By Karun Chandhok, C4F1 technical analyst
F1’s return from the summer break took us to Spa for the first of two power circuits which I believe could be vital for Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel’s championship campaign.
Both title contenders arrived at Spa with upgraded power units and, with Shell adding in a fuel upgrade, clearly every tool in the box is being used in this intense battle.
The rain in the final part of qualifying made things very interesting. As a driver at Spa, you always have to expect rain at some stage and the first thing is to try to work out just when it’s going to hit and also try to guess how long it may rain for.
It was yet another exciting battle for pole position at Spa, with the weather once again playing a pivotal role in the outcome— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) August 25, 2018
If you missed the action then fear not as you can catch it all 395 seconds with our rewind #C4F1 #BelgianGP https://t.co/OQGWaofvhJ
Fortunately with all the undulations and long straights, you do get opportunities to look into the valleys and see where the rain is coming from. I used to always ask the engineers to try to tell me which direction the wind was blowing from, and therefore you can try to work out from which part of the track you need to look up at the sky and judge the movement of the clouds.
A lot of people were wondering how Kimi Raikkonen and the Red Bulls ended up in a situation where they didn’t have enough fuel at the end when the rain shower stopped and the track started to dry, but it’s not really something that we can criticise them for.
I was standing in the pit lane when the rain came down and it did look like it would stay for the whole session, so at that point the call to make was “let’s just swap tyres and go quickly with whatever fuel we have to get the first lap”.
This is what the Red Bulls and Kimi did, while Seb and Lewis Hamilton spent a bit more time in the pits getting some fuel on board and that gave them the crucial final lap.
Rain has stopped. Track still wet. The end of Q3 is going to go wild! pic.twitter.com/PPgxbxxU9L— Karun Chandhok (@karunchandhok) August 25, 2018
In those conditions, Lewis was supreme at feeling the grip and picking his way around on the wet lines (often away from the conventional dry racing line) to jump ahead of Sebastian for pole by a significant margin.
With three weekends in a row where Lewis has proved to be stronger in the wet, I wonder if Ferrari and Sebastian will start praying for a dry run to the end of the season, especially if they now have the quicker car.
The gamesmanship on Sunday's opening lap was always going to be fun to watch.
I don’t know if you have seen the Macau Grand Prix – if you haven’t, you should – but Spa is now becoming a bit like Macau where of course you aim to get pole position, but actually, being second out of the first corner is proving to be a better place to be.
Big headwind up the straight to Les Combes. If Lewis leads out of the first corner, it will be fascinating to see how he protects himself from Seb slipstreaming past out of Eau Rouge #BelgianGP— Karun Chandhok (@karunchandhok) August 26, 2018
Last year the Ferrari had a bit too much drag, so when Lewis lifted off the throttle at the bottom of Eau Rouge, that was enough to sneak out a small advantage over Sebastian, one which the Ferrari man couldn’t overhaul by the time they got to the top of the hill.
It was clever stuff from Lewis, but I did wonder before this year's race whether he could be in trouble given the fact that Ferrari now seem to have turned the tables on Mercedes in terms of straight-line speed and power.
Sure enough, as much as Lewis tried to run Sebastian wide at La Source and get a few car lengths over his rival, by the time they reached the top of the hill, the German breezed past.
The first corner at Spa is always a tough one to negotiate on the opening lap, and it proved perilous for Hulkenberg, Alonso and Leclerc at the start— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) August 26, 2018
Here are their views of a dramatic start to the race at Spa #C4F1 #BelgianGP https://t.co/NRzA3RICoM
What would have been a bit depressing for Mercedes was when on the re-start after the opening-lap pile-up behind them, when Lewis was the one in the hot seat in the slipstream, he didn’t really get close enough to make the move on Sebastian.
That bodes well for the Maranello squad as we head to the long straights at their home race in Monza this week, and Toto Wolff certainly didn’t seem particularly pleased about Mercedes' relative lack of competitiveness after the race.
The whole weekend seemed to be dominated by all the gossip around the driver merry-go-round from the summer break. The changes to Force India also kept everyone on their toes and despite all the politics, I think everyone was delighted to see Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez get a good result in the race after all the stressful times they’ve had in the past few weeks.
After weeks of trials and tribulations for Force India, it was a much-needed weekend of positivity as Perez and Ocon powered themselves to P5 and P6 in the race— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) August 26, 2018
Here's their thoughts after a highly competitive weekend at Spa #C4F1 #BelgianGP https://t.co/LR8Zh9JU6b
Ocon in particular seems to be a big piece in this midfield driver market. All through the weekend we seemed to be hearing all sorts of rumours about who was going where and when, but it all seemed to change on a daily basis and depending on who you spoke to.
New team principal Otmar Szafnauer told our Channel 4 team that he expected Lance Stroll to be at Force India but didn’t know when, and the consensus across the paddock was that Perez would stay with the team – which leaves Ocon out.
All of this must be very distracting for a young driver like Ocon but he’s coped with it brilliantly so far. I think it will be a real shame for F1 if he doesn’t get a seat next year as he’s clearly a very talented star of the future.
Despite a sensational performance in qualifying yesterday, there are strong rumours linking Stroll to Ocon's seat at Force India as soon as possible— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) August 26, 2018
But Toto Wolff is adamant that whatever happens, the Frenchman will still be on the grid next season #C4F1 #BelgianGP pic.twitter.com/7J1dj4uhyD
Likewise Stoffel Vandoorne – he’s obviously had a tough season but I firmly believe that there’s a good driver in there. If you look at his junior Formula record, he’s got a tremendous CV, and I do think that perhaps a change of environment and a good winter break will help him.
Being Fernando Alonso’s team-mate is a very difficult thing. The Spaniard dominates the team, and if you’re a young rookie going up against him that’s going to be a rough ride.
Lewis Hamilton coped with it in 2007, but a decade on we know just how good Lewis is. McLaren are ramping up the pressure as well by giving Lando Norris an opportunity to do some Friday practice sessions alongside Stoffel, which of course gives the team a direct comparison.
Depending on where the McLaren/Force India/Toro Rosso/Haas/Sauber/Williams merry-go-round finishes, I do think he’s got an outside chance of a seat at a couple of those teams but right now there are so many unknowns so it’s a tricky time for the Belgian.
Things changing fast in the mid-field driver market... Things we hear & say on Friday seem to change by Saturday and again on Sunday! Nobody seems to fully know when it will all be settled - Singapore / Japan / next year.... Great fun to see but stressful for those involved! https://t.co/464BYOyAix— Karun Chandhok (@karunchandhok) August 26, 2018
Off to Monza and the Temple of Speed next. The tifosi will be out in their droves after seeing Sebastian win at Spa, which should make it an amazing atmosphere. Then we're in Singapore, where last year Lewis claimed a key victory in his title-winning campaign.
For the 2018 championship, these first three races after the break are absolutely critical for Seb and Ferrari to swing the momentum back in their favour – and it’s started off very well indeed!