by the traditional late August trip at Spa.

The Belgian Grand Prix may be a fan favourite, but this was a race that did little to thrill spectators at home as tyre management turned this into a slow burner.

There were nevertheless plenty of storylines coming out of Spa both on- and off-track. Here are 10 things we learned from the Belgian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

1. Outside challenges only give strength to Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton was a cut above the rest of the field throughout the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, taking pole position by half a second before leading every lap of the race en route to victory.

But it was a far from easy weekend for the Mercedes driver, who admitted that he “broke down” and struggled to regain focus for qualifying after learning of the death of actor Chadwick Boseman on Saturday.

Boseman died at the age of 43 following a long battle with colon cancer, sparking an outpouring of tributes from around the world for the star of Marvel’s Black Panther.

As he has done so often this year amid the activism around the world condemning racism and racial injustice, Hamilton channeled his emotions into another devastating on-track performance.

“Of course, you don’t know if you’re going to be able to deliver laps, you don’t know if you’re going to be distracted,” Hamilton said.

“But when you find your purpose, when you know what you’re going for, what your target is, will can get you quite far.”

It again proved how Hamilton is taking strength from everything that 2020 is throwing at him, and only adds to the narrative that this championship would mean the most of them all should he capture a seventh crown.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W11, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W11, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16, Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT01, and Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

2. An old trick was the key to beating Bottas

There were just two moments during the Belgian Grand Prix where Hamilton looked vulnerable to Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas – but he was able to see off the threat with ease both times around.

The restart following the safety car period presented Bottas with an opportunity to hit back at Hamilton, only to be caught napping and never get close.

The bigger chance for Bottas came off the start, where he’d hoped to get a better exit from La Source and maximise the long run down to Les Combes.

Hamilton made a slight mistake exiting Turn 1, suffering a snap that he said saved him as it broke Bottas’ momentum and forced him to lift a bit.

But the onboard from Bottas’ car shows that he was getting enough of a run on Hamilton exiting the corner, only for the Mercedes ahead to check up a little bit more. It forced Bottas to back off as they neared Eau Rouge, cutting his speed and leaving him powerless to get close for an overtake attempt.

It is the same trick Hamilton used to defeat Sebastian Vettel in their fight for victory at Spa in 2017, an important tool in his driver skillset that ended the battle against Bottas early.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16, Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT01, and Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20, past the scene of the crash involving Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing C39, and George Russell, Williams FW43

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

3. Verstappen was right: tyre management races are boring

Max Verstappen was fairly blunt in his assessment of the Belgian Grand Prix after a lonely run to third place, calling it “pretty boring” after being forced to focus on tyre management throughout.

“It’s a shame,” Verstappen said. “It’s such an amazing track, and then we can’t really push. We did 44 laps, right? I probably spent 38 of them managing a lot.”

Part of the focus on tyre management came as a result of the safety car period which, by falling just before the pit window, meant everyone came in slightly earlier than planned and had to compensate as a result.

The debate about the current specification of Pirelli tyres has been ongoing for a while. But given the constructions won’t change anytime soon, it may be time for F1 to get creative if it wants to avoid repeats of Sunday’s snoozer.

Making teams use all three tyre compounds might be an entertaining option. It would also avoid any headache of being aggressive and picking a softer selection of tyres each time around, which would naturally stunt any hopes of being able to push on stints.

“I hope that people understand that this isn’t our fault,” Hamilton said. “Ultimately the decision makers who design the cars, who set rules and those kind of things, are the ones that you could apply pressure to, to ultimately do a better job moving forwards, if that’s possible.”

Daniel Ricciardo, Renault F1 Team R.S.20, Esteban Ocon, Renault F1 Team R.S.20

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

4. Ricciardo’s elusive Renault podium – and tattoo – look within reach

Daniel Ricciardo was one of the stars of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, qualifying and finishing fourth for Renault as the team benefitted from a low downforce set-up.

The Australian started well and went wheel-to-wheel with Verstappen on the first lap. Thereafter, he was then in a league of his own ahead of the rest of the midfield, eventually finishing just 18 seconds off race winner Hamilton at the chequered flag.

Ricciardo’s low downforce set-up also meant he took far less out of his tyres, allowing him to pump in the fastest lap of the race on the final lap. Grabbing third from Verstappen may not have been completely out of reach had he not taken his time when clearing Pierre Gasly after pitting, so good was Ricciardo’s late charge.

It bodes very well for Renault as it heads to Monza. The team has unlocked a lot of performance in low downforce trim, giving McLaren-bound Ricciardo every reason to hope that his first podium since his Monaco victory in 2018 could be within his grasp.

It would be a high point with which to bow out of life at Renault, and something that would even leave a permanent mark – literally – on team boss Cyril Abiteboul thanks to his tattoo bet with Ricciardo.

“I’m not getting ahead of myself, or the team isn’t, but I think we can go to Monza with confidence and aim high,” Ricciardo said.

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT01, Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

5. A year on, Gasly and Albon’s roles look reversed

Twelve months on from their first race after switching seats, Alexander Albon and Pierre Gasly appeared to have swapped roles back to a certain extent.

Albon said after qualifying that he could feel the progress he was making with the RB16 car at Spa, feeling it was more “predictable” than before – yet in the race he struggled to get close to Verstappen in the sister car.

The decision to run mediums in the second stint left Albon unable to keep Renault’s Esteban Ocon behind in the closing stages, but he never looked like getting close to Ricciardo in the Renault ahead.

By comparison, Gasly drove superbly in the early stages to make a number of passes despite starting on the hard tyre. Had it not been for the safety car, a charge to the top five wasn’t out of the question. He could only fight back to eighth in the end, but deservedly won the Driver of the Day vote.

