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Formula 1

Gary Anderson: Why I’m baffled by Verstappen’s Spa wing risk

by Gary Anderson
5 min read

Spa has always been a circuit where the key set-up challenge is the trade-off between straightline speed in the first and third sectors and the twisty middle sector. But in the wet, it’s very simple – you want more downforce. Not maximum downforce by any means, but a little more than you would want for normal conditions.

The Belgian Grand Prix weekend has often been wet, and even when it was dry during some of Friday’s running it was cold and grip was at a premium. Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen can show you the repair bills to prove that after their accidents.

Charles Leclerc Belgian GP crash F1 Ferrari

But given rain is still expected, even if it’s going to be mixed conditions you still want that extra bit of downforce both to carry the speed in the corners and to make it easier building and maintaining tyre temperature. There’s a chance that the rain could come and go, which could mean plenty of switching between wets, intermediates and slicks in difficult conditions, so that ability to put energy into the tyres could be crucial.

Being on the correct tyres at the correct time and getting them switched on can gain or lose you something like ten seconds a lap. Williams showed the difference between wets and inters in the first qualifying session and the same will be true in the race.

So even if a pitstop takes 20-odd seconds that can be made up in two laps. But those can be tricky laps as you need to push hard enough to get the tyres working but also survive some challenging conditions and that’s where a little bit more wing would come into play.

Red Bull RB16 F1 car rear wing

That’s why I am surprised to see Red Bull running such a trimmed-out rear wing throughout the weekend. While it opted not to run the Monza-style lowest-downforce rear wing, it still went for an option that meant it was carrying less than Mercedes.

While we know the Red Bull has more downforce than most of the field – it’s probably the highest-downforce car – but that low-downforce rear wing will have made it difficult for him in qualifying.

He did a great job to get pole position.

Mercedes W12 F1 car rear wing

Mercedes has also experimented with its wing levels throughout the weekend but has a more conventional rear wing. We also saw the team add gurney flaps for that extra bit of stability, which was a wise move for qualifying.

They are only attached to the wing with double-sided tape so if the conditions go from wet to dry during the race you could actually pull them off. It might take a couple of extra seconds in the pitstop but could be well worth that time investment.

A gurney flap is a right-angle component in varying sizes. One side of the angle fastens to the wing surface; this can be bolted, glued or, as most teams do, taped with double-sided tape.

The piece sticking up acts as a trip for the airflow coming off the top surface and by doing this increases the length the air has to travel on the undersurface, generating more downforce. The penalty is more drag but it’s quite an efficient way to generate more stability under braking.

You can go backwards very fast at Spa and while Verstappen could do it over one lap, I would be very concerned at the set-up choices Red Bull has made.

Mercedes Red Bull front wing comparison

Yes, it should mean he has the straightline speed to fend off others or overtake but keeping it on the road and not making a mistake will not be easy.

Back in 1994, Rubens Barrichello qualified the Jordan 194 on pole position at Spa in wet conditions. Our switch to slicks was timed perfectly and he was one of the last over the line, which along with a great lap earned him pole. We also had Eddie Irvine backing him up in fourth in wets, but it wasn’t only getting the timing right that allowed us to get one over the big boys.

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In qualifying, we were able to run a very high wing level to increase the grip. But come the race we were a sitting duck even though we were able to make more set-up changes compared to what is allowed today. Obviously, a Red Bull RB16B is a quicker car relative to the opposition than the Jordan 194 was but at Spa overtaking can be fairly straightforward.

Yes, having the trimmed out rear wing will help the straightline performance, but that’s also dependent on carrying the speed off Eau Rouge and Radillon. In the wet, that’s not always a foregone conclusion, especially if you have tyre temperature problems – something that you could face if it’s a restart after a safety car period.

If it’s wet for the race – as is expected – then Russell is in great shape and his own prediction that a top-five finish could be on is realistic. But Hamilton is also close in the Mercedes and Verstappen will have his work cut out to survive at the front.

It’s been very interesting to follow the Mercedes and Red Bull downforce changes through the weekend but something else has also caught my attention.

Throughout this season, the big discussion topic has been the low-rake versus high-rake cars. From these two pictures taken at the same spot of the Spa circuit, it looks to me like Mercedes has been jacking its rear ride height upwards.

Mercedes Red Bull Belgian GP rake comparison

Red Bull still has that little bit more, but if these pictures were compared to ones taken at the start of the season, I’m pretty sure we would see quite a large difference.

Mercedes rightly can’t just jack the car up as far as Red Bull and expect the car to work but any gains in that area are worth pursuing.

This could be part of the gains it has made with there Silverstone developments around the bargeboard area. These changes worked the front corner of the floor harder and just that little more rake makes sense as part of these developments. It gives more volume beneath the underfloor, meaning a greater low-pressure area and therefore higher potential downforce.

But to come back to today’s race, the slight rake advantage of Red Bull doesn’t mean it can cancel out the disadvantage of running such a trimmed-out rear wing.

We know how good Verstappen is in the wet and he’ll drive the wheels off it, but sometimes if you don’t have the grip there’s nothing you can do. And Hamilton is no slouch in the wet either.

But the race all depends on the weather and if it’s dry then Verstappen and Red Bull will be in great shape. Whatever happens, it’s going to be an exciting one. Who has got it right and who is out to lunch, only the Spa weather will decide.

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