Red Bull’s Max Verstappen emerged quickest of all after Friday’s free practice for the Belgian Grand Prix, the Dutchman topping the timesheets from Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault and Lewis Hamilton.
Alexander Albon was an encouraging fourth fastest as he looks to edge closer to his teammate, with Sergio Perez next for Racing Point from Valtteri Bottas and Lando Norris as Esteban Ocon, Carlos Sainz Jr and Pierre Gasly rounded out the top ten.
But it was a disastrous Friday for the struggling Ferrari team, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel inexplicably 15th and 17th fastest respectively as all of the quickest times were set on the softest red-banded qualifying Pirelli tyre.
“From our side it is a good start, but still there are lots of things to work on tomorrow, but overall, I am pretty happy,” Verstappen told Sky Sports after practice. “A racing car is never perfect so you are always trying to find things with he car that you are able to improve, so we will look into that, also with tyre prep and everything and then we will see.”
Friday’s times make for intriguing reading, with the top three separated by just 0.096 seconds. It should make for a fascinating qualifying shootout, but the real proof of the pudding will be the pace of the respective teams over the longer runs, although Verstappen thinks Mercedes may already be beatable.
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“I think they are still struggling for balance, but I expect them to be stronger tomorrow. You could see also in the long runs they are very competitive. I’m not expecting to fight for pole position but if we can be a bit closer, that would be good.”
With rain expected at times throughout the weekend, as so often happens at Spa-Francorchamps, another variable could further level the playing field
“Of course it was important to run in the dry and if it rains, it rains, same for everyone, added Verstappen. “But we are at the start pretty happy and that helps to work on further things on the car.”
It’s not only Mercedes that Verstappen has his eye on going into the weekend’s important action, as he also expects the Racing Points to mount a strong challenge.
“I think they will be very close, yes. So it will be tricky with them in qualifying but then in the race we should be ahead.”
It was an opinion echoed by runaway championship leader Hamilton, who is surprisingly downplaying his team’s chances for the first time this season. Mind games, perhaps, but it makes for an intriguing weekend ahead.
“It has been generally a good day,” said Hamilton afterward. “I love driving around this track, It’s incredible. It drizzled a little bit for the GP3 or the GP2s (F3 and F2) but fortunately for us it was dry, so it gave us plenty of time to understand the car, get plenty of running in. It’s very close out there, I think the Red Bulls are just a little bit quicker at the moment but even Racing Point I think is right with us and then also Daniel Ricciardo in the Renault is very close, so it makes it exciting and we have some work to do for sure to try and dial in the car a bit more, but it doesn’t feel bad at all.
“From race to race it is different which way we go. Some places we are ahead, some places we are behind. As I anticipated coming into this weekend, we’re only into the seventh race so the field is going to get closer and closer as we continue to develop, and we’ve already seen that this weekend. We seem to be so close with everyone and we’ve got to understand why, whether they have taken a step or we have taken a step back or it’s just the track layout, or downforce level, who knows. So we will work on that and I’m excited for an interesting race, that’s for sure.”
— Formula 1 (@F1) August 28, 2020