The hopes of Formula One fans around the world are riding this weekend with Max Verstappen.
He provided the only bright note so far this season when he split the winning streak by the Black Arrows with victory at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone and plenty of people hope he can do it again this weekend at Spa.
The high-speed Belgian circuit is Verstappen’s favourite and, even without the support of his ‘Orange Army’ of fans from nearby Holland, he is looking forward to the race.
“I love Spa. I’m always looking forward to driving there,” he says.
“It’s a bit more old-school as well, so there’s not too much run off in some places. The elevation changes throughout the whole track, you go up and down and there are not too many slow corners, which is always very nice in an F1 car because you really get to experience the full speed and the middle sector at Spa gives you that.”
F1 is resuming for its third triple-header of 2020 with Sunday in Belgium to be followed by the two Italian races in Imola and Mugello and, while the safe bet is always Mercedes, a very similar track-tyre-weather scenario that brought the world champs unstuck in the UK is shaping up for a repeat this weekend.
Verstappen and Red Bull found the Benzes’ weak link after they failed to make their softer-compound tyres last the distance on Silverstone’s high-speed corners in hot conditions.
Pirelli has brought those same tyres back for this weekend to the 7.00-kilometre circuit, which is of the same high-speed and historic style as Silverstone. It’s essentially long straights linked by high-speed corners with a modern, twisty addition in the middle.
The same sort of combination highlighted the tyre troubles that have affected Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas more than their rivals this year, and the Spa forecast is for patches of heat between rain showers.
Hamilton leads the championship by 37 points from Verstappen, with Bottas in the second Mercedes a further six points back, but eyes are on the Honda-powered Red Bulls as the Japanese power units are proving to be more reliable in hotter temps despite being down on power.
“Over the last few years it has been a bit up and down in terms of results for us but you never know. We don’t expect this race will be our favourite this year in terms of the layout suiting our package, but we will be pushing hard as we have done at every race,” says Verstappen.
He is looking for a sixth consecutive podium as he has enjoyed a top-two appearance in each of the past four races plus that memorable win.
By comparison his teammate, Alex Albon, is sixth and 55 points behind so feeling the pressure of Red Bull’s management who are starting to make noises about young Japanese F2 driver Yuki Tsunoda graduating to F1. Tsunoda is a Red Bull young gun whose promotion would please Honda.
It adds to Verstappen’s growing reputation for crushing teammates in a similar style to Michael Schumacher, who first starred at Spa before dominating through Benetton and Ferrari, as he has not been beaten by a team-mate since Daniel Ricciardo in 2017.
The Renault-driving Aussie is one of five on the grid with a Spa win under his belt, something Max has yet to clinch, on a track where he enjoys the high-speed cut-and-thrust.
“I get more of a thrill from racing here than qualifying,” says Ricciardo.
“We’ve done so many laps here in the high-downforce cars that a bit of that single-lap rush has gone. Eau Rouge is full throttle and in race trim with a big tank of fuel in someone’s slipstream, it becomes a real corner where you’re sliding on four wheels, which is pretty epic”.
The record book gives another glimmer of hope for a non-Mercedes win as the three-pointed star has been outpaced for the past two seasons.
Three years between wins is not a disaster, unless you are Mercedes and the team boss is Toto Wolff.
“We have not won at Spa since 2017 so it feels like there’s unfinished business here,” the Mercedes man says.
It almost seems like ancient history, but the past two Spa wins went to Ferrari.
Sebastien Vettel did the job in 2018 and Charles Leclerc scored a memorable debut victory last year despite fending off the emotions of losing his good friend, Anthoine Hubert a day earlier in a Formula 2 crash.
“On my way to Spa. It’s a very special place for me as it is where I got my first Formula One win but also a very difficult place to go to as it is where I’ve lost a friend that we all miss very much. I’ll be racing for Anthoine this weekend,” Leclerc tweets.
As for his chance of a back-to-back win, Leclerc is only mildly hopeful.
“It will be tougher regarding performance this time as we do not have the same level of competitiveness we enjoyed last year. However, we have seen that anything can happen at this track, especially with unpredictable weather,” he says.
The good news for the young Monegasque is that Ferrari found the problem which ended his race in Spain two weeks ago. Without providing any detail, the team says it was a faulty ECU which caused his car to stall on the final turn.Leclerc managed to fire the car up using the electric motor but was an automatic DNF as he had already undone his belts, forcing him to pit.
Ferrari can only dream of a good result with an engine that’s an estimated 32 kiloWatts down on the Mercedes so it’s left to the Red Bulls and the ever-present ‘Pink Mercedes’ from Racing Point with Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll.
“I’m quite proud of my record at Spa. I’ve finished in the top five there a few times, so it’s definitely one of my stronger circuits,” says Perez.
“I’m enjoying driving the RP20 and it has performed strongly at different types of circuit this season. If we put everything together, we can fight for another strong result this weekend.”
The Racing Points might need rain to repeat their a remarkable second row lock-out in 2018 after a wet qualifying session and they might just be in luck.
Rain is always a threat at Spa, even for just sections of the track which makes life interesting and while rain is forecast across all three days, the likelihood of a wet Sunday goes against form as there hasn’t been a wet race here since 2010.