After their summer break, the 20 F1 drivers took to Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian GP. The longest track on the calendar at over 7km, every driver wants to win this race, considered one of the ‘blue riband’ races on the calendar.
What can Lewis Hamilton do to close the gap to championship rival Sebastian Vettel? Can Spa-master Kimi Raikkonen take another victory to celebrate his renewed 2018 contract? Would Jolyon Palmer finally unveil his Senna-esque skills and shock us all? (Okay, probably not.) Friday’s two practice sessions would provide those first clues.
FP1: Raikkonen tops, but Hamilton steals the show
Belgium’s home racer Stoffel Vandoorne lined up first at the pit exit, but stayed back when the lights went green to start practice. The newly-extended McLaren driver was testing the Halo safety device, along with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, all three teams wanting to get some data and feedback for their 2018 cars, when the Halo becomes mandatory.
After the cars had completed their installation laps, the proper track action was due to start. However, Felipe Massa crashed coming out of the Les Combes trio of corners, damaging both the left-hand side corners of the car and ruling him out for the session. His Williams team had a tough job to fix the car for the rest of the weekend, electing to use a new chassis after the 10G crash.
Kimi Raikkonen topped the times when the chequered flag fell, his SF70H breaking the timing beam with a 1:45.502. Just behind him on the timesheets was Lewis Hamilton, who used the yellow-marked soft tyres to go just 0.053 slower. This was an impressive showing by #44, especially when considering Raikkonen set his time on the purple ultrasofts, widely expected to be much quicker over one lap.
Behind them, Vettel was the only other driver lapping under 1:46, with Valtteri Bottas sixth after a slight collision with the barriers cost him a front wing and a few previous minutes of track time near the end of the session. The two Red Bulls ended up fourth and fifth, Max Verstappen leading Ricciardo by half a tenth.
Vandoorne impressed by putting his McLaren-Honda in P10, whilst teammate Fernando Alonso complained of engine and DRS problems throughout. Haas and Sauber finished at the back of the pack, with Wehrlein waiting a considerable amount of time before coming out on the track due to suspected car problems.
|Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1:46.302|
|Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull||1:46.352|
|Carlos Sainz Jr||Toro Rosso||1:47.446|
|Esteban Ocon||Force India||1:47.670|
|Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso||1:47.851|
|Sergio Perez||Force India||1:48.452|
|Felipe Massa||Williams||No time|
FP2: Rain cuts race runs short whilst Hamilton shows his pace
Haas got FP2 started, but problems on both cars resulted in the DRS wing inverting, and making the car incredibly difficult to drive in the downforce-dependent second sector. Both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen had to come back in to have their cars fixed.
Hamilton started on similar form to his FP1 pace, making good use of the downforce to go faster than his teammate despite using harder tyres again. Valtteri Bottas made a small mistake on his early run at La Source, which may have compromised his run through the iconic Eau Rouge and Radillon corners, but still seemed to be off the pace of his more experienced teammate.
The threat of rain later on in the session persuaded the teams to switch to their ultrasoft qualifying simulations earlier than normal, with Renault being the first to make the change. Nico Hulkenberg resumed normal service, lapping faster than his teammate Jolyon Palmer.
When the top runners started their simulations, it was Hamilton who took the top spot with a 1:44.753, the fastest time of the day. Raikkonen continued his good form in second, losing the majority of his gap in Sector 1. Behind them, Bottas, Verstappen, and Vettel were within 0.1 seconds of each other, with Verstappen showing good speed to put his car alongside the Mercedes and Ferrari. Daniel Ricciardo confirmed the Red Bull’s form by setting the fastest time through the first and third Sectors, but dropped over 1.3s in the middle sector to finish sixth.
The cars started their longer race simulation runs soon after. Hamilton showed consistent times on the ultrasoft tyres over eight laps, which puts predictions at a two-stop race for most if dry, or maybe a one-stop for those wanting to risk the soft tyres in the later stint. Vettel set competitive times during his simulation, despite the track layout not necessarily suiting the Ferrari car. Jolyon Palmer’s 13-lap stint in the Renault showed some degradation in the lap times, but expect this to improve as rubber is laid down throughout the week.
The rain hit and all the teams abandoned their runs. Both Alonso and Ricciardo ventured out onto the track on intermediate tyres to see the track conditions, but soon found the rain too much and came back in, no doubt thankful they didn’t crash after misjudging the amount of standing water on the track.
|Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1:45.225|
|Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull||1:46.072|
|Esteban Ocon||Force India||1:46.473|
|Carlos Sainz Jr||Toro Rosso||1:46.561|
|Sergio Perez||Force India||1:46.984|
|Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso||1:47.450|
|Felipe Massa||Williams||No time|
So, Lewis Hamilton would appear to be leading the pack comfortably going into qualifying and the race, but it will be interesting to see who makes setup changes on downforce at this highly-contrasting circuit. Both Red Bull and Ferrari ran different setups on their two cars, with interesting results for both.
As for race strategy, if the infamously unpredictable Spa weather stays dry, expect a mixture of one- and two-stop strategies, with the championship contenders probably playing it safe on a two-stop. Red Bull are the wild cards here, as their low downforce package has done well at Baku and Hungary, so expect them to seriously entertain the idea of one-stopping to put them right in the mix.
Whichever way the weather and strategy go, it’s sure to be another thrilling race in Belgium on Sunday!
What were your key takeaways from Friday? Let us know in the comments below!
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