The second half of the 2021 F1 Season began with the Belgian Grand Prix, held at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. The teams and drivers faced a hectic schedule with six races over seven weeks at the start of the latter half of the season. The Belgian GP would be the first race of the two triple-headers in 2021.
The inclement weather, combined with the various gradient changes, make Spa-Francorchamps a circuit like no other. Nestled in the Ardennes, the track features famous sections such as Eau Rouge, Raidilion, La Source, Les Combes, Kemmel, Rivage, Blanchimont and the Bus Stop. It is also the longest circuit on the calendar. While sectors one and three demand straight-line speed, the second needs better downforce.
A lot transpired over the summer break leading up to the Belgian GP.
The FIA decided to introduce the "minimum reaction time" during pit stops from the Belgian GP.
Red Bull renewed Sergio Perez's contract for 2022, while Alpine retained the services of Fernando Alonso.
The Japanese GP got cancelled due to a surge of COVID cases in Japan. Subsequently, the calendar got cut down to 22 races, with the FOM yet to announce a replacement.
Honda confirmed that ( both ) Verstappen and Perez had lost the second of their three engines due to the "irreparable damage" suffered from the incidents at Silverstone and Hungary.
Bottas and Stroll stared at five-place grid penalties at Belgium due to their misdemeanours at the Hungarian GP.
While Red Bull looked to reclaim the lead in the championship, Mercedes felt optimistic about rebuffing any challenges that came their way.
How did the teams fare after returning from the summer break? Who came out on top? Did we have a new leader in the standings, or was the status quo maintained?
Time for a recap of the Belgian GP!
There was rain in the air at the start of FP1, and despite the track drying at a rapid rate, conditions remained tricky. Mercedes and Red Bull ran similar programs between their drivers, with one driver focused on straight-line speed and the other on better downforce. Raikkonen and Tsunoda suffered from spins at La Source, while the former hit the wall on entry into the pit lane. Hamilton got held up by Latifi on his timed lap, while Stroll impeded Russell on his.
Bottas topped the timesheets, a tenth clear of Verstappen with Gasly half a second adrift in 3rd. The Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz were 4th and 5th, followed by Perez, Vettel and Norris. Ocon and Alonso completed the top 10.
Stroll was P11 in the other Aston Martin, followed by Ricciardo and Giovinazzi. Tsunoda split the Williams of Russell and Latifi in 15th, with Raikkonen and Hamilton P17 and P18, respectively. The Haas cars of Mazepin and Schumacher were at the back of the pack.
FP2 got underway, and Ocon suffered a spin at turn 14. Leclerc lost the rear of his Ferrari at turn six and crashed into the barriers, bringing out the Red Flags. The session resumed with 10 minutes remaining, and the drivers hurried to gather more data on race simulations.
Verstappen got spun around at the exit of turn seven and hit the barriers, sending a lot of gravel across the track. The Dutchman was out, with the session getting Red Flagged again and the stewards deciding against resuming FP2.
Verstappen ended FP2 the quickest, less than a tenth clear of Bottas and Hamilton. Alonso was 4th, followed by Gasly, Stroll and teammate Ocon. The top ten got completed by Vettel, Norris and Perez.
Sainz was P11 for Ferrari, followed by Tsunoda and the Alfa Romeos of Giovinazzi and Raikkonen. P15 was the best that Ricciardo could manage in his McLaren. The Williams of Latifi and Russell were P16 and P17, and Leclerc, Mazepin and Schumacher brought up the rear of the field.
Friday had restricted runs in the dry, but more importantly, the two Red Flags compromised the race simulation programs of the drivers. With rain and inclement weather predicted on Saturday, drivers and teams faced an uphill task to get their cars ready for race day.
Charles Leclerc switched to a new chassis after it cracked following his crash in FP2.
The final Practice Session ( FP3 ) got held in the rain. While some opted for full wets, others persisted with the intermediate tyres. Several drivers had off-track moments as they explored the limits. Eventually, a dry line began to appear, and drivers managed to set representative lap times. Meanwhile, Raikkonen's session got cut short after the Finn suffered from a brake-by-wire failure.
