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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
7:20 PM 29th August 2021
sports

Verstappen Wins At A Very Wet Spa As Russell Stars

After its summer break Formula 1 returned to action with today’s Belgian Grand Prix at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit, but extremely wet weather meant the action this afternoon was very limited. After numerous delays Red Bull’s Max Verstappen emerged as the winner after two laps behind the Safety Car, but the real star of the weekend was George Russell after yesterday putting his Williams second on the grid for today’s race.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen closed the championship gap to Lewis Hamilton at a soaking Spa
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen closed the championship gap to Lewis Hamilton at a soaking Spa
As the F1 circus headed to Belgium last week memories were still fresh of the recent killing of the circuit’s high profile CEO Nathalie Maillet, aged just 51 and in tragic circumstances too after she and a female friend had been shot dead by her husband, who then committed suicide by turning the gun on himself. On a different front, thoughts also turned this weekend to Michael Schumacher, who had made his Formula 1 debut at Spa thirty years ago, driving for the Jordan team in the Belgian Grand Prix held on 25 August 1991. His son Mick is an F1 rookie himself this season driving for the Haas outfit and opted at Spa to use a special helmet design based on that used by his father for his debut race there.

The pandemic affected 2021 calendar has continued to require revision, with an announcement in the period preceding the Belgian event that the Japanese Grand Prix on 10 October had been cancelled for a second year running at the request of the Japanese government due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation there. This understandably disappointed Honda, who owns the Suzuka circuit where the race was due to take place, as it means it will not host a final race before the automotive giant ends its direct involvement in F1 at the end of this year.

Yesterday the F1 authorities revealed the new calendar for the second half of this season, with the original 23 races now reduced to 22. After Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy the teams will head to Russia, Turkey and the USA. If Turkey is still on the UK’s red list re compulsory hotel quarantine measures for the many UK based F1 staff they will simply transfer directly to Texas, but there is a hope the status might have been reduced to amber by then. November is then set to feature Grands Prix in Mexico and Brazil followed by a still to be confirmed debut event for Qatar, with staff travelling directly from South America to the Middle East to again avoid any potential UK red list quarantine issues. The calendar will then be completed by a first race in Saudi Arabia and the traditional season-ending round in Abu Dhabi. F1 is confident that it can protect its personnel in locations with high Covid rates due to the strict protocols under which the sport has been operating since the pandemic began.

Mick Schumacher’s helmet design this weekend paid tribute to that of his father’s at Spa 30 years earlier
Mick Schumacher’s helmet design this weekend paid tribute to that of his father’s at Spa 30 years earlier
In the F1 summer break Aston Martin’s petition for a right of review against Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification from second place at the Hungarian Grand Prix had been denied by the FIA governing body and the Silverstone based team subsequently decided to withdraw its appeal on the basis that doing so would outweigh the potential benefits of pursuing it. The other carry-over from the Hungarian race to Spa was the five place grid penalties for both Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll for having caused avoidable accidents at the start of the previous round at the Hungaroring.

Russell had been selected by Mercedes to test next season’s new wheels and tyres for them in Hungary as the summer break began, but news is still awaited about who will be Sir Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate next year at the Brackley based outfit. The Mercedes team principal and part owner Toto Wolff had previously indicated that a choice between the current incumbent Bottas and rising star Russell would be made during the summer break and, when pressed in Belgium yesterday, the Austrian admitted that Mercedes had already made its decision, even if it wasn’t going to be revealed just yet although Wolff seemed to very much hint it could well be Russell, with Bottas being found another F1 seat elsewhere. One subject on which Mercedes did make a clear announcement recently was that it will withdraw from Formula E at the end of next season to “focus its works motorsport activities on Formula 1”, following the recent similar withdrawals of Audi and BMW from the purely electric racing series.

Elsewhere in the Belgian paddock Alpine announced that the Spanish double champion Fernando Alonso would continue to drive for the French team next season alongside Esteban Ocon and this was followed by Red Bull revealing that Sergio Pérez would also remain with them in 2022. Meanwhile, Ferrari was anticipating a relative lack of speed at the Spa and Monza “power” circuits, although the Italian outfit was looking forward to introducing its allowed remaining 2021 power unit element upgrades after the forthcoming Italian Grand Prix.

Back at Spa, the circuit is just over seven kilometres in length and is the longest on the F1 calendar. Its Kemmel Straight has always been a very popular overtaking opportunity, assisted by DRS, and track position is also less important than in Hungary last time out as, if you have a fast car at this scenic part of the Ardennes, it’s relatively easy to use it to full effect and make good progress. Safety Car periods have been a regular occurrence too, including in the last five Belgian Grands Prix, and every team’s strategists were fully aware of the high potential for further such interventions and particularly in the early stages of the race when the cars are still in relatively close proximity to each other.

George Russell stunned everyone by putting his Williams car second on the grid
George Russell stunned everyone by putting his Williams car second on the grid
Friday morning’s opening free practice session had begun on a damp track and the cars were therefore initially shod with intermediate tyres, but the conditions soon dried out and slick rubber appeared. Bottas topped the timesheets for Mercedes ahead of Verstappen’s Red Bull and the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly, with Hamilton only 18th quickest but clearly capable of setting better times after experimenting with a more drag inducing rear wing than his team-mate. In the afternoon practice period Verstappen went fastest ahead of Bottas and Hamilton, but the session was twice redflagged late on when Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Verstappen both had separate car damaging offs at the Les Combes section of the track. The testing on Friday of a micro camera embedded in the left side of Alonso’s helmet lining certainly produced some spectacular footage, giving a far more realistic impression of what a driver experiences compared to the usual roll hoop mounted cameras.

The subject of safety at the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex again raised its head on Friday afternoon when six W Series female drivers had a particularly unpleasant coming together at this part of the track during their qualifying session. Two had to be taken to hospital for further checks, but fortunately all escaped serious injury. This incident followed the injuries the Williams development driver Jack Aitken had suffered recently at the same spot during the Spa 24 Hours event and Raidillon was where Anthoine Hubert had been fatally injured during an F1 supporting Formula 2 race two years ago, with Juan Manuel Correa also suffering life-changing leg and foot injuries in the same accident. The dangers of this part of the track were to reappear the following day too during F1 qualifying, but fortunately safety improvements are being planned for next year which should help to reduce the risk of injury whilst still retaining the thrill of this challenging section of the circuit for both drivers and fans.

In yesterday’s final wet practice period Verstappen and Pérez led the way for Red Bull, with Hamilton the best of the rest, and then the qualifying hour followed at 15.00 local time. It may have still have been August, but I know from plenty of personal experience that that never means it won’t be raining at Spa and so it was again as the drivers fought for their grid positions for the following day’s race. McLaren’s Lando Norris went fastest in the first two parts of qualifying, but, with the rain intensifying before the top ten shootout, it was time for full wet tyres in conditions which were decidedly marginal for safe ontrack activity. Norris had a massive 180mph shunt after losing control at Eau Rouge/Raidillon, badly damaging his car but fortunately being able to walk to the Medical Car after the session had been immediately redflagged. The likeable young Brit was transferred to hospital for x-rays of his injured elbow and was subsequently cleared to race, although a need to replace his damaged gearbox meant a five place grid penalty which left him set to start down in 15th position.

When qualifying resumed in still difficult conditions it was Verstappen who claimed pole position, but this was totally overshadowed by Russell who put in an absolutely stunning effort to place his relatively lowly Williams car an incredible second on the grid ahead of Hamilton and the McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo. Bottas meanwhile was only eighth fastest and set to start 13th after his grid penalty. Russell’s amazing performance yesterday will long remain in the memories of all within the F1 world and fans worldwide, just like when a young Michael Schumacher qualified a highly impressive seventh for his first ever Grand Prix at the same circuit all those years ago.

Esteban Ocon’s Alpine battles through the rain and spray
Esteban Ocon’s Alpine battles through the rain and spray
The conditions were really wet again this afternoon as the start of the Grand Prix approached and this was rather embarrassingly proven by Pérez, who managed to slide his pristine Red Bull off the track into the barriers on his way from the pit garages to the grid and the damage to his front right suspension meant his day seemed over before it had begun. The intention was to begin the race as planned at three pm local time behind the Safety Car, but the rain was still so persistent that Michael Masi, the F1 Race Director, felt the need on safety grounds to keep postponing the start until 15.30 when the formation laps behind the Safety Car began. However, it was soon clear that the amount of standing water on the track and the very limited visibility for the drivers was so bad that it was necessary to red flag proceedings and bring the cars back into the pitlane. The ongoing delays at least meant that activity in the Red Bull garages to repair Pérez’s car increased significantly as a debate ensued between the team and Masi about whether the Mexican might be allowed to rejoin the delayed race. After some prevarication with the stewards the answer from Masi was ultimately “yes, from the pit lane”, a decision whose validity Mercedes immediately questioned.

After much waiting around as the rain continued to fall there was a message just after 6pm local time that racing would resume at 18.17 behind the Safety Car and this led to a flurry of activity in the pit lane. Come the restart the cars all followed Bernd Mayländer out onto the circuit, but on their third lap the Grand Prix was again redflagged due to the conditions, with 49 minutes still remaining, and the cars lined up back in the pit lane.

At 18.45 race control announced that the Grand Prix would not be resumed again and the result was declared. The Formula 1 regulations dictate that at least 75% of the race distance must be completed for full points to be awarded, but half points are given out if the leader has completed at least two laps and this was the case. So the top three were Verstappen, Russell and Hamilton, with the popular Williams driver from Kings Lynn enjoying a much deserved first ever F1 podium celebration after his brilliance in qualifying yesterday. Haas’ 17th placed Nikita Mazepin actually set the fastest lap, but the extra point for this achievement wasn’t awarded as the Russian driver hadn’t finished within the top ten.

Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez has a new contract, but crashed on his way to the first start
Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez has a new contract, but crashed on his way to the first start
Next up comes the second part of the current tripleheader as Formula 1 makes a welcome return to Zandvoort for the first time since 1985. Verstappen’s nationality is actually Dutch/Belgian and there was his usual army of travelling fans at Spa this weekend. However, the coastal circuit in the Netherlands is very much expected to be even more a sea of orange as his supporters cheer on their hero at what is considered to be his home race, whilst he and Hamilton continue their superb battle for this year’s drivers’ title.

2021 Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix

1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 2 laps
2 George Russell (Williams) +2.198s
3 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +3.518s
4 Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +5.951s
5 Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +7.894s
6 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +10.275s
7 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +11.791s
8 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +13.217s
9 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) +15.634s
10 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +16.961s
11 Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +20.259s
12 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +21.946s
13 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) +23.530s
14 Lando Norris (McLaren) +26.085s
15 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +28.781s
16 Mick Schumacher (Haas) +30.900s
17 Nikita Mazepin (Haas) +32.687s
18 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +34.838s
19 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) +36.322s
20 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +38.690s


2021 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship

1 Lewis Hamilton 202.5
2 Max Verstappen 199.5
3 Lando Norris 113


2021 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship

1 Mercedes 310.5
2 Red Bull 303.5
3 McLaren 169