The weather is the biggest question at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps; it always rains at some time over a race weekend at the fabled Belgian track, so the teams spend much of their time there wondering whether the rain will arrive while they’re on the circuit or not.
For free practice the answer was no: the session took place under warm and sunny conditions, giving the teams the perfect conditions from which to build a strong weekend. Charles Leclerc wasted no time putting a competitive laptime on the timesheets, grabbing the top time on his second push lap just before his fire extinguisher let go, forcing the Monegasque back to the pits.
His team set to work removing the hard to access unit and replacing it within the session, with Leclerc standing around watching and thinking of the laps he was missing as his rivals concentrated on their race runs. Eventually they were able to get him back on track, but with only 2 minutes to circulate and traffic to deal with he was unable to make the line before the chequered flag came out.
Nonetheless his laptime was good enough to top the session, ahead of teammate Antonio Fuoco and Oliver Rowland, as the qualifying work was done at the start. The question for Leclerc’s rivals was what had he lost, along with the laps: would it affect his qualifying session, or the races? The answer to the first question was ambiguous: Leclerc topped qualifying for yet another pole by a good margin, but given the weather and the red flag it’s not entirely certain that he would have had it all his own way, but for external factors.
The threatened storm unleashed itself on the circuit ahead of qualifying, washing away all of the rubber from the F1 session and forcing everyone to start on wets. The rain had mostly stopped as the lights went green, but on a 7km circuit the weather in one section can be different that at the other end. Certainly it was never dry enough for anyone to chance their arm on a set of slicks, and as the first wet session of the year (including tests) the results were likely to be variable.
And so it proved: Leclerc was 22s slower than in free practice, but crucially he was 0.6s faster than the DAMS duo of Nicholas Latifi and Oliver Rowland with 2 quick laps halfway through the session before most of the field returned for fresh rubber and to see what the weather had for them next. A few drivers went out early on their second set, including Artem Markelov: the Russian was looking fast, going purple in sector 1 as Leclerc rushed to get out on track during the driest period of the session, but a spin for Sergio Sette Camara brought out the red flags, denying Markelov’s good work.
The session reopened with 3 minutes remaining, but with everyone on the same section of track and time running out, as well as a return of the rain, there was no chance for anyone else to improve: Leclerc had his 7th pole position of the season. He knew that he’d dodged a Markelov shaped bullet on the way to it, though: “it was the perfect time to go out in this session when he improved, and I was a bit scared that he would finish this lap because it was just before it started to rain again, so the track was the driest possible at that time.
“Luckily he didn’t finish that lap because of the red flag, and then it started to rain again, so that was okay. After free practice this morning we did only 2 push laps, so we were pretty unsure of what to wait for in qualifying, but in the end it all went pretty well. I’m looking at tomorrow’s meteo at the moment and it’s saying rain so we’ll see how it goes, but I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”
In a region where the weather changes as quickly as Spa, a long range weather forecast is little more than a coin toss and a hope: when the teams left the paddock on Saturday afternoon it was under gloriously sunny conditions, and they arrived in the pitlane to great grey clouds looming overhead, so everyone just got on with their work and hoped for the best. Unfortunately for Latifi those hopes were dashed early: his engine gave up on the way to the grid, undoing his best ever qualifying performance and opening a space on the front row next to Leclerc.
If the space was an open invitation to the Monegasque’s rivals, it was to be one that went unanswered: Rowland tried to fill it by pushing outside Leclerc at La Source, losing an element of his front wing when they touched for his efforts, while Gustav Malja in P4 made a poor start, lost out to Fuoco and Luca Ghiotto, and soon had new teammate Nyck De Vries on his tail. Jordan King ran over some debris before leaving some of his own as his tyre disintegrated along the Kemmel Straight, and the VSC signs appeared to allow the marshals to clean up.
At the restart Leclerc began the race-long process of leaving everyone behind, with Ghiotto running through Fuoco to pick up P2 when Rowland pitted, the first driver to do so on lap 7. Ghiotto was in on lap 10, Leclerc was in and out next time through to slot back behind Markelov and Fuoco on the alternate strategy but ahead of Rowland, and the fight was on between the two strategies. Markelov ran similar times to Leclerc, the only one able to do so, but the gap was too small for any surprises: the Russian came back out on lap 15 in P6 and had the hammer down.
