We saw some brilliant racing at the Belgian Grand Prix, on a weekend where downforce levels and top speeds differed across the teams more than anywhere else this season.
Usually at Spa there is a balance to be had between having low downforce for sectors one and three and having higher downforce for the middle sector, where there are plenty of medium to high speed corners.
This trade off was exaggerated this year because of the Sprint format, as the teams didn’t have any time to evaluate different downforce levels before locking them into Parc Ferme conditions on Friday lunchtime. The only practice session was wet and therefore difficult to draw conclusions from – and the result of this was some brilliantly entertaining racing.
Also, in wet conditions it’s more beneficial to add downforce to the car, because when the mechanical grip reduces the aerodynamic grip becomes more critical to get the car working and keep the tyres in the right operating window.
At opposite ends of the speed spectrum were McLaren and Williams. McLaren were rapid on Saturday in the mixed conditions for the Sprint, and Oscar Piastri was an absolute star, almost beating Max Verstappen to sprint pole before leading the race early on.
Williams on Saturday were more anonymous. While the high downforce McLaren was working particularly well in the low grip conditions, the trimmed out Williams was struggling to find enough grip through the corners.
When we had a dry race however, the Williams car suddenly looked rapid and like a possible points contender, yet the McLaren was nowhere near the front running car we’ve become used to from previous Grands Prix – and a large part of that is down to ‘raceability’ and top speed.
The Williams was hitting top speeds of 356kph at Spa – not a mile away from the highest speeds ever seen in Formula 1 – while Lando Norris in the sole McLaren could only get to a top speed of 330kph.
A 26kph deficit along the Kemmel straight is absolutely whopping and makes it very difficult to race what should have been an easily points scoring car. In fact the McLaren with DRS was actually slower than the Williams with no DRS, such was the difference in set ups between the two cars, with the same power unit.
The McLaren was mighty through the corners but ended up being stuck in traffic for long periods because Norris couldn’t use their strength.
It’s generally more fun to drive a car with higher downforce, because it feels glued to the road and you can carry 30-40kph more through the apex of Pouhon for example.
With low downforce the car is inherently more unstable and nervous to drive, but fun on race day when you can charge past cars on the straight, in contrast to the frustration we heard early on from Norris.
It’s this dynamic that made the racing at Spa fun to watch. It was a very old school Grand Prix with cars set up drastically differently and there was even a nervy sprinkling of rain in the middle as well for the drivers and teams to combat.
We saw Norris have to pass Logan Sergeant in a place that I’ve never seen a move in dry conditions completed before, around the outside through the downhill Rivage corner. Lando just couldn’t get anywhere near on the straights, where convention would say the opportunities should lie.
Norris hails McLaren strategy for vaulting him up into the points from ‘not far off last place’
But it wasn’t just Norris who was struggling to make moves. While the Williams cars were rocket ships against anybody they got close to on the straights, other teams had to work hard for their overtakes, and it gave us some brilliant battles.
Like Norris, Pierre Gasly had to get extremely unorthodox racing a Williams, passing Alex Albon in a terrific three corner move through Fagnes and around the outside into Stavelot towards the end of the lap (see the clip below) – another move you don’t see too often, but borne out of the same frustration as Norris.
Gasly was actually a star of the weekend but after being caught up behind a hobbled Oscar Piastri at the start and having a slow pit stop he emerged behind Albon on the same tyres with the same life in them, which is a tough scenario for anyone. It took a long time and plenty of clever thinking for the Frenchman to make his move.
Another driver to put on some beautiful racing in Belgium was Esteban Ocon, who made a similar move to his team mate on Albon at Fagnes, before we got to see an audacious attempt on AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda around the outside at Les Combes.
2023 Belgian Grand Prix: Gasly finally passes Albon after running battle for P11
Everybody turns up to Belgium thinking about overtaking into Les Combes at the top of the Kemmel straight, or potentially into the bus stop at the end of the lap because they are obvious places at the end of long flat out sections. But when your car doesn’t have the top speed to pull off the easy passes, it takes a cool mind in frustrating circumstances to think of ways around it.
Ocon’s stealth passes on Albon and Tsunoda were moves that I don’t think either of the defending cars saw coming, as he released the brakes and swept around from a position entering the corner that overtaking shouldn’t theoretically have been possible.
Drivers had to work to the strengths of their cars in Spa and in the hands of Ocon and Norris they got their rewards.
As it turned out the Williams was probably too trimmed out for the Belgian circuit and the McLaren was too laden with downforce – the optimal conditions were probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum for the best compromise. But while the top positions were fairly static as nobody could match Red Bull and Leclerc, and Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were locked into position early on, this fascinating downforce dynamic served up some superb racing further back.
Jolyon Palmer’s Analysis: Sainz and Piastri’s Turn 1 Tussle | Workday