Formula One is back after a dramatic summer break. Red Bull decided to replace the underperforming Pierre Gasly with a 12-race-old rookie, Alex Albon, over the experienced (both on the track and being sacked mid-season) Daniil Kvyat, putting Gasly back in Toro Rosso. With Honda bringing a new power unit this weekend, Albon will begin his Red Bull Racing career starting from the back. We waited for weeks for the Mercedes AMG Petronas team to decide whether to keep their driver Valtteri Bottas or give the second seat to Mercedes reserve driver Esteban Ocon. The anticipated decision did not come until the weekend of the Belgium Grand Prix began, with the team deciding to let Ocon go from the Mercedes driver development program and keep Bottas in the Silver Arrow. Ocon does get his opportunity with a works team as he signed with Renault for 2020, kicking Nico Hulkenberg out of the seat as he is now tied to a seat at Haas.
That news is not official yet, so the Formula One world turns its head to qualifying at Spa-Francorchamps for the last leg of the 2019 season. The giant circuit in Belgium contains many high speed straights and corners which plays into the winless Ferrari’s hands as they look to finally have a positive weekend in this disappointing season. And they were off and running as Ferrari flexed their muscles to score their first front row lockout since Bahrain, with Charles Leclerc scoring his third pole of 2019. Sebastian Vettel was second but seven tenths of a second behind Leclerc.
Vettel was not happy with the traffic while setting up for his flying laps, saying “what a mess” over and over again. He was still able to beat Lewis Hamilton, as the reigning World Champion will roll off in P3. Bottas finishes out the second row in fourth. Max Verstappen complained of engine issues in Q1 and could only muster fifth-quickest.
Renault showed strong pace on a track that doesn’t suit their engine power, as Daniel Ricciardo and Hulkenberg were the best of the rest in sixth and seventh, but will go to the back with new power units. Kimi “King of Spa” Raikkonen ran the eighth-quickest lap. Sergio Perez overcame a blown engine in FP2 to qualify in ninth, and Kevin Magnussen qualified in 10th.
There was drama as Saturday morning began, as championship leader Hamilton crashed hard in FP3. Typically, those who crash in FP3 do not get the car ready in time for qualifying, but Hamilton did not appear to ruin the chassis, which would require a pit lane start, and the five-time world champion was able to participate in qualifying.
Other than scoring his lone point in Germany, Robert Kubica has had a very tough return to F1 in 2019 in a non-competitive Williams car, and things did not get better in F1’s return from the summer break as his engine blew up early in Q1, not allowing him to set a lap. The only silver lining is that if Kubica needs an engine change, he may not suffer a grid penalty and will start ahead of some cars including those driven by Ricciardo, Hulkenberg, Carlos Sainz, Albon and Kvyat that are taking engine penalties on Sunday.
Antonio Giovanazzi also blew an engine at the end of Q1 ending the session early. Gasly in his return to Toro Rosso and Sainz were among the names eliminated from the first session.