Albon may not be under the same kind of pressure Gasly was towards the end of his time at Red Bull last year, but the roles have reversed. Gasly looks comfortable, putting in solid displays most weeks, while Albon still isn’t delivering the haul of points for P4 that should be expected each week from the second Red Bull.

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF1000, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF1000

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

6. Out of ideas, Ferrari’s 2020 season hits a new low at Spa

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for Ferrari at the start of the 2020 season, the Belgian Grand Prix marked a new low.

P13 and P14 in qualifying was actually a better result than expected for Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel. Leclerc started well to rise into the top 10, but then quickly began to fall back as the straight-line weakness of his SF1000 car was brutally exposed.

The strange thing is that Ferrari never even looked like putting up a fight. The few bright points this year have often come when it has run an alternative strategy, such as Leclerc’s one-stopper en route to fourth at Silverstone, or Vettel’s long soft tyre stint in Spain to grab seventh.

At Spa, Ferrari fell in line with everyone else. It snubbed the tyre advantage offered by starting outside of the top 10 by putting Leclerc onto softs, meaning a strategy similar to the one Gasly used to such good effect couldn’t be used.

It would at least have given Ferrari a chance to do something and put up a fight instead of simply slipping back, accepting its fate.

As much as Mattia Binotto may say Ferrari is not in crisis, there are very few aspects of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend the team can see as a positive. And its home grand prix at Monza holds little more hope.

Toto Wolff, Executive Director (Business), Mercedes AMG

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

7. There is no schadenfreude for Ferrari’s rivals, only a “sour taste”

You would probably forgive Mercedes and Red Bull for taking glee in Ferrari’s slump in performance, given the bitter nature of their battle over power unit performance last year.

The private settlement between Ferrari and the FIA over its 2019 engine caused outrage among its rivals, but it seems unlikely there will be any true answers as to what was done wrong any time soon.

Mercedes’ Toto Wolff said on Saturday at Spa that Ferrari needed to question the decisions made by “certain members of the team”, and said to have F1’s most iconic brand performing so poorly was not a good thing for the series.

Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner felt it was possible to “draw your own conclusions from Ferrari’s current performance”, adding: “There are races that we should have won last year arguably if they had run with an engine that seems to be quite different to what performance that they had last year.”

He said there was still a “sour taste” for Red Bull over the engine settlement, which was an assessment Wolff agreed with. Wolff also revealed Mercedes had lost staff last year as they were “at the end of their health” following the effort to try and catch Ferrari’s engine performance.

Even as Ferrari may flounder, the impact of the settlement continues to be felt by its rivals – and it’s unlikely those scars will disappear anytime soon.

The damaged car of George Russell, Williams FW43, on a truck

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

8. Russell’s crash was a reminder of F1’s never-ending safety drive

Seeing Antonio Giovinazzi and George Russell get out of their cars unscathed was a welcome sight – especially when the size of the crash became clear.

Giovinazzi had lost the rear of his Alfa Romeo car at the exit of Les Fagnes, causing him to crash heavily into the wall. His car then bounced back towards the track and into the path of Russell, who had no choice but to throw his Williams into the wall on the opposite side of the circuit.

Russell’s front-left tyre was then struck by a loose wheel from Giovinazzi’s car, something Russell called “quite scary” and left him thankful of the halo cockpit protection.

It was the kind of crash that reminds us just why advances such as the halo are so vital to F1 – but also raises some questions about the circuit, especially in the event of a car bouncing back towards the oncoming pack or a wheel running loose.

F1 race director Michael Masi conceded after the race that it was a “concern” to see Giovinazzi’s wheel breaking free of its tethers.

“Why it became detached, I’m not 100% sure,” Masi said. “But immediately once the car came back to the drop-off area our technical teams already started their investigation, taking a number of photos, and we’ve got all the available footage.

“The FIA technical department together with the safety department will investigate why.”

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF1000, and Nicholas Latifi, Williams FW43, chase the pack at the start

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

9. Calendar variety is the spice F1 2020 needs

The main off-track news of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend was the announcement that Bahrain’s outer loop layout would be used for its second race in December.

It is a final alteration to the 2020 calendar that offers some additional variety to the schedule, which is something we may dearly need by the time we get to the last knockings of the season.

The way things are going, F1 looks likely to arrive in Bahrain with both titles already sewn up, meaning the promise of a new, radical layout at the track will be an entertaining talking point.

It is naturally a shame we don’t have a more compelling title fight warming up at the front to make the visits to tracks such as Mugello, Imola, the Nurburgring, Turkey and the Bahrain outer circuit all the more interesting.

But F1 has done well to inject a new storyline into this year by using these tracks. Huge credit needs to be given to the series’ organisers for putting together such an exciting schedule.

The promise of sub-55-second hot laps in qualifying is massively exciting, meaning there’ll be plenty to look forward to late in the year even if the title is long settled by then.

The drivers, officials, team members, friends and family of Anthoine Hubert gather on the grid in tribute to the late F2 racer

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

10. Hubert’s memory burns brightly one year on

Returning to Spa was always going to be a difficult trip for the F1 community in 2020 as it marked one year since the death of Anthoine Hubert in the F2 feature race.

Touching tributes were made by a number of drivers across all of the paddocks, with both F1 and F2 holding a minute’s silence in memory of the late Frenchman ahead of their races.

It was a warming reminder of just how many lives Hubert touched, offering some solace as painful and devastating as his passing was for motorsport as a whole.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute of all came on-track on Sunday as Gasly – his friend and peer rising through junior motorsport ranks in France – turned in a superb performance to finish eighth.

To race on in the wake of such heartbreak was hard for everyone at Spa last year. Twelve months on, the pain lingers. But the memories of Hubert and the stories told across the course of the weekend past will have proved cathartic for the paddock, and particularly for those who were close to him.

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