Midway through FP3, the rain returned, hampering the practice programs of the drivers. The Red Bull drivers topped the timesheets, with Verstappen edging out his teammate Perez by almost a second. Hamilton was P3 for Mercedes, followed by Norris and Ocon. Gasly split the Aston Martins of Stroll and Vettel in P7, while Russell and Alonso completed the top 10.
Bottas was P11 for Mercedes, followed by Latifi and Ricciardo. Schumacher was in a Ferrari sandwich in P15. P17 was the best that Tsunoda managed with Giovinazzi, Mazepin and Raikkonen completing the rear of the field.
Rain was the biggest threat in Qualifying, and the drivers had to be prudent with their tyre usages.
Rain delayed the start of Qualifying. Thankfully, track conditions improved, and Q1 got underway. The Williams drivers opted for intermediates while the rest of the field stuck with full wets. The cars had fuel for multiple runs.
Russell's opening lap got jeopardized due to Latifi spinning at turn twelve. Soon enough, it became evident that track conditions were more feasible for intermediate tyres. Everyone, bar the Williams drivers, returned to the pits to switch to the intermediates.
Russell, Latifi, Norris, Verstappen, Bottas, and Stroll were the top 6, while Mazepin, Sainz, Raikkonen, Schumacher and Ocon faced the threat of elimination.
Mercedes informed Bottas that rain would hit the circuit in the final minutes of Q1. The lap times kept improving, and at the end of the session, Norris, Verstappen, Hamilton, Perez, Russell and Bottas were the top 6. Ocon managed to scrape through in P15, but Giovinazzi, Tsunoda, Schumacher, Raikkonen and Mazepin got eliminated.
Q2 got underway, and everyone exited the pits with intermediate tyres. The Mercedes drivers, however, came out on used sets and instantly regretted their decision. Mercedes wasted no time in pitting Hamilton and Bottas. Ferrari informed Sainz that as per their forecast, rain would hit the circuit five minutes into Q2.
Norris, Verstappen, Vettel, Gasly, Perez and Leclerc were the top 6, with Latifi, Ocon, Alonso, Hamilton and Bottas in the drop zone, halfway through Q2. The Mercedes duo improved to P7 and P9 but dropped out of the top 10 again in the final minutes of Q2.
The rain stayed away, and as the track dried up, the lap times improved for everyone across the field. In a desperate attempt to make it into Q3, the Mercedes drivers decided to use another set of intermediate tyres. The decision was fruitful as Hamilton and Bottas broke into the top 3. Sainz allegedly impeded Ocon, and the incident got flagged for investigation. Thankfully, the Spaniard escaped any penalties.
Norris, Hamilton, Bottas, Gasly, Verstappen, Vettel, Perez, Russell, Ricciardo and Ocon got through to Q3, while Leclerc, Latifi, Sainz, Alonso and Stroll suffered from elimination.
The rain finally arrived at the start of Q3, and the conditions looked treacherous. Gasly, Perez and Russell took the bold step of opting for the intermediate tyres, while Norris and Vettel chose the full wets. The drivers complained about the presence of standing water on the track, with some suffering from aquaplaning. Vettel suggested that the stewards should Red Flag Q3 until conditions improved.
Norris was the first driver to attempt a flying lap, and as he went through Eau Rouge and Raidilion, he lost the rear of his McLaren and careered heavily into the barriers. His car got wrecked, and immediately the stewards red-flagged the session. Norris looked winded and got transferred to the medical centre for further checks.
The FIA had to complete barrier repairs and clean the track before the session resumed after a long wait. Thankfully, the rain eased in intensity, and the track conditions improved. Russell and Ocon opted for the wet tyres while the rest chose the intermediates. Eventually, all the remaining nine drivers switched to the inters for their runs in Q3.
Hamilton was on "provisional pole", almost a second clear of Verstappen and Bottas. The lap times kept getting quicker, and Perez improved to P2, half a second shy of Hamilton's best attempt.
The final run of Q3 commenced, and Russell and Hamilton exchanged purple sector times. Russell, in a Williams, produced a stellar lap to go thirteen-hundredths clear of Hamilton at the top. It seemed that the Briton would bag P1 until Verstappen, on his final run, took pole position away by going faster by three-tenths.
Nevertheless, it was an unthinkable front row start for Russell alongside Verstappen. Hamilton had to settle for P3, followed by Ricciardo in his McLaren. Vettel and Gasly were on row three, with Perez and Bottas on four. A five-place grid drop for Bottas dropped the Finn to P13. As a result, Ocon would line up alongside Perez.
A gearbox change for Norris bumped him down to P14, promoting Leclerc and Latifi into the top 10, while Sainz Bottas and Alonso moved up a position each.
Verstappen ensured that he would start from the best position on race day. Perez, meanwhile, qualified a disappointing 7th and faced a long Sunday afternoon. Red Bull hoped for a clean opening lap for its drivers and seemed confident about the cars in race-trim.
Williams was on the front row at Spa-Francorchamps for the first time since 2001. The team had last bagged a front-row start at Italy in 2017, and Russell produced a stellar lap to achieve the unthinkable. If similar conditions prevailed, he could fight for a podium on Sunday. Latifi, too, was in the top 10, and along with Russell, could help Williams achieve a strong haul of points.
As for Hamilton and Mercedes, a second-row start was far from ideal but outscoring Verstappen was the priority. The Briton didn't have new intermediates for the race since he used all his sets in Qualifying. Bottas, like his teammate, was in a similar situation and, after a mediocre display in Qualifying, would start a lowly P12. The Finn, under intense scrutiny, was fighting for his seat in 2022 and couldn't afford more lacklustre displays.
Norris was looking strong until his high-speed shunt at the start of Q3. The Briton was one of the favourites to bag pole position until the accident. The car was a wreck, and the McLaren mechanics faced a race against time to make it ready for race day. Thankfully, the doctors declared the driver fit for the race. The race stewards got a lot of heat for their inaction and delay at not red-flagging Q3 despite receiving information about poor conditions from those on track, which eventually led to the accident. Norris would start the race in P14, having attracted a grid penalty for a gearbox change. As for Ricciardo, the Australian produced his best Qualifying performance for McLaren to date and lined up alongside Hamilton. It was his best chance at silencing critics and doubters on race day.
After a topsy-turvy Qualifying, Vettel's experience came to the fore for Aston Martin. The German was the team's best hope for a strong points-finish. As for Stroll, it was a start from the back of the grid due to the penalty from Hungary. The team needed to reduce the deficit to its midfield competitors, and strategy was key to an optimal finish.
Gasly remained Alpha Tauri's main hope for a points-finish. The Frenchman qualified in the top 6 again, but Tsunoda, his teammate, was a disappointing 16th. In a hotly contested midfield, Alpha Tauri couldn't afford any slip-ups.
Ocon, the latest Grand Prix winner, was P8 for Alpine, while Alonso qualified P13. The duo was more than capable of capitalizing on mistakes made by those further up the field. Alpine hoped for a double points haul on Sunday.
Leclerc narrowly out-qualified Sainz in what was a disappointing Saturday for Ferrari. A tactical error denied the duo a Q3 appearance. Nevertheless, the Ferraris looked competitive in race-trim and hoped to outscore arch-rivals McLaren in the battle for P3 in the Constructors.
Antonio Giovinazzi remained the better performing of the two Alfa Romeo drivers on Saturday. The Italian qualified in P15 while his more experienced teammate Raikkonen would start in P18. It was an uphill battle for Alfa Romeo all weekend, and their chances of a points-finish hinged on mistakes made by those further up the grid.
Schumacher managed to outqualify Mazepin again in the Haas. However, the team seemed destined to remain at the back of the pack.
Ricciardo celebrated 200 Race Starts in F1. His teammate Norris, along with Russell, completed 50.
Honda completed 50 race weekends with Red Bull!
Alfa Romeo decided to change the rear wing on Raikkonen's car, to improve the downforce, which meant that he would start the race from the pit lane.
C2, C3 and C4 were the dry tyre compounds available for the race, but these choices were immaterial. It was raining since morning, and for the Grand Prix, wet tyres were the choice for everyone.
The track conditions were poor, with low visibility, as the drivers headed out of their boxes to make it to the grid.
Disaster struck Red Bull after Perez crashed into the barriers on his sighting lap. The car suffered front right suspension damage, and Perez was out of the race!
Citing the treacherous conditions, the FIA announced that the formation lap would be behind the Safety Car. The rain intensified, and the start got delayed by 25 minutes.
The Safety Car led the field away for the formation lap, but several drivers complained about the conditions and visibility. After a couple of formation laps, the stewards decided to suspend the Race Start!
The drivers returned to the pit lane, awaiting further instructions.
The mechanics carried out repairs on the Red Bull car after Perez's crash on his sighting lap. As a result, Perez failed to take part in the formation laps. Meanwhile, Jonathan Wheatley, Red Bull Sporting Director, contacted the FIA, requesting that the Race Director allow Perez to join the race at the restart. Michael Masi, the Race Director, decided to consult the stewards before giving his final verdict on Perez's participation. The result was positive, and Perez got the nod to start the race from the pit lane ( if the race commenced ).
Eventually, the work got completed, and Perez was ready to race.
The waiting game continued, and the stewards stopped the race clock to accommodate at least one hour of racing before sunset. The FIA kept postponing updates hoping for the weather to improve.
Meanwhile, Aston Martin changed the rear wing on Stroll's car, which attracted the stewards' attention.
Finally, after a wait of more than three hours, the FIA announced that the race would resume. The timer got set to one hour as the Safety Car led the cars out onto the track. There was a collective roar by the fans who hoped to see some racing finally.
However, the weather didn't let up, and several drivers complained about aquaplaning and visibility. A procession of 3 laps behind the Safety Car followed, and the race got Red Flagged!
As per the FIA Regulations, half the Championship points would get awarded if the race lasted for more than two laps and up to 75% of the total distance. Citing no improvement in the conditions, the Race Director announced that the race would not resume.
The results of Qualifying stood became the final classification for the race, barring Perez's crash and the relevant penalties.
So Verstappen won the race, with Russell and Hamilton on the podium. Ricciardo finished in P4 for McLaren, followed by Vettel, Gasly and Ocon. Leclerc, Latifi and Sainz completed the top 10.
The latter half of the field comprised of Alonso, Bottas, Giovinazzi, Norris, Tsunoda, Schumacher, Mazepin, Stroll, Raikkonen and Perez.
The results allowed Verstappen to reduce the deficit to Hamilton to 3 points. More importantly, Red Bull saved some mileage on his engine, considering that his second unit was irreparable. In the Constructor Standings, Red Bull trailed Mercedes by 7 points.
Perez was the biggest loser since his accident on the sighting lap robbed him of free points and could have put Red Bull above Mercedes.
Russell's P2, combined with Latifi's P9, helped Williams bag 10 points, extending their buffer over Alfa Romeo to 17. The finish should cement P8 for Williams in the Constructor Championship. Russell deserved the podium, the fruit of his efforts, having delivered sensational results in Qualifying in the past and even playing the team game at the Hungarian GP.
Ricciardo's P4 allowed him to jump Gasly for P8 in the Drivers' Championship, besides being his best finish for McLaren. McLaren reclaimed P3 from Ferrari, narrowly leading them by 4.5 points. As for Ferrari, the tactical gaffe in Qualifying proved costly. However, the damage to their P3 hopes was minimal, and the team could turn its fortunes around at Zandvoort.
As for Aston Martin, Vettel added 5 points to the tally versus Gasly's 4 for Alpha Tauri and Ocon's 3 for Alpine. Only one driver scored points for each of the three midfield teams, thus maintaining the status quo.
The atrocious conditions denied F1 fans across the world an exciting Belgian Grand Prix. The race turned out to be the shortest in the sport's history, and it was the Medical Car that completed the most laps on race day. However, citing the safety of the drivers, the FIA made the right decision to postpone and eventually suspend the race.
Kudos to the fans and the marshalls at the track for displaying exemplary patience and resolve over four hours, waiting for a race. The drivers acknowledged their heroism, passion and love for the sport.
While rain and weather played spoiled sport in Belgium, F1 fans had Zandvoort in the Netherlands to look forward to the following weekend. The track would finally make its debut on the F1 calendar, and the Orange Army would come out in droves to support their home hero Max Verstappen, cheering him on to possible victory.