SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS – Two-time reigning Formula One champion Max Verstappen won the rain-hit sprint race at the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday to extend his huge lead over Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez to 118 points.
It was Verstappen's ninth straight win including the two sprint races he has won this season. He collected eight points for the victory and will look to extend his overall lead further in Sunday's main race as he continues his march to a third straight world title.
“That was not bad,” Verstappen said with casual understatement.
He finished a comfortable 6.7 seconds ahead of McLaren driver Oscar Piastri and 10.7 clear of Alpine's Pierre Gasly.
“I’m getting more and more comfortable with the car, which is much better than it was at the start of the year,” said the 22-year-old Piastri. “It's been amazing for me.”
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton crossed the line in fourth but dropped down to seventh after being given a five-second time penalty for causing a collision when trying to overtake Perez, who scored no points after retiring near the end.
“Lewis crashed into me and took the whole right hand side of my car off," said Perez, blaming that incident on his failure to finish.
Hamilton's penalty moved Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. into fourth spot ahead of his teammate Charles Leclerc, with McLaren’s Lando Norris sixth and Mercedes driver George Russell in eighth behind his teammate Hamilton
This was the third of six scheduled sprint races this season, with Perez winning in Azerbaijan and Verstappen winning in Austria and here. The top eight drivers all score points from eight down to one.
The sprint race was delayed by more than one hour due to heavy rain, getting underway with a rolling start procedure after several laps behind a safety car, in order to clear more water off the track for the sprint, which lasted 11 laps.
“I think the rolling start was the smart thing to do,” Verstappen said. “(But) I think we could have a raced a little earlier, maybe two laps earlier.”
Safety was paramount at the Spa track, which has seen two drivers from other racing series killed in the past four years.
F2 driver Anthoine Hubert died in a multi-car crash at the track in 2019, on the eve of the F1 race.
Dutch teenage driver Dilano van ’t Hoff was killed earlier this month on the same circuit while competing in the Formula Regional European Championship.
Two years ago, six drivers from the all-female W Series needed medical checks following a heavy crash during a qualifying session on the same track.
Spa’s layout features a notorious flat-out uphill section known as Eau Rouge, which is followed by a blind corner sequence into Radillon.
The most serious issue during rain is a lack of visibility with so much spray from the cars flying up.
“The water just stayed in the air. I couldn’t see anything so I can only imagine how bad it was at the back,” said Gasly, who was close friends with Hubert. “I was hoping no car (goes) off the track or collides on the straight because we know what happened (in the past).”
Even Verstappen was unsighted when at slow speed.
“I couldn’t even see the safety car sometimes and I was the first car,” Verstappen said. “Unfortunately we had these accidents happen over the years.”
It was a welcome result for Gasly, who crashed out of the Hungarian GP last weekend and whose team is undergoing an overhaul after some disappointing results.
The encouraging performance was also a poignant one for Gasly.
“It feels very special to have done it here in Spa,” he said. "So obviously a thought for Anthoine.”
Earlier, Verstappen edged out Piastri by just .011 seconds to take the sprint pole.
The shortened qualifying format — known as the “sprint shootout” — was delayed by 35 minutes because of wet and rainy conditions, with air blowers used to clear water from the track.
Piastri shot to the top of the leaderboard on his last run, only for Verstappen to typically find extra pace.
Aston Martin's Lance Stroll pushed too hard in the final seconds of Q2, the second part of qualifying, and slid off into the barriers, mangling his right tire and bringing out a red flag. His teammate Fernando Alonso was on his out lap when the crash happened and couldn't set a time, meaning he also failed to make it into Q3.
Heavy rain had also impacted Friday’s running at the 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) Spa-Francorchamps circuit, which is nestled in a forest amid the Ardennes countryside and is often impacted by gloomy weather.
Verstappen also set the fastest time in qualifying for Sunday's main race, but Leclerc will start from pole because of Verstappen’s five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. He begins Sunday’s race from sixth, but that will not bother Verstappen considering he won here last year from 14th.
Verstappen and Perez have won every F1 race and sprint race between them in the ultra-dominant Red Bull car.
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