What better way to throw down the gauntlet than with an emphatic statement of intent? And while Max Verstappen undoubtedly had little time for Shelley in his short and hectic career, his victory at the Belgian Grand Prix was sure to explode: “Look at my works, you mighty ones, and despair!”
Echoing Ozymandias’ grand declaration, it was a victory revealing his superiority and that of Red Bull, rolling through the echo chamber of the Ardennes mountains.
Formula 1 has had some great races this season, but this time at Spa-Francorchamps it was an afternoon that only Verstappen will relish. Yet it was not without significance on two levels. For Verstappen at the end of the title fight, his pace and control would have left nothing but despair for his rivals; while for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in their struggle to regain competitive momentum, a miserable weekend couldn’t end soon enough.
On paper, Verstappen’s victory should have been a classic. The fact that this is not the case indicates how dominant he and Red Bull were in Belgium. He took the flag from 14th on the grid, crossing the field to do so. Yet with such a pace advantage, instead of the visceral, breath-holding thrill that so many passes should have brought, they were barely noticeable. A Sunday walk, the dog in the back, his head out the window, taking advantage of the wind in his mouth, watching the adversaries slip away inexorably, one by one.
Verstappen finished 17 seconds behind teammate Sergio Pérez in second and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in third. Neither had come even close to staying with the Dutchman.
The world champion had a real advantage in qualifying and, without his grid penalty for taking a new engine, would have been on pole. It turned out that the penalty was only a minor inconvenience. He had been quietly confident of returning and such is his precision and poise at this stage of his career, few doubted he would at least step onto the podium.
Such a small beer was not on the agenda. When the lights went out, he gave a masterclass with extraordinary liveliness. His passing was exemplary, albeit in a car that was obviously faster than the midfielder he sent. He was 10th by the end of the first lap, then eighth a lap later, his helpless victims as he passed wide on the Kemmel straight.
Two more fell on the restart after a safety car and on lap eight he passed George Russell’s Mercedes for third place. Sainz stopped and Pérez moved on shortly after. The Dutchman had taken just 12 laps to secure the lead with carefree and disarming ease. He was untouchable, as he admitted.
“If you look at the whole race weekend, then yes, it was the most dominant of my entire career,” he said. “The car was amazing, I don’t think we expected it but it was fun. I was passing a car every lap and I knew there was a good chance of winning the race.
From there he was unassailable, cruising to the fastest lap and opening a nearly 20-second gap while barely breaking a sweat, which perversely made what was quite an achievement less impressive. . Perhaps disappointing then for the fans (save for the big swaths of the Orange Army who once again bounced back with joyous abandon at every lap), but its importance will not be lost on the rest of the grid. .
It was Red Bull displaying an advantage perhaps not seen since that which Mercedes enjoyed in the early years of the turbo-hybrid era. Their pace was simply incomparable. “They were on another planet this weekend,” Sainz said emphatically. He knew he had struggled as best he could with his Ferrari, which it should be noted also had a brand new engine this weekend, but his fastest lap was 2.6 seconds slower than Verstappen’s car. Sainz watched Pluto quickly demoted from Ferrari to the vast dominant mass of Jupiter from Red Bull.
Verstappen now has nine wins this season and eight races to go. While Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc only manages sixth from 15th, the defending champion now leads Pérez by 93 points and Leclerc by 98. Moments after the flag fell in Belgium, talk began of when, not so, he would get his second title.
For Mercedes who have enjoyed similar dominance in the past, Spa couldn’t have been a bigger contrast. While Red Bull announced a swift offensive, the momentum of a Mercedes response simply faded. On a high after success at the final round in Hungary, here they’ve been terribly behind all weekend, which was exacerbated when Hamilton clashed with fifth-placed Fernando Alonso in the first round.
Hamilton’s car was damaged and he was forced to retire. The seven-time champion raised his hand for the incident, but it indicated a rider was trying to take every small chance he had because his machines weren’t up to snuff. His team-mate Russell finished fourth but was as far off the pace of the leaders as Mercedes has been all season. There’s no sense that the frustration and disappointment will be muted anytime soon.
While Mercedes have for so long set the standard, Red Bull and Verstappen have definitely embraced it this season. Spa was a display of their ominous control, reveling in Verstappen’s moving poetry.
Esteban Ocon finished seventh for Alpine, Sebastian Vettel eighth for Aston Martin, Pierre Gasly ninth for AlphaTauri and Alex Albon 10th for Williams.
Max Verstappen wins Belgian Grand Prix as Hamilton crashes