Red Bull driver Max Verstappen converted pole position into victory during Saturday’s Sprint race at the Belgian Grand Prix, claiming the lead back from McLaren rival Oscar Piastri after the two drivers opted for different strategies in a captivating wet encounter.
Amid plenty of action on the slippery Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Alpine’s Pierre Gasly made the most of the conditions to round out the podium, while Lewis Hamilton was demoted from fourth to seventh after the Mercedes man clashed with the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez and picked up a penalty.
With rain a theme of the weekend so far, and following a post-Shootout break in the weather, the heavens opened again just before the 17:05 local time scheduled start of the Sprint – officials deciding to push it back by 30 minutes to allow the latest downpour to pass.
By the time the formation lap began on mandated full wet tyres and behind the Safety Car (which became several laps), the sun had burst back through the clouds and lit up the track, promising an early switch to intermediates and potentially slick rubber as the race developed.
When the Safety Car peeled into the pits, with the race now running to 11 laps, several cars immediately boxed to swap wets for intermediates – Piastri, Carlos Sainz, Gasly, Hamilton, Perez, Daniel Ricciardo, Alex Albon, Lance Stroll, Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg making that call.
Meanwhile, having stayed out and taken the rolling start, pole-sitter Verstappen held on to P1 ahead of Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, Esteban Ocon and George Russell, radioing that “we need to box this lap” as he struggled to make his wet tyres work in the ever-drying conditions.
At the end of that first racing lap, Verstappen and the rest of the wet runners pitted, with Piastri’s rapid pace on the intermediate giving him the lead when the reigning double world champion rejoined the action – setting up the prospect of a thrilling battle.
After a host of near-misses in the pit lane as drivers squabbled for position, Gasly found himself running third behind Piastri and Verstappen, with Perez up to fourth, Hamilton in fifth and Sainz rounding out the top six from Leclerc and Norris.
As the race settled down, Verstappen ate into Piastri’s lead – which stood at just under two seconds after their respective stops – making full use of the Red Bull’s enviable straight-line speed to fill the rookie driver’s mirrors and put the pressure on.
But then, on Lap 4, Fernando Alonso lost control of his Aston Martin in the dirty air of a Haas at Pouhon and spun into the gravel, triggering a Safety Car just before Verstappen thought about making a move on Piastri, meaning he would have to go again at the restart.
At this point, an intriguing radio message was sent Verstappen’s way from the Red Bull pit wall, saying: “Intel is Piastri left-hand tyre is already suffering”. In response, Verstappen said he was “not surprised” given that the McLaren had been “drifting everywhere”.
With Alonso’s car cleared, the race got back under way at the end of Lap 5, giving Piastri the latest test of his burgeoning career as he led a restart for the first time – only to be immediately overhauled by Verstappen down the Kemmel Straight.
Gasly held third, while Hamilton and Perez dramatically banged wheels through Blanchimont as they battled over fourth position, the seven-time world champion managing to work his way through around the outside of La Source a few moments later.
Perez became a sitting duck with damage to his sidepod, losing positions to Sainz and Leclerc shortly afterwards, then taking a trip through the gravel at Stavelot and tumbling down the order – promoting Norris to seventh and Ricciardo into the points.
Having cleared Piastri, Verstappen unleashed the raw pace of his RB19 to surge into the distance, seeing out the final few laps to take the chequered flag more than six seconds clear and bag the maximum eight points on offer.
Gasly kept his composure to give the reshuffled Alpine team a morale-boosting podium, as Hamilton came home fourth but then dropped all the way down to seventh after being given a five-second time penalty for causing a collision with Perez, who retired from proceedings.
Hamilton’s penalty promoted Sainz to fourth, Leclerc to fifth and Norris to sixth, with Russell making late moves on Ocon and Ricciardo to secure the final point – the Australian just missing out on a reward as he continues his encouraging F1 return.
Stroll recovered from his Shootout crash to take 11th, ahead of Albon and Bottas, with Kevin Magnussen and Zhou Guanyu gaining spots due to Logan Sargeant’s five-second time penalty for speeding in the pit lane. Hulkenberg and Yuki Tsunoda were the final two finishers, as Perez and Alonso watched from the sidelines.
After Saturday’s standalone Sprint action, the F1 field will now get ready for the main event on Sunday afternoon: the 2023 Belgian Grand Prix.