F1 in Belgium: Race weekend preview at Spa circuit

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PARIS –

Charles Leclerc really needed the break in Formula 1 to clear his mind. His season started so promisingly, then his big lead over title rival Max Verstappen exploded into a huge deficit.

Leclerc won two of the first three races for Ferrari as Verstappen’s Red Bull struggled with reliability. But a staggering 126-point swing over the next 10 races gave Verstappen a commanding 80-point lead heading into Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix when the season resumes.

It didn’t start well for Leclerc on Friday. It was sent to the back of the grid for Sunday’s race due to multiple engine parts changes. But Verstappen was among five other drivers receiving the same punishment.

Mental tension built up ahead of the summer break for Leclerc as he faced confusing team calls, while growing furious at some of his own driving mistakes. The break came at the right time for a totally drained Leclerc.

“Yes, I needed it. The first part of the season was full of ups and downs. There is a lot of accumulation of emotions which leads to fatigue,” he said. “I used these weeks in the best possible way with my family, my friends. It was just great.”

There was a lot of mental clutter to clean up.

Leclerc saw two nailed wins go – at the Monaco GP and the British GP – after team calls dropped him from a commanding position to fourth.

At the Hungarian GP before the mid-season break, Verstappen qualified for the season’s worst 10th, but somehow secured a season-leading eighth win. Another confusing call on tire strategy cost Leclerc while in dominant position and he finished sixth – a week after battling a crash while leading the French GP.

But Leclerc, who leads with seven pole positions this season, has unwavering conviction.

“I still believe in the championship of course,” he said. “It will be a very difficult challenge but I will believe in it until the end.”

Unless Verstappen is dogged by the reliability issues that led to two DNFs in the first three races, Leclerc pretty much has to beat him in all of the remaining races. There are nine races to go, including this weekend’s grand prix.

Seemingly impossible errands have already been made. In 2013, Sebastian Vettel won nine consecutive races after the break to win his fourth consecutive title.

“It’s easier said than done, but I’ll do my best,” said Leclerc, who won his first race at the same Spa-Francorchamps circuit in 2019.

Spa, which is Verstappen’s favorite track, is close to Leclerc’s heart. His victory came the day after F2 driver Anthoine Hubert died after an accident on the track.

“It’s a very special track for me. For every driver, the first victory is very special,” said Leclerc. “I had it here in very strange conditions, with what happened on Saturday with Anthoine.”

The seven kilometer (four plus mile) Spa circuit nestled in the Ardennes forest is the longest in F1 and good for overtaking.

This makes it one of the best circuits to incur engine penalties given that riders can claw their way back through the field. It is significant with Leclerc and Verstappen sent back to the back of the grid.

The other penalized were Lando Norris (McLaren), Esteban Ocon (Alpine), Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) and Mick Schumacher (Haas).

Their starting positions on the grid will be determined by Saturday’s qualifying.

VISIT AFRICA

Lewis Hamilton spent his break in Africa, a trip he had been planning since February. The seven-time F1 champion called it a “humiliating experience” to watch people live on very little.

“Just like a house made out of sticks, you know, literally twigs, and no shoes, no socks, and going about their daily lives. Not with social media, and not with the stuff we all have in the world western,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they were taking anything for granted, which was really, really nice to see.”

Hamilton holds a record 103 F1 wins, but none this season. However, the British driver has five consecutive podium finishes and believes Mercedes are very close to a win.

“I do, no doubt. We have made great progress,” he said. “The car is becoming more of a racing car, which isn’t really what it was at the start of the year.”

In Hungary, Mercedes placed both cars on the podium for the second race in a row. Hamilton fought his way from seventh to second, and poleman George Russell finished third.

“It was a huge boost,” Hamilton said. “We can close the gap.”

Sunday’s grid penalties should help Hamilton’s bid.

WEIGHT OFF

The remaining races of the season could prove to be the last of Daniel Ricciardo’s F1 career, and he intends to make the most of them.

The Australian driver will part ways with McLaren at the end of the year after the team bought out the final year of his contract. He still wants to race in F1 but that might not happen as his options are limited for next season.

“There’s a bit of weight on the shoulders. It’s just to go out there and just run, go have fun,” he said. “Although the team has made this decision, the team is behind me to get the most out of the last nine races and to finish strong…try to get another moment at Monza.”

Ricciardo’s victory at the Italian GP last September was the eighth of his career and a rare record with McLaren.

DOMINANT VERSTAPPEN

Verstappen topped practice two with a dominant 0.86 seconds from Leclerc.

Verstappen climbed to the top halfway through the session with the track still dry. The rain started after that and Hamilton and Norris struggled to slip. Norris set the third fastest time.

Ferrari led the first practice: Carlos Sainz Jr. was ahead of Leclerc and Verstappen third.

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