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.