Driving a significantly updated RB18, Max Verstappen flew over the Belgian Grand Prix. How to explain such supremacy?
A MORE EFFICIENT AERODYNAMIC RB18
Remember, that was not so long ago. During the first thirteen Grands Prix, Red Bull and Ferrari fought neck and neck. The two teams were separated by only a few tenths of a second, one way or the other: the F1-75 was generally faster in qualifying, the RB18 more efficient in the race. Even Mercedes had progressed, to the point of taking pole position at the Hungaröring.
Not so in Belgium, where Ferrari lost six tenths of a second in pure performance to the winged Bull and Mercedes 1.8 seconds. Driving a Red Bull with modified body and flat bottom (see image below), Max Verstappen was the second fastest driver in the intermediate sector in qualifying, and fastest in sectors 1 and 3. The following day, in the race, he was considerably faster than Leclerc and Sainz in the three sections of the circuit: by two tenths in sector 1, by three tenths in sector 2 and by one tenth in the last sector.
What can be said, then, of his best lap (completed with medium tires and around 28 kg of fuel on board), six tenths faster than Charles Leclerc’s best lap at the end of the race, when the Monegasque was wearing soft new ones and that its tank was almost empty? How to explain such a reversal of trend?
To simplify, the exceptional superiority of the Red Bulls in Belgium is essentially due to the nature of the Ardennes track. More than any other circuit, Spa-Francorchamps demands aerodynamic efficiency due to its hybrid layout: it requires little downforce to be fast in sectors 1 and 3, but a lot of load in the middle portion made of slow turns. To these contradictory requirements, the RB18 responds better than any other single-seater because it generates a lot of downforce through its underbody and can therefore afford to mount less inclined fins ‒ which gives it two advantages: great speed in a straight line and better tire management (read here our detailed explanations).
FERRARI AND MERCEDES DISTURBED
As we know, the RB18 and the F1-75 produce their performance in very different ways – following a well-known trend since the start of the season. Verstappen and Pérez’s single-seater, on which is mounted a rear wing generally less loaded than that of the Ferrari, is faster at the end of the straight.
At Spa, the Italian engineers tried to mount a very thin rear wing (the first in the image above), but the scarlet racing car lost too much time in the middle sector. They therefore opted for a heavier wing – the one used in Baku – which was logically less effective on a circuit with long straights (probably reserving the minimum downforce wing for Monza).
“Aero efficiency [soit le rapport appui/traînée] of our car is not very good on this track, analyzed Carlos Sainz. From here to Monza, we need to figure out why our ‘low downforce’ package wasn’t as good as Red Bull’s. And then, in general, we are more competitive on circuits that require heavy downforce.”
That’s not all. Spa is a very unusual circuit in terms of ride height due to the compression in the Eau Rouge and a bump in the Stavelot corner. To absorb these constraints, all the teams must raise their car by five to six millimeters, or even a little more this year because of a bump between turns 14 and 15. However, with a ground clearance slightly higher than Usually, the Ferrari and the Mercedes didn’t perform as well as usual from an aerodynamic point of view.
Unlike the Red Bull, able to produce downforce even with high ground clearance: “We have demonstrated several times this season that our car can work with a fairly high ride heightconfirmed Christian Horner. Our philosophy is probably slightly different from that of other single-seaters.” This ability to generate load whatever the ground clearance is probably due to the experience accumulated by the team in this area. For a dozen years, roughly from 2009 to 2021, chassis designed in Milton Keynes ran with a raised rear axle (the famous “rake”)and this know-how has remained in the DNA of the RB18.
We see it, more than the technical directive aimed at limiting the phenomenon of pumping, it was the characteristics of the Spa circuit that forced the teams to raise their speed this weekend. That said, this could force the teams to raise their ground clearance at Zandvoort or on the next circuits. Ferrari engineer Jock Clear has indeed claimed that no changes had to be made to the F1-75 at Spa because of the entry into force of the directive. But he clarified:
“We will only know in a few races if we need to raise our car a bit. We have to wait to race on other circuits to have a more precise idea.”
Finally, the increase in temperatures from Saturday (22°C) to Sunday (34°C) modified the way in which the tires deteriorated: the tire graining before Saturday gave way to thermal degradation of the rear tyres. This change affected the Red Bull less, whose balance in slow corners and fast curves allowed it to manage its tires better on race day.
But still it was necessary to extract the quintessence of this machine. Masterful from Friday, the reigning World Champion head and shoulders above all the other drivers, including his teammate, unable to adopt the same settings (which made the car efficient but devilishly oversteering). This weekend at Spa, not far from Kerpen, there was something Michael Schumacher at Max Verstappen.
MERCEDES LOSES ITS LATIN
After the pole position signed by George Russell at the Hungarian Grand Prix at the end of July, Mercedes did not expect to suffer so much in the following race. Especially since in Belgium, the W13 was equipped with many developments (see above), which did not give satisfaction:
“You can’t take pole position, even on a track and in very different conditions, and then find yourself 1.8 seconds behind the reference time the next race, ranted Toto Wolff on Saturday evening. There is something that completely eludes us. It’s not acceptable.”
In fact, the list of problems faced in qualifying by Lewis Hamilton and his garage neighbor is as long as a day without bread: a lot of drag on the Kemmel straight, an unstable rear axle, understeer in Rivage and the corner n° 9, finally pumping in the fast curves… As often this season, the Brackley engineers could not explain the origin of these evils. The W13 works best when it’s very low to the ground, while the RB18 seems more comfortable with a high ride height.
“If we understood what is happening, we could rectify the situation by playing on the settings, lamented the Austrian boss. But this is not the case. This weekend I haven’t heard anything positive about the car. It is time to decide what we are going to do.”
“Our performances vary enormously from circuit to circuit. Is it the fault of the tires? Or is it aero, mechanical balance? It is very difficult to isolate.”
In the race, the W13 behaved better, as evidenced by the result of Russell, who could have been on the podium in place of Sainz. On Sunday, the inability of the Flèche d’Argent to warm up its tires quickly was less penalizing, in particular because the track was much hotter. Nevertheless: after fourteen Grands Prix, Mercedes has still not understood how its single-seater works.
HAMILTON LOSE THE PEDALS
Walking outside the Mercedes garage on Friday, we spotted the pedals used by Lewis Hamilton (see the “LH” sticker in the image above) ‒ elements rarely seen!
Their transmission is semi-automatic, the F1s have only two pedals. The accelerator pedal (here made of lightly gilded metal) is linked, via a position sensor, to the central control unit (ECU) responsible for controlling the engine speed according to the position of the pedal, but also the deployment of the electric energy.
If the accelerator is “fly-by-wire” (i.e. electronically controlled and not mechanical), the right pedal is equipped with a damper which controls the force feedback (yellow arrow), so that the pilot can feel a certain resistance and thus finely measure his effort on the pedal.
As for the brake pedal (the darkest on the image), it is all carbon at Mercedes. Since 2014 the rear brakes are electronically managed, but it is not an ABS system (blocking is possible during heavy braking), as we explain in our illustrated file on the “brake-by-wire” .
Both pedals are surrounded by side plates intended to hold Hamilton’s foot in place, while their surface is coated with an abrasive material (like sandpaper) to prevent his foot from slipping when cornering or riding. a passage over a bump.
IN THE SAME SERIES