If there was even a glimmer of hope that Ferrari and Charles Leclerc could claw back an 80-point deficit to a handicapped Max Verstappen this weekend in Belgiumall hopes and dreams for 2022 were laid to rest at Spa-Francorchamps. A month off over August has brought no respite on the pit lane for the Scuderia and, this time round, in more ways than one.
The final few laps just about summed up the muddled lack of clarity at the Prancing Horse right now. With Leclerc running in fifth, Ferrari pitted their main man to try and claim one extra point for the fastest lap by utilising a fresh set of soft tyres.
Yet Leclerc lost position to Fernando Alonso and though he overtook the Alpine a lap later, he didn’t claim the fastest lap and, adding insult to injury, Leclerc was given a five-second penalty for speeding in the pit lane, demoting him back down to sixth.
“The pit lane is not bad luck, it’s just my fault,” Leclerc said afterwards. “It’s a mistake and that’s it.”
Mistakes, meanwhile, seem no longer in the vocabulary of runaway championship leader Verstappen, who shone in as dominant and supreme a performance as we’ve seen all season to claim a ninth victory in 14 races in 2022.
Starting from P14 on the grid after taking a penalty for a new engine – one of eight drivers accepting such punishments this weekend – Verstappen oozed class and control as he stormed through the field with speed, trouncing even his ascent in Budapest a month ago.
By lap 12, Verstappen was out in front and in cruise control for the remainder. He claimed the fastest lap instead of Leclerc, too. Of course he did. His advantage at the top of the standings is now 93 points and that’s not even to Leclerc any more, with teammate Sergio Perez also comfortable in second and leapfrogging the Ferrari in the drivers’ standings.
The rather tame conclusion to the grand prix followed a hectic first lap; a two-minute period which saw Lewis Hamilton retire after a first-lap collision with Alonso which was his own doing.
Propelling round the outside of the Alpine in his lacklustre Mercedes car, Hamilton squeezed his former teammate, launching his W13 into the air, and the subsequent damage forced a first retirement of the year for the seven-time world champion.
Alonso brandished Hamilton an “idiot” over the team radio and the image of a solemn-looking Hamilton – who took responsibility for the incident afterwards – walking back to the pit lane personified a disastrous weekend for Mercedes, when hope was so rife on Thursday.
“You can’t be satisfied when Verstappen is in a league of his own,” he reflected. “We need to find out how to improve our car – the gap is too big. We need to accept that the car is difficult to drive. There’ll be a lot of sticking heads together, looking at the next few races but also next season. It was not great from us all weekend.”
Hamilton’s run of five podiums in a row comes to a sudden end. And his streak of winning a race in every season he’s competed in Formula 1 looks like an uphill battle now too, with eight grands prix left and Verstappen’s home circuit at Zandvoort to come next week.