Formula 1 is facing up to the prospect of its first fully wet sprint weekend at the Belgian Grand Prix, where the forecast is for non-stop rain from Friday to Sunday.
The inclement weather — in stark contrast with sunny and warm conditions in Budapest last Sunday — will change the complexion of what was already shaping up to be a complex weekend for teams and drivers.
Spa-Francorchamps features a deeply varied layout that challenges teams on set-up. Both low-downforce and high-downforce configurations can pay dividends around different parts of the circuit. Both play to each team’s strengths, but they can also generate multiple pitfalls for errors.
Teams have traditionally had three hours of practice to hone their set-up, usually in part by considering which direction their principal rivals are taking. That’s particularly so when it comes to straight-line speed, which is decisive to holding or acquiring positions in the race.
Not only will practice be reduced to just one hour this Friday, after which driver will immediately start qualifying, but all sessions are forecast to be wet.
The weather changes the lens through which teams will approach set-up.
It will be tempting to pile more downforce onto the car to make it more drivable in the deluge, particularly as Saturday is forecast to be wetter than Friday.
But the big points are paid on Sunday, when the radar is less settled. Rain is certainly in the area, but Spa’s sylvan slopes are a climate all to themselves. If the rain never arrives or if the track dries out, gambling on less downforce could bring home a major score.
Some teams and drivers will be dreading the forecast. Sergio Pérez, who only just broke a five-weekend streak of failing to qualify in Q3, has spoken openly about being uncomfortable in his Red Bull Racing car in wet conditions, which he says exacerbate the problems he already has with the car.
McLaren, on the other hand, will be licking its lips.
The team has talked down its chances of another strong performance despite the track on paper suiting its upgraded car. Team principal Andrea Stella believes three key slow-corner sections — La Source, Les Combes and the final chicane — will be enough to counter the car’s strengths at high speed around the rest of the lap.
But the McLaren car has also typically enjoyed wet and especially cool conditions this season. The MCL60 has tended to fire up its tyres more quickly than its rivals, which is advantageous in qualifying and especially at the start of each stint when wet.
The battle for best of the rest isn’t just for points and championship position; it’s to be best located if Red Bull Racing makes a mistake. And mistakes are always more common in the wet.
The efficiency requirement of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps has Red Bull Racing all over it. The car was upgraded last week, the team clearly has a sophisticated understanding of how to set it up. It’s difficult to go past as the obvious favourite.
Pole position: Max Verstappen
Podium: Max Verstappen, Oscar Piastri, Lando Norris
Winning margin: 20 seconds
The views expressed in this article are those of the author. Quotes have been obtained from team press conferences and issued press releases.