Max Verstappen oozed authority and calm on Friday as he topped the times in practice at the Belgian Grand Prix and dismissed concerns about starting Sunday’s race from the back of the grid. Red Bull’s world champion and series leader clocked a best lap in one minute and 45.507 seconds to outpace title rival Charles Leclerc of Ferrari by eight-tenths of a second to delight his ‘orange army’ of fans at the majestic Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
“We’re pretty happy with that,” he said. “There’s not much to do or worry about, with the grid penalty – we were just looking at setting up the car in the best possible way.
“There’s some fine-tuning to do, but we’re pretty happy with the first run and the plan. The car is working well, which is positive, but we would have liked to do a bit more running.”
Both Verstappen and Leclerc are taking new power-unit components, that take them beyond their permitted allocation for the season, and will have grid penalties.
That means they will start from the back of the field along with another four drivers who have chosen to switch to new engines for the Belgian race weekend.
“I’ll have to try and work through from the back of the grid,” said Verstappen. “But at least we should have dry conditions. I think today was the worst of the weather.”
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner explained why they chose this race to fit a fourth engine, turbo-charger and other parts, saying it was a strategic decision because the long and high-speed Belgian circuit offers easier overtaking opportunities.
“We looked at the calendar and we were running out of options, but this is a good track to overtake and we feel we should be quick here,” he said.
On an inconclusive and slightly topsy-turvy day, Lando Norris was third for McLaren ahead of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz, who was fifth in the second Ferrari after topping the times in the morning’s opening practice.
Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who is chasing a sixth consecutive podium position in Sunday’s race, was sixth for Mercedes ahead of two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Alpine and George Russell, in the second Mercedes.
Daniel Ricciardo, who on Wednesday announced he would leave McLaren at the end of the year after agreeing to terminate his contract, was ninth and Sergio Perez 10th in the second Red Bull.
Hamilton said Mercedes believed they could recover from a disappointing Friday performance and mount a challenge again, particularly if other drivers were taking penalties.
“We’re not very quick and I don’t know why, but I went out and gave it everything. It could be tyres, temperatures or something else,” he said.
“But it’s not disastrous out there and we often find this on Fridays and things can change on Saturdays. I have hope that we can turn it round.”
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