Escape outsider on his favourite but ‘certainly not ideal’ circuit

Max Verstappen and Spa-Francorchamps have a love-hate relationship. Year in, year out, the Red Bull driver says it’s his favourite circuit on the Formula 1 calendar, but his results are not to write home about for the time being: eleventh, eighth and two failures. Only in 2018 was Verstappen on the podium in the Ardennes: he finished third.

“That stage is my best memory here“, says Verstappen to a journalist who is fishing for the highs and lows of the five grand prixs in his backyard. “Low point? The traffic jams. I know the answer you’re looking for, but I’m not gonna give it to you.”

The 22-year-old driver refers to the collision with Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Rรคikkรถnen in 2016, which killed his race. But Verstappen has no appetite for old Spa cows.

In spite of the disappointing performance Verstappen is and remains lyrical about Spa. “It’s a great circuit with curves where you really feel the speed of a Formula 1 car and where you have to work to control it. There are also a lot of opportunities for overtaking manoeuvres. Pouhon is my favorite corner.”

On account of the coronapandemic, next Sunday Verstappen will ride a home race on a barricaded circuit without orange sea. “It’s a pity there’s not going to be an audience. The fans created a great atmosphere here”, says the Red Bull driver.

Gorgeous television

“It’s bald. I hope I can give them a nice race on television. I’m going to make the best of it without their support and I’m especially happy that I can drive here.”

No one can be surprised that in the eyes of Verstappen Mercedes is once again the race stable to beat. “This is certainly not the ideal circuit for my car. It has been over the past few years and this year it will be again. We’re just not very strong here and Mercedes is very strong.”

The nature of the track in Spa does not really fit in well with Verstappens RB16. “We’re short of top speed. Mercedes is faster on the straights and there are a lot of them here. We have to drive with little downforce (downward pressure, ed.) to compensate for the lack of top speed. On some circuits you have a lot of trouble with that. In Monza, where we race next week, I’ve never been on the podium.”

Bustling

It promises, according to expectations, to be boisterous weather in the Ardennes, but Verstappen can’t be too interested in that yet. Even a rain race is in his eyes no guarantee for success.

After six GPs it is clear that the Mercedes race stable, which has been dominant for years, has further widened the gap to the competition, says Verstappen. “We have started the season behind us. It’s always difficult to explain why, but I have to accept that. We need luck or an off-day from Mercedes to win.”

Verstappen acknowledges that the intended catch-up of engine supplier Honda has not taken place. “Mercedes has gained ground over Honda over the winter period. The gap is big, but I still believe in this team and there is nothing wrong with the motivation of the crew. We are driven. There lies our greatest strength.”

Progression

The driver refuses to consider the season lost. “I’m second in the World Cup and so is the team, so it’s not going to be that bad. If I am able to beat a Mercedes, that’s just good. Valtteri Bottas should of course be standing in front of me. Now it’s important to hold on to this and continue the upward trend.”

Although world champion Lewis Hamilton is still supreme this season, the British Mercedes driver is guarding against arrogance, as appears in Belgium.

“I do consider Max a title candidate. In the first race he dropped out. That largely explains the gap between us. Red Bull Racing is fast and they’re getting closer and closer. There are ten more races to come after Spa, so I definitely don’t feel like I’m almost there.”