F1 has officially returned from summer break, and the teams and drivers are being thrown in straight at the deep end as they tackle the Spa-Francorchamps circuit for the Belgian Grand Prix. A track that is notorious at sorting out the men from the boys.
In Free Practice One it was the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen who set the fastest time of the session, just days after Ferrari confirmed him as one of their drivers for 2018. Raikkonen is considered something of an expert at Spa and his time, a 1:45.502 on the ultrasoft tyre, proved why he deserves the nickname “the king of Spa.”
The Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton was on fine form too though as he sets to reel in Sebastian Vettel’s lead in the drivers’ championship. The Mercedes driver set a time that was only just over five hundredths of a second slower than Raikkonen. Which considering he was on the slowest compound available for this weekend, the soft tyre, shows there is some underlying pace in that Mercedes.
There tends to be a difference of over a second between the soft compound tyre and the ultrasoft compound tyre over a single lap around Spa. While Hamilton’s time is impressive, it is worth noting that we don’t know if the Ferrari was heavy with fuel at the time, or if both drivers were simply not pushing as hard as they could. Regardless, the times show that Ferrari and Mercedes have lost none of their speed over summer break.
Championship leader Sebastian Vettel was a further tenth of a second behind Hamilton, finishing the session in third place. Currently Vettel has a 14 point lead over Hamilton as they head into the second half of the season.
The Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo finished the session in fourth and fifth respectively, with both of them around eight tenths of a second off the fastest time. Like Raikkonen they set their time on the ultrasoft tyre, however the team have already admitted this is not likely to be one of their best races as their car is not well suited to the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Verstappen, who is half Belgian himself, will have some help however from the “home crowd” as many Dutch fans have made the trip to Belgium to support him for the weekend.
The Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas finished FP1 a distant sixth in the timesheets after he tagged the barriers when he ran into the gravel on his flying lap. While both Toro Rosso’s had a positive first session, with Carlos Sainz seventh and Daniil Kvyat ninth. The two were split by the Force India of Esteban Ocon. While Stoffel Vandoorne rounded out the top ten in his McLaren for his first home Grand Prix.
It was however a bad start to the weekend for the Williams of Felipe Massa, who did substantial damage to his Williams car after crashing heavily into the barriers without setting a fast time. The damage resulted in his chassis needing to be changed and as a result he was unable to run for the rest of the day. Massa missed the previous race before summer break in Hungary after being struck down with an illness but was declared fit to race by FIA doctors on Wednesday.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso also lost track time in Free Practice One due to an immediate problem with Honda’s updated engine, before later suffering from a DRS issue as well.
Free Practice two saw Lewis Hamilton top the timesheets in his Mercedes by over two and a half tenths of a second from the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen as the whole field set their fastest times on the ultrasoft tyre before the rain came down. Hamilton may have set the fastest time of the session, though the team do not seem to think they are in the clear yet, with Team Principal Toto Wolff cautious about the threat from Ferrari.
“It’s very close,” the Mercedes boss said after the session. “I think it’s closer than you can see. Vettel did a fantastic long run, which was much faster than everyone else.”
Raikkonen, the undisputed faster of the two Ferrari drivers on Friday, agreed: “I think we’re closer than many other people think. For sure we can go faster, and then on Saturday afternoon we will see.”
The Red Bull of Max Verstappen was fourth fastest, while his team mate Daniel Ricciardo was in sixth place. Ricciardo admitted however that he was running a ‘skinny’ Monza-spec rear wing for the team, which was a handicap throughout Spa’s twisty aerodynamically-demanding middle sector.
The Renault team enjoyed a positive session, with both of their drivers in the top ten for FP2. Nico Hulkenberg finished the session in seventh, while Jolyon Palmer finished tenth. It was another top ten finish for the Force India of Esteban Ocon, with the eighth fastest time. While Carlos Sainz was ninth for Toro Rosso.
As expected Felipe Massa completed no running in second practice as the Williams team changed the chassis on his car following his morning crash.
The notoriously fickle weather of the Ardennes region also played a hand in the running on Friday, effectively washing out the final 20 minutes of running. That meant teams’ long-run simulations ahead of Sunday’s race were curtailed, although forecasts for two days’ time suggest there could be more wet weather on the way for the Grand Prix itself.
Belgian GP Practice One Timesheet
1. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 1:45.502
2. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, +0.053
3. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, +0.145
4. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, +0.800
5. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, +0.850
6. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, +0.922
7. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, +1.944
8. Esteban Ocon, Force India, +2.168
9. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, +2.349
10. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, +2.363
11. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, +2.428
12. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, +2.535
13. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, +2.750
14. Sergio Perez, Force India, +2.950
15. Lance Stroll, Williams, +3.039
16. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, +3.113
17. Romain Grosjean, Haas, +3.113
18. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, +4.658
19. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber, +5.761
20. Felipe Massa, Williams, No time set
Belgian GP Practice Two Timesheet
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:44.753
2. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, +0.262
3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, +0.427
4. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, +0.472
5. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, +0.482
6. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, +1.319
7. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, +1.688
8. Esteban Ocon, Force India, +1.720
9. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, +1.808
10. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, +1.917
11. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, +1.990
12. Sergio Perez , Force India, +2.231
13. Romain Grosjean, Haas, +2.532
14. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, +2.550
15. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, +2.697
16. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, +2.803
17. Lance Stroll, Williams, +3.108
18. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, +4.461
19. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber, +4.972
20. Felipe Massa, Williams, No time set
Feature Image Credit: Renault Sport Formula One Team Press Release.