Don Kennedy: Verstappen and his rocket on another planet
Max Verstappen, on another, if not planetary, podium for victory number 9 of the season. PhotoDon Kennedy
This time last year Max Verstappen won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, having started from pole position and completed just two laps behind the safety car, before the race was abandoned. He started the 2022 race from 14th on the grid due to an engine change. Normally such a penalty means the back of the grid, but luckily because seven other drivers suffered similar penalties and Verstappen was fastest in qualifying, he was further up the grid.
Before the race he expected to finish in the top five, but the record books will show he won the race around 18 seconds ahead of his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez.
It was a great day for Red Bull and another tough one for their closest rivals Ferrari, as pole sitter Carlos Sainz finished 3rd, while Charles Leclerc finished 6th, after also picking up a grid penalty and getting off to a fair start. behind Verstappen.
Picking up his 9th win of the season and 29th overall, Verstappen proves unstoppable as he heads for the double world championship title. He was, as Perez said, “on another planet.”
The Mexican, who has now regained second place in the championship, albeit 93 points behind Verstappen, lamented the fact that by starting from second on the grid and taking over Sainz, he didn’t couldn’t do better.
“I was really hoping for more. Today was a good opportunity, but Max was just flying, he was on another planet and was untouchable,” Perez said.
Untouchable and unstoppable, as after blasting his way through the field he was definitely first after just 18 laps and exceeded his own lofty expectations. “It was amazing this weekend,” Verstappen told Sky F1.
“We were already super competitive from the start and today I knew we could have a very good result. not how badly you’re going to lose in the first round. You usually don’t know what’s going to happen, do you?”
“But luckily I stayed out of trouble even though there was a lot going on so I was literally trying to avoid everything. lap and once I realized I was P3 even on the soft compounds we were very quick and I knew I had a good chance of winning the race The car was unreal today it was like a rocket.”
The safety car was deployed due to two separate incidents at the Les Combes-Malmedy complex, one involving Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, and the other which saw Nicholas Latifi spin out and take out Valtteri Bottas.
The Alonso-Hamilton incident came after Alonso and Hamilton passed Perez at the first corner of the start and were chasing pole-sitter Sainz. Hamilton tried to pass Alonso from the outside, and despite Alonso hugging the curb and giving him enough space, the two made contact.
Hamilton’s Mercedes launched into the air causing damage on landing, leading to his retirement, while Alonso appeared to have only minor damage to the front wing and was able to continue, with an explosion on the team radio.
“How silly to close the door from the outside,” shouted Alonso. “I mean, we had a mega start but this guy only knows how to drive and start first.”
Stewards investigated the incident and decided no further action was needed, with Hamilton escaping a penalty because it was a ‘first lap incident’ which supposedly means you you can do whatever you want as long as it’s the first round.
Hamilton initially refused to go to the medical center as required by the rules and received a warning. Later, when told what Alonso had said, he closed the questioning.
“I don’t really have an answer,” Hamilton began. “I know how things feel in the heat of the moment, but it’s good to know how he feels about me. It’s better that it’s out in the open how he feels. And as I I said it was unintentional, and I take responsibility for that.”
He said he wasn’t going to tell Alonso about it because of what Alonso said, before adding: “I remember looking at the ground, it was definitely up high. I’m grateful to be alive and well.”
Given that Hamilton wouldn’t initially go to the medical center, his commentary on being lucky to be alive is what Hamilton does best, exaggerating and accentuating the obvious for dramatic effect and sympathy. He wasn’t getting any from Alonso, who added ‘it happened the same thing between him and Rosberg a few years ago, so this time it was the same thing’.
This incident between Hamilton and Rosberg took place in 2015 and was the start of their feud which continued until late 2016 when Rosberg retired as champion.
Mercedes had turned up at Spa with reports of major improvements, especially as the FIA had heeded Toto Wolff’s plea on driver safety with porpoising and introduced a new technical directive. [(TD) to stop teams having a flexi floor, a move aimed clearly sat Red Bull. But although George Russell eventually finished 4th, just behind Sainz, it looks like Red Bull has gone forward, and team boss Christian Horner said he owed Wolff a thank you.
“On the face of it, I’d probably have to thank Toto for the TD,” he said. “In all seriousness. I think the circuit has played to our strengths.”
Ferrari boss Mattia Binoto acknowledged that strength.
“Well done to Red Bull, they’ve been very, very fast all weekend. They have been faster than anyone else, they’ve proved to have a competitive package and a very strong team capable of developing the car,” he said.
“Certainly, today, we weren’t as fast as they were. But, if I look at our position compared to the others behind, it was the usual position so it seems Red Bull moved ahead.”
With two laps to go in the race, and Verstappen leading and holding one point for the fastest lap, Ferrari had pitted Leclerc for fresh tyres so he could set the fastest lap. That brought him into Alonso’s path, who overtook the Ferrari with a lap to go. Leclerc got him back with DRS on the last lap but was given a 5-second penalty for spending in the pit lane, so finished behind Alonso in the final placings.
The quest for one point had cost them two points, another mistake, certainly by Leclerc, but Binotto defended the decision. “In the end, it was the right choice. We didn’t get the fastest lap and we need to look at why. In terms of Charles, it was the right choice”.
Alonso, who drove for Ferrari between 2010 and 2014, was surprised and bemused by the Ferrari decision, noting “Ferrari always do some strange strategies. So that was one of those”.
Binotto has all but conceded the championships will go to Verstappen.
“Looking at the Drivers Championship, the gap to Max is very high [98 points]. It’s not enough for Charles to win all the races and finish ahead of him. So we’re counting on Max not to finish the races.”
Sainz admitted the Red Bull was much quicker than the Ferrari, but as F1 heads to Verstappen’s home race, the Dutch GP at Zandvoort this weekend, he is optimistic about the chances of his team.
“I think it’s unique, I think they just had a super strong weekend,” Sainz assumed.
“We got a little weaker on a track that probably doesn’t suit us very much.”
“I think Zandvoort is a better hunting ground for us and we should be stronger there. That doesn’t mean we should beat Red Bull or beat them comfortably, but get back in the fight? I’m convinced we should. “
Sky F1 commentator and former driver Johnny Herbert has questioned the radio messages Leclerc’s race engineer exchanged with him during the race. “Why should we stop now?” asks Leclerc.
“So we are aiming for a P5 at the end of the race,” replied the engineer. “The question is would you like to have a new medium to traverse traffic or would you prefer a new hard drive, question?”
“You listen to this kind of conversation with Charles,” Herbert told Sky F1.
“They almost ask Charles, who is sort of their strategist, what they want to do and how he wants to do it. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the pit lane. They don’t have to ask Charles. their pilot what he wants to do.”
In contrast, the situation on the Red Bull pit wall is one of determination in their race strategy and confidence in their drivers. It’s a winning combination, and then there’s Verstappen’s calm assurance when behind the wheel.
Unlike last year, there is now no head-to-head without another driver and he could have the championship sewn up with several races remaining. His victory at the Dutch GP last year gave him the impetus to hold off the challenge from Hamilton, and he is relatively confident of another victory this weekend.
“I’m just enjoying the moment,” Verstappen explained at Spa. “I also think everyone in the team, we’re having a great time but we’re also very focused on what we want to achieve and at the moment we’re achieving that. We’ll keep pushing because we want more, starting next week in Zandvoort.”