Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is likely to win the Belgian Grand Prix despite starting 15th, says Mercedes driver George Russell.
The world championship leader qualified fastest at historic Spa-Francorchamps, 0.632 seconds ahead, but has a grid penalty for excessive engine use.
Russell, who will start fifth, said: “Max will probably get through and win the race quite comfortably.
“I think he and Red Bull are one step ahead of everyone else.”
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who qualified second behind Verstappen and will start from pole, said he too believed Verstappen could challenge for victory.
“Especially with Max’s pace,” Sainz said, “as soon as there’s a safety car, or even with the pace he has, with 42 laps, he can come back and we’ve seen that before. TO DO.”
Verstappen, who won the last race in Hungary from 10th on the grid, moves up one place ahead of title rival Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, who also has an engine penalty and is optimistic of a good result.
“With the pace we have in the car, I want to move forward and at least be on the podium,” said the Dutchman.
Sainz said Verstappen’s pace over the weekend was “a bit confusing – he was more than 0.5 seconds ahead of us in every (tire) compound and in every situation”.
Verstappen’s performance was a blow to Leclerc, who is 80 points behind his rival and effectively needs to beat him in almost every race to hope to get him back on track and win the title this year.
Leclerc said: “0.7s is a lot. They found something this weekend which is quite impressive. It’s a big gap.
“I hope that in Zandvoort [next weekend] it will change but before that we have the race tomorrow. We seem to be a bit more competitive [on a long run]. Let’s see how it goes.”
Another Ferrari mistake
Leclerc also had to deal with another mistake in the Ferrari pit, when the team fitted him with the wrong tires for his only stint in final qualifying.
Leclerc came out on new soft tires and immediately wondered why he was on them. The team told him to press and go around.
Afterwards, Leclerc said: “I mentioned it because I was a little surprised, but it doesn’t change anything for the rest of the weekend.”
It was a relatively small mistake, but nonetheless the latest in a series this year – Leclerc lost three potential wins to faulty pit calls, including in the last race in Hungary.
“It was probably miscommunication,” Leclerc said. “I won’t go into too much detail, but it was okay.”
It seems the plan had been to send Leclerc on worn tires for this race, which didn’t matter in terms of grid position because of his penalty.
But it does suggest that Ferrari was trying to save a set of new soft tires for racing, due to the grip advantage offered over a used set. This can be to gain places at the start, or to save until the end of the race to then go for it.
This strategy in itself will surprise some teams.
Alpine’s Fernando Alonso, who starts third, said “nobody will use the red [soft] tomorrow” because he was too fragile.
Hamilton says lack of pace ‘hurts’
It was another difficult day for Mercedes. Hamilton and Russell start fourth and fifth, but the seven-time champion was 1.838 seconds off the pace.
Hamilton said: “I never thought we’d ever be two seconds away. It’s a lot worse than I thought.”
Mercedes brought an upgrade to Spa and hoped that and some rule changes they said would affect Red Bull and Ferrari would bring them closer to the front, but instead had their worst qualifying in terms of overall pace of the year.
Hamilton said: “I wish we had done it right and had improvements that put us forward and we were fighting up front, but that’s not how it is.
“Believe me, it hurts. But you just have to laugh about it and say, ‘I’m not fighting for a championship.
“If I get too serious and too low, I have a responsibility to try and keep my spirits high. You can’t get discouraged. Yes, it sucks and it’s slow.”
Reminded that he started fourth and had a strong chance of continuing his run of five consecutive podiums, he said: “It’s crazy like that. We are really slow but we start fourth and maybe have a chance to get a podium, who knows…just be optimistic.
“This car this weekend didn’t tell me it wanted to win but maybe I’ll have a conversation with it tonight and tomorrow it’ll be a bit more responsive.
“We don’t know how fast or slow we’ll be tomorrow. It’s the biggest gap we’ve ever had in qualifying, but what we do is talk about the meetings we have next week – where are we going to be with next year? What can we take from our understanding of the data and apply it to make sure next year’s car won’t be like this at all?”
Russell blamed tire temperatures for the lack of performance, saying: “We’re a bit lost with the tyres, especially on a Saturday. It’s been a limitation all season. Qualifying limitation becomes our racing strength but we don’t we don’t have the right compromise.
“Those are the inherent limitations of the car that we have. Over the course of a season we benefit a lot more on a Sunday than the limitations we have on a Saturday. We’ve probably only had three or four races out of 14 that are very poor qualifying – here and Imola and maybe Monaco. There is a clear theme and we want to find a solution but we don’t have an answer at the moment.”
Albon shines for Williams
Alex Albon went to Williams this year to try to rebuild his career after being dropped by Red Bull at the end of 2020 and spending last season as a reserve driver. And, boy, does he do a good job.
The British-born Thai, a close friend of Russell’s, produced a series of strong performances and Saturday was the best qualifier of the year for the team, with Albon advancing to the final for the first time and finishing ninth. The various penalties propel him to sixth on the grid.
“The car felt really good all weekend,” said Albon. “We knew we tended to adapt to low downforce circuits and we knew it was a chance to get into Q2, but getting into Q3 is a different ball game, so I’m really proud of everyone. . We maxed everything out.”
He said he was aware of the potential for many faster cars coming behind him, but was aiming for points, and said his performance underlined Williams’ performance since a big upgrade was introduced at the Grand Prix in Britain.
“We are P9 in pure rhythm,” Albon said. “It’s not about being lucky or others unlucky. Everyone seemed to have faultless races and we were only a few tenths off the Mercedes so it shows that in certain situations we can really maximize what we have and get into those positions.
“But it’s hard to get that consistently when everything has to be perfect.
“We know the weaknesses of our car. This track hides them a bit more than other tracks. [to Zandvoort] next week it will not be as cheerful as this week, but it gives us motivation and shows that we are going in the right direction.
“We’re making improvements, we’re learning from the new package. It’s going in the right direction and now it’s about seeing what else we can do because realistically we don’t have any more updates this year.”
Verstappen could win from 15th – Russell