Spa-Francorchamps plays host as F1 is back from its summer break. We have mid-season driver switches, silly season rumours and a champion looking to end a year-long win-less streak. Here are the talking points ahead of the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix!
F1 is back!
After a four-week summer break, Formula 1 finally returns with the Belgian Grand Prix. As we left it, Lewis Hamilton took his eighth win of the season in a close fought battle with Max Verstappen at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Hamilton now looks on course to take a sixth title this year, with a comfortable 62-point gap to team-mate Valtteri Bottas in the title race.
Perhaps that isn’t where the main threat is coming from, though. Verstappen sits only a further eight points behind Bottas in the Drivers’ Championship and has won two of the last four races. After taking his maiden pole position in Hungary, can his Red Bull team continue to present a challenge to Mercedes in the second half of the season?
The magic of Spa
What better place to kickstart the second half of the season than at Spa-Francorchamps? Spa is one of the sport’s legendary circuits, and with its own micro-climate, drama and unpredictability is never far away. Just take last year’s opening lap as an example – from the chaos at the first corner to the top four entering Les Combes side-by-side.
With championship battles, team tussles and team-mate wars to keep track of, there’s surely plenty of action yet to come in 2019. And there’s a driver switch to keep things interesting, too…
Gasly out, Albon in
The major talking point over the summer break was Red Bull’s decision to demote Pierre Gasly back to Toro Rosso and promote Alexander Albon to the senior team. After failing to be competitive against team-mate Max Verstappen, Gasly re-joins the junior team alongside Daniil Kvyat – meaning that Toro Rosso’s drivers now have more combined race experience than Red Bull’s pairing.
It’s quite the remarkable turnaround for Albon. The Thai driver looked set to join the Formula E grid for the 2019/20 season, with F1 barely on his radar. Now, after just twelve race starts, Albon has a genuine shot at wins and podiums in one of the most competitive cars on the grid.
Both Albon and Gasly were pictured having their seat fittings at their respective teams’ factories on Monday. Red Bull have made clear that Albon will be at the team until the end of 2019, when they’ll make a decision on who will partner Verstappen at the senior team for next season.
It’s around this time of year that announcements about 2020 driver line-ups begin to emerge. Mercedes have long been known to be deciding between Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Ocon for a seat at the team in 2020, and it appears that Bottas will maintain his position. Ocon is now expected to sign a two-year deal with Renault (as he very nearly did in 2018, before Daniel Ricciardo made his move), replacing Nico Hulkenberg. Hulkenberg is then expected to take Romain Grosjean’s place at Haas.
Meanwhile, the rumour about Vettel re-joining Red Bull still hasn’t completely died out either, with Vettel reportedly seen having a long discussion with senior members of the team at the Hungarian Grand Prix. There’s also a further line of thought which sees Ricciardo, rather than Hulkenberg, departing Renault for a Ferrari drive in place of Vettel. While this may be the silliest of the Silly Season suggestions, we can expect some confirmation of 2020 driver line-ups in the coming weeks.
One year on
Talking of Vettel, the last time he won a Grand Prix was here at Spa-Francorchamps almost exactly a year ago. Though he’s come close to winning since, and even crossed the line first earlier this year in Canada, it has been one of the most barren periods of the German’s career. Vettel now sits in fourth place in the championship, 94 points behind championship leader Lewis Hamilton.
Pre-season, Ferrari emerged as the favourites for the title, but they’re yet to win a race in 2019. The team is expected to be competitive in both Belgium and next weekend in their homeland of Italy, with the high power demanding tracks likely to suit their package more than any other team. Will Ferrari, and Vettel’s, win-less streak end over the next fortnight?