Formula 1 returns and the Belgian Grand Prix paddock is abuzz with so much chatter after the summer break. The cliched ‘back to school’ feeling is the strongest I’ve experienced since I started coming here five years ago. Let’s rip this bandage off quickly: the one thing we don’t have to be excited by is a mega close championship fight. But there’s still plenty to be excited about.
A jumbled up Belgian GP?
Grid penalties are a common theme at Spa because it’s a good track for overtaking. So the big teams like to use this race to take penalties and fit another fresh engine. Title rivals Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc will start this race at the back of the grid, which is a very fun prospect. We haven’t seen these two go properly wheel-to-wheel much since the start of the year. How they fight one another while trying to work their way up the order could make for an immensely entertaining Sunday. It also opens the door for someone else to win. Perhaps Carlos Sainz’s second of his career, or a chance for Sergio Perez to revive a stuttering campaign? Or maybe, just maybe, this is Mercedes’ time to shine? Lewis Hamilton has to preserve a record of winning a race in each season of his career, after all. A bunch of upper-midfield contenders will have the same fate as Leclerc and Verstappen: Lando Norris and Esteban Ocon in particular. That opens the door for some unusual podium contenders and top-10 runners, meaning the order will be quite jumbled up.
Loads of silly season madness
There’s a ton of off-track stuff in the news this weekend, which you’ll probably have noticed.
We started the summer break with the Fernando Alonso/Aston Martin bombshell, which was swiftly swallowed up by the stunning rejection by Oscar Piastri when Alpine tried to announce him as Alonso’s replacement. This week we got confirmation from McLaren that Daniel Ricciardo will leave the team (Piastri will replace him if all goes to plan) and now there’s a big question mark over what Ricciardo does next. Around the Belgian GP weekend specifically there will be more fallout to look out for. Alonso’s taken so many digs at Alpine and on Saturday Alpine team boss Otmar Szafnauer will be pushed for his response to that – and the Piastri situation – in the FIA press conferences. Beyond this weekend, working out the fate of eight-time grand prix winner Ricciardo and the potential knock-on impacts for the likes of Mick Schumacher will also be key topics to monitor.
Audi is coming to F1
This is a relatively minor point in the short-term but the excitement around a new works F1 project is always pretty big. And it’s Audi – a manufacturer that has been linked with F1 countless times over the years and has finally confirmed an actual programme. It’s a proper one too. A big engine project and, we anticipate, the takeover of the Sauber team. There will be a lot to do to make Sauber as competitive as Audi will expect to be and a lot for Audi to be in a position to build a good enough F1 engine. In the coming weeks we may expect confirmation from Porsche, Audi’s Volkswagen Group sister brand, about its own 2026 F1 plans. That is likely to be a partnership with Red Bull and potentially include a 50% stake in the Red Bull Technology company that basically builds the F1 cars. This is a very exciting time for F1. New projects always make that so. OK, they aren’t new teams. There’s still frustration from some fans that the door remains closed to Andretti for example. But there’s also frustration on the F1 side that so many just assume Andretti – which is a big organisation but isn’t even one of IndyCar’s top three teams at the moment – is entitled to an F1 entry. Many in F1 simply think that getting brands like Audi to bolster existing teams like Sauber is the best strategy.
I see shades of 2019 in this season’s run-in. Back in 2019, Lewis Hamilton had the championship wrapped up early. But in the second half of the season, Ferrari and Red Bull were running Mercedes close in almost every race. That meant that even without an exciting title battle to follow, we were at least treated to race-by-race fun. It’s never quite as good as when there’s a championship on the line but it means each grand prix there’s something on the line. Going into a race weekend not knowing who will be on pole or win is still something to enjoy. We should at least get that plenty of times before the end of the year, especially as Mercedes seemed to be more in the picture prior to the summer break.
OK, MAYBE a title fight…
This is a long shot! But…let’s believe? There’s an 80-point gap between Verstappen and Leclerc. It seems very unlikely that it will be much smaller after this weekend, and of course it could well increase. I have felt for a while that Verstappen would win this championship and of course with this gap it seems inevitable. We can consider this the start of the path to him wrapping up a second title, something that will probably happen before the end of the year. That’s the realistic version. Let’s be more optimistic. On performance alone, Leclerc could win every single race. He and Ferrari should have more wins than they do this year. They’ve just been super wasteful. Leclerc’s situation is simple: win the last nine races and get a lucky break with a Verstappen DNF or a bad weekend and he can be champion. Is it likely? Not at all. But for the sake of having a wider narrative to follow, let’s hope it’s an idea that can be strung along a little longer.