Fresh rubber and DRS saw Markelov blow through De Vries and Malja at the Kemmel Straight in successive laps, he took a couple more to dispatch teammate Ghiotto at the same place, and then it was the rematch with Rowland. On the last lap the Russian pushed the Briton all around the circuit before arriving at the Bus Stop: Markelov went up the outside, Rowland pushed him wide, but the Russian won the drag to the line for P2, with Leclerc having run through an astonishing 26.6s ahead of the battle for the win.
Asked how he felt to complete such a dominant win, Leclerc could only laugh: “It felt very good! We didn’t have an amazing start, with quite a bit of wheel spin: we couldn’t practice the start, and I think I did something wrong with it. But after that we were very quick, on the option tyres I felt quite good, and we could stay on the tyres quite long which helped us on the second stint.
“On the prime tyres I think we were very, very good: when we left the pits they were telling me ‘you’re two seconds faster than everybody’ and I said ‘can you repeat please?’ because I thought maybe I had misheard them! The car was amazing all the race, and I need to thank PREMA for it. And also I have Antonio as a teammate: we usually give more or less the same feedback, and this helped me to win today, because he obviously gave the right feedback after free practice.
“Thanks to him we managed to have the right car for the race!”
It was probably cold comfort for the Italian, who ran the alternate strategy and could only manage P5 at the flag, but change was to come. Markelov and Rowland were called to the stewards’ office for their last corner contretemps, and an elegant solution was found: Markelov had left the track and gained an advantage, and as such was handed a 5s time penalty, but Rowland had pushed him off the track, and as such was also handed a 5s time penalty, leaving the positions standing. Luca Ghiotto must have been disappointed not to have been 2s closer at the finish…
But then the big one came: Leclerc and Rowland had been discovered to have had too much wear on their skid planks, which are installed to stop anyone running too low and picking up an aerodynamic advantage. There was much discussion behind the scenes by the teams and the stewards, but there could only ever be one answer to a breach of the Technical Regulations: disqualification. Markelov was now classified as the winner, leading home a RUSSIAN TIME 1-2 ahead of Ghiotto, with Fuoco promoted to the podium.
On Sunday the teams had an unusual new aspect to deal with for the sprint race: the wet qualifying meant they all had fresh tyres to use. Sette Camara certainly put them to good use: the starts have been one of his biggest problems with the step up to such a powerful car, but his start from P3 in Spa was absolutely perfect, slicing between front row starters Norman Nato and Roberto Merhi as though they were standing still before flying away from the rest of the field.
De Vries had a flier too, and despite being slightly squeezed by Nato inside La Source the Dutchman blew past the poleman at Kemmel for P2 and headed off after the Brazilian, while further back Rowland and Leclerc were slicing through the field after starting from the back of the grid: at the end of lap 1 Rowland was up to P12, a lap later Leclerc took it from him, and the Monegasque was on a charge back up to the sharp end of the race.
Markelov saw the threat coming and started to move forward, dispatching Fuoco and putting himself behind teammate Ghiotto, who was protecting his tyres and took it as a hurry up call: the Italian blew past Merhi as Leclerc arrived on Markelov’s tail with Fuoco in tow, and the 3 had a great battle until the Russian’s car developed a problem, tipping him into retirement and giving Leclerc a new target.
Ghiotto disposed of Nato for P3 and was closing in on De Vries, who in turn was closing on Sette Camara: it promised a barnstorming finish to the race, but a big crash at the top of Eau Rouge by Nobuharu Matsushita brought out the safety car until the flag, helping the Brazilian to his maiden F2 win.
“It’s a great moment, a great feeling,” Sette Camara noted afterwards. “We didn’t have the best of luck in the beginning of the season, things just weren’t going our way no matter what, but the team kept supporting me and things finally came around in Spa. It’s a good track for me, I had my first podium in a formula car here in 2015, so I’m very happy.
I’ve struggled with the starts: it’s a heavier car and wheel spins a lot, and it was like this yesterday, but we worked on it overnight and today we could get a good start. It was crucial for the win and gave me the confidence I needed. In the last few laps the tyres were going away: I’m not sure what the state of Nyck’s tyres was, but definitely the safety car came at a good time for me! Maybe it would have been a fight for the victory in the end, but with or without a fight I’m happy!”
Behind them Leclerc finished in P5, with Rowland grabbing the last point on offer in 8th, meaning that the Monegasque still extended his lead in the drivers’ championship: Leclerc left Belgium with a 59 point lead over Rowland, who had Markelov just 9 points behind him, as they looked towards the Monza round just a few days away.
