Technical experiments on the opening day of the Belgian GP

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Belgium, Circuit De Spa-Francorchampsbe

The high-speed nature of the Spa race track and the extra time during the two-week-long working period of the summer break urged and offered the technical group of each team to evaluate the best aerodynamic and mechanical configuration for the coming duo of high-speed circuits of Spa and Monza.

Ferrari

The Scuderia Ferrari trialed new aerodynamic parts over the Belgian GP’s opening day in a bid to find a cure for its lack of pace on high-speed circuits like Silverstone or Spa.

The team has already tested new parts during the post-race running at the Hungaroring including a modified floor, front suspension and diffusor which were evaluated by Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen. To gain different opinions, the duo shared testing duties on the second day, although Ferrari rarely splits testing days between two drivers which shows the importance of the recent upgrades.

For Spa, Ferrari brought the new suspension, the new floor and a modified front wing.

The new floor features six more linear slots instead of the rather S-shaped holes used in Hungary. It also has a small arm at the back corner of the floor. The Scuderia also introduced an upgraded front wing which featured a modified endplate.

The most interesting upgrade of the Spa-package is probably the modified front suspension which features an interesting configuration of the third element. The team hopes to manage the rake better in order to gain top speed on the straights which was one of its weaknesses compared to its rival Mercedes’ W08. At the same time, the team also tries to maintain the aerodynamic balance of the SF70-H in the high-speed corners.

The new diffusor featuring a heavily upgraded central section which is much more rounded compared with the previous version has not made appearance so far in Belgium.

Mercedes

The reigning world championship team caused a stir on Thursday when the news started circulating in the paddock that it intends to install new power unit components to both Lewis Hamilton’s and Valtteri Bottas’ car after recent changes made in Silverstone.

Both Mercedes-drivers got a new internal combustion engine, a new turbocharger and a new MGU-H unit for the Belgian GP. All these units introduced for this weekend were their fourth and last fresh ones from their allocation.

The Anglo-German squad last changed engines in Silverstone which was only raced there and in Hungary. The Silverstone-specification brought only modifications in terms of reliability which allowed the team to run its most aggressive engine modes for longer period of time in the race. This new trio of power unit components are said to deliver more power which is very important on the high speed tracks of Spa and Monza.

Asked about the reason of the early change, Mercedes’s shareholder Toto Wolff said that the team felt ready to introduce the latest upgrade to the power unit and wanted to bring it to the track in the earliest moment possible given the tight battle with Ferrari. The Austrian sounded confident when he was faced with the question whether Mercedes can survive the year without taking a penalty for a further change of components mentioned above. The former racing driver is confident the team can alternate the third and fourth units in the remaining races.

Mercedes' decision to introduce its last internal combustion engine in Spa may have been triggered by the latest technