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Formula 1

How ‘cheap’ Williams upgrade helped Albon to sixth on Spa grid

by Edd Straw
8 min read

Alex Albon will start the Belgian Grand Prix sixth on the grid after a qualifying performance even the Williams Formula 1 team didn’t see coming, one that is owed to a confluence of factors including what the team described as a “relatively cheap upgrade” for Spa.

Albon reached Q3 for the first time this season, setting the ninth-best time in the final stage of qualifying, and will move up three places thanks to back-of-the-grid penalties for Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and Esteban Ocon.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Practice Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

The Williams was lightning-fast in the first sector, with Albon setting the quickest time of all on the run from the start line to the approach to Les Combes. His time of 30.520s, set on his final Q2 run, was 0.016 seconds quicker than qualifying pacesetter Max Verstappen’s best.

Albon was also rapid in the final sector and set the sixth-fastest time, albeit 0.238s off Verstappen’s benchmark. In the twisty middle sector, Albon was only 16th fastest and gave away 1.392s to Verstappen.

Williams head of vehicle performance Dave Robson, who described the qualifying performance as “a pleasant surprise”, stressed that the pace of the car wasn’t just the consequence of being low on downforce and therefore fast in the first sector.

“it’s not as simple as just the speed in the first sector,” said Robson. “We don’t set the car up just to be fast in sector one and sector three as there’s so much laptime in sector two, so we’ve got to strike that balance.

“It’s as much about perhaps other people coming down to a downforce level that we’re maybe a bit more used to and the interaction of that downforce level with the tyre.

“It’s not just about the straightline speed. It’s about trading that straightline speed for the performance in sector two and, at the same time, getting the tyres in the right window.

“Actually, our sector one performance was quite strong but I think we were actually quite good in Turn 1 relative to the field as well. So it wasn’t just about the drag up the hill.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

Albon wasn’t just fast off the hairpin, but also through and – crucially – into it.

Williams found its braking performance there was stronger relative to the rest of the field than is usual. That’s something Robson suggested could be down to good tyre preparation.

Tyre preparation is crucial with the need for grip for the braking phase and turn in, then traction on exit for the long blast to Les Combes. Then, the tyres still need to be in the right window come the braking zone for Les Combes.

As Robson said, “we’ve not made any major changes to the car that would suddenly make the braking better relative to the field”. He suggested its performance was more down to others struggling more than normal.

Part of that performance will have been down to the wing level, and the overall aero efficiency of the car. This was improved by the major upgrade package introduced at Silverstone that switched to a more conventional sidepod design.

But at Spa it was augmented by a Spa-specification rear wing that was simply a cut down version of a wing from its normal range rather than a bespoke Spa special.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

This combined with the fact that the conditions were good for the wind-sensitive Williams, ensuring the car was more consistent than it had been in qualifying at the Hungaroring before the summer break.

“The big upgrade was an improvement in aero efficiency,” said Robson.

“Coming here, we’ve gone for a relatively cheap upgrade in that we’ve just cut the back end off the rear wing, but that’s actually what worked pretty well and maintained a very good level of efficiency for that drag level.

“The other thing here is the wind level is low, so the car is behaving well and consistently which helps. And as we lower the downforce level, the fact you’ve still got that consistency is useful.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

“At least the drivers generally know what they’re going to get each corner. So the effective efficiency is good.”

But the weekend was not straightforward for Williams, which didn’t hit on the right set-up until qualifying itself.

In FP1, it encountered what Robson calls “fairly heavy porpoising” with Albon’s car and even exceeded the FIA’s newly-imposed limit for vertical oscillations on occasion. But this was never by a margin that put it over the permitted average level.

Changes were made to resolve that, which worked well. But still there were some more conventional set-up struggles.

“It’s been more up and down than maybe it appears,” said Robson. “We came out of FP1 looking quite good on the timesheets [in sixth] but conscious that the red flag and the rain meant that drivers didn’t necessarily get a good lap.

“We thought FP2 might be a little bit more depressing, but we actually looked alright. And then made some changes overnight.

“FP3 didn’t look quite as good as we’d hoped. We reconsidered some of those changes and changed a few things on the set-up for qualifying then it’s really picked up.

“We’ve had this underlying see-sawing of pace and therefore emotion, but we were never too far off so I think we were able to pick our way through it with reasonably good engineering and reasonable confidence.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

“We pushed things pretty hard overnight, probably too far, so we could come back a bit. It’s been a bit more up and down than we would have liked.”

Albon felt positive about the car throughout the weekend and was delighted to have reached Q3.

There, he ran ahead of the main group of cars on his one fresh-tyre run at the end of the session and eschewed the chance to get a tow, instead wanting to be sure of getting the optimum tyre preparation.

“The car has been feeling good all weekend,” said Albon. “We knew coming into this weekend that we tend to suit the low-downforce circuits and we knew this was a chance to get into Q2. But to get into Q3 is a different ballgame.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

“I felt like I maximised everything today. We got the tyres in the right window, which has always been something very tricky with these cars, this year especially.

“We got the right slipstreams, then tried something a little bit different for Q3 just to go by ourselves, which in hindsight was a little bit worse.

“But we were going to be 10th on paper, so we had to try something a little bit different.”

Albon’s most impressive lap was arguably on his second run in Q1, when he set the sixth-fastest time. Although he subsequently improved, that was as the track grip evolved.

His final Q2 lap was not as strong as it might have been, with a snap in the second part of Fagnes costing him time and meaning he was just 0.092s clear of the Q3 cutoff.

But the team decided to take an aggressive approach to Q3 given Albon was already guaranteed sixth on the grid even if he was slowest. That lap wasn’t as strong as hoped, with the rear tyres not quite in the right window at the start of it, which led to a time-sapping moment at the exit of La Source.

“We had nothing to lose and maybe not an enormous amount to gain, but very nearly beat George [Russell], which would have been nice,” said Robson.

“[The decision to run at the front without a tow] was in part because it guaranteed he got the outlap he wanted in terms of the tyre prep, which is not the case if you wait to the end. We felt that the track evolution would have levelled off at that point, whereas in Q2 it is probably still going to be evolving, [so] we wanted to go towards the end and pick up every free bit of laptime we could get.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

“In that situation, potentially one way to win big is you lead the pack out on your own and then the leader of the pack behind causes a yellow flag or something and everyone’s lap gets spoiled.

“It almost worked – somebody kicked up an awful lot of dust and went wide so it could have been messy and then we we could have won big.

“But we had nothing to lose at that point. It’s good just to be in Q3.”

Albon is hopeful of being able to fight for points in the race despite the knowledge that there are significantly faster cars starting behind him, including the penalised Verstappen, Leclerc, Ocon and Lando Norris.

But with Williams not having scored in the last eight races and having scored just three points all year, even banking a 10th place would be a good return.

“It’s a little bit unpredictable because nobody has really done a proper race run this weekend with the weather,” said Albon.

“Normally our race pace is a little bit stronger than our qualifying pace, but I’m not sure starting sixth if that will be the case. This circuit is not like Monaco or Zandvoort, if you’re quicker you tend to be able to get the cars in front.

“We do have a slippery car, which is always going to help us try and stay in front. Regardless it’s going to be a battle, when you look at people like Max and Charles [who are] going to be past everyone by lap five.

“Let’s keep that in mind, let’s try and get some points.”

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