The one thing everyone in racing knows about Budapest is that it’s hot, especially when it’s time to race at the Hungaroring: it’s almost always the last round before the summer break, and the combination of the hot, hot heat, the mirage of a holiday just over the horizon and a tight, technical circuit combines to make the Budapest round one of the hardest for all of the teams on the grid.
Which is what made Wednesday so surprising: huge, ponderous storm clouds covered Hungary, causing huge delays, diversions and rough landings for everyone, and driving through the rain lashed streets of Budapest had everyone worried about a new, completely unexpected challenge for the teams and drivers to have to negotiate over the weekend.
They needn’t have worried: Thursday saw the usual hot and sunny conditions welcome everyone to the Hungaroring, and there was more than a few sighs of relief as the teams got ready for free practice. The weather wasn’t the only return to regular service: Charles Leclerc hit the ground running to top the morning session, overturning his own quickest lap 3 times before grabbing P1 a third of the way through the session before everyone concentrated on race runs, with Nyck De Vries having the only notable incident after juddering over the new larger kerbs at turn 11 and into the wall, giving his mechanics some extra work in the few hours before qualifying.
Oliver Rowland was less than a tenth off the Monegasque in practice, with the same gap back to De Vries, and had held a little in reserve as usual. Would this be the weekend to bring Leclerc’s pole run to an end? Unfortunately for his rivals, the answer is both yes and no.
The Monegasque driver was untouchable in qualifying, despite a red flag on his hot lap for a spin by Sean Gelael: Leclerc simply returned to the pits until the track opened, headed back out to set the pole lap by almost half a second and returned, to the astonishment of his rivals. He went back out on his second set behind everyone else, ready to play clean up, but there was no need: no one could get close to his time, so he returned without needing to make a second run.
Leclerc sat in the press conference with Rowland and Artem Markelov, and it was a bit of a glum affair for the others. “PREMA gave me a great car,” Leclerc noted, confirming the obvious, “and I’m very happy about the lap this afternoon: this morning I was not happy with the way I drove, but this afternoon I’m happy with the lap I delivered.
“It’s a good pole position, and we knew that the position would be very important because here in Budapest overtaking is quite hard, so we will have to do a good start tomorrow and try to keep the lead.”
It wasn’t until a while later that Leclerc was called to the stewards’ office, and he had left the circuit before the news emerged: he had been disqualified from qualifying for using a part on his diff which did not comply with the material requirements in the Dallara User Manual, which is a breach of the technical regulations. He was, however, allowed to start the race from the back of the grid, while championship rival Rowland would receive the points and start from pole.
Saturday saw the blast furnace conditions arrive in force, with all of the drivers hiding away as their cars baked in the forecourt of the paddock, waiting for release. But there was nowhere to hide when the lights went out: Rowland might have collected the points for pole but Markelov was P2 in the championship and looking to close the gap to Leclerc, blazing away when the lights went out to lead Rowland, Jordan King and Nicholas Latifi into turn 1.
Budapest rewards the prime strategy (start on softs and switch to mediums), which is why so many of the field use it: there is often an early safety car, and even if there’s not it’s generally quicker, as evidenced by the overwhelming majority of drivers using it. Alex Albon was the highest placed gambler to start on mediums in P11, with only 3 drivers towards the back chancing their arms: Sergio Sette Camara, Louis Deletraz, and Charles Leclerc.
The Monegasque driver, on full tanks and harder tyres, ate through his rivals like a crocodile breaking fast, finishing the first lap in P12 and looking for more: unseen by the cameras concentrated on the front of the pack, Leclerc and Albon were engaged in a fierce battle for supremacy, the former teammates reopening last year’s blazing title fight from GP3 as they locked horns over who would have a clear track when their rivals pitted.
King was the first to lose his tyres, with Latifi sneaking past before the Englishman could pit for fresh rubber, while at the front Rowland made a great stop on lap 11, Markelov came in next time through to cover but lost time in the pits, emerging 2 seconds behind his rival, and the Albon/Leclerc fight was now prime time, at the front of the pack. Leclerc clearly had the better car, but a moment of wildness when he tried to go around the outside of Albon at turn 4 but instead got airborne off the huge new kerbs would have worried his team, advising him to bring a halt to the war to make sure his car was still intact.
It wasn’t long before they re-engaged, with Leclerc muscling his way past at turn 2 after Albon braked slightly early at the corner before, but the fight had come with a price: Rowland was only 10 seconds behind and closing, leaving the pair with no way to pit and return before the Englishman and his entourage were through and gone.
And so it proved, with the prime strategy demonstrating its worth, but good fortune was to smile on Leclerc once again: re-emerging in P11 behind Robert Visoiu and Sergio Canamasas, the pair came together at turn 1 to promote the Monegasque driver by 2 places and prompt a safety car, bringing all of his rivals together in front of him just as his tyres were at their best. At the restart he passed 3 of his rivals at turn 1, and he could smell the fear as the others tried to stay away.
Out in front Markelov had been biding his time, and he thought it had arrived at last: on better tyres he launched up the inside of Rowland out of the final turn and was closing fast, with the Briton seeing the threat in his mirrors and closing the door, leaving the Russian no choice but to brake heavily and get swamped or to keep going and hope. Markelov kept his foot down, found the grass at the pit exit and jumped the kerb before launching across the track and into the wall at turn 1.
Latifi saw a chance and went for it, but Rowland had just enough tyres left to guide his teammate wide at turn 2 before the safety car came out, staying there until the final corner for a DAMS 1-2 ahead of De Vries, who’d made a great start before staying away from everyone, with Leclerc promoted to P4.
All the talk in the press conference was about Markelov’s huge shunt, which was still under investigation by the stewards, but Rowland was satisfied with his part in it, with the stewards agreeing with his perspective: “He got a pretty good run out of the last corner, and I was struggling a bit with my tyres: he got a good run up the inside, I defended, and I’m not sure where he was going to go.
“I went all the way to the inside, and I guess he was expecting me to maybe leave a car [width] but there was nothing there, and he went on the grass. I think the rule is if there is any part of the car is alongside you’ve got to leave a car, but he was still behind me when I closed the gap. He had quite a lot of momentum when he committed to it I think, and he went on the grass: he couldn’t go left at that moment.
“But we’ve been on the podium consistently since Monaco, and I think the qualifying recently has been extremely positive: we came second here, only Charles was better than me, so I’m quite happy. I’m second in the championship, I’ve closed the gap a little bit to Charles, but we’ve still got a bit of work to do on qualifying. As a team and a car the result of the 1-2 shows we’ve come a long way, and done a good job.”
Sunday’s track was marginally cooler due to starting earlier, but it made no difference to Nobuharu Matsushita, who made a stunning getaway from P4, running inside and around Norman Nato and stealing a match on poleman and teammate Albon, who was soon squeezed between Luca Ghiotto and De Vries, with the pair running down the hill behind the Japanese driver and in front of Rowland, hungry for more and looking to steal anything he can for his title fight.
With tyre management uppermost in everyone’s mind it was a while before anyone was willing to chance their arm, with De Vries finally spotting a chink Ghiotto’s armour and pouncing at turn 2, leaving the Italian in the clutches of Rowland: the Briton recalled a move Daniil Kyvat had made on him a few years back and sliced inside Ghiotto at turn 6, albeit not hitting him as the Russian had, and leaving a line through for Leclerc to use too.
A VSC period gave everyone a breather after Visoiu slid into the side of Nabil Jeffri and retirement, but at the restart the Malaysian ran over the turn 4 kerb and was launched into Canamasas, with the Spaniard spinning into retirement and another VSC period opening to remove his car from turn 5, with the restart being less eventful this time around. On the penultimate lap Rowland was able to use his superior tyres to run around the outside of De Vries for P2 but Matsushita was gone, and the top 3 were once again trailed across the line by championship leader Leclerc.
“I always have confidence with the start,” Matsushita noted afterwards, “and today I knew it would be good because of the grip. This morning there was a GP3 race so I put down more power, and it was a good start! We’ve had some difficult weekends after Monaco, where we always had the pace but I couldn’t make it work, but I think Spa and Monza are our favourite tracks, we were quite quick there last year, and I hope it will be another podium like these guys and we can continue like that.
“I want to be in the top 3 this year, so I will push!”
Rowland was unsurprisingly delighted with his weekend, having closed the gap to Leclerc in the title fight with a huge haul of points: “after Silverstone race 2 I was disappointed with myself as there were too many errors on my part, probably because it was my home race and I was enthusiastic. But it was starting to get to the stage where Charles was gone and that I was fighting for 2nd, and I didn’t want to believe that.
“Obviously anything can happen, and after this weekend we’re right back in there: we’re not quite with him but we’re closing, and if we keep this pace we can challenge him to the end of the year.”
It was a good moment for the Briton, and great for the championship to close the fight at the front, but Leclerc still managed to finish P4 twice from the back of the grid: if normal service resumes in Spa-Francorchamps it’s likely that he’ll start a little higher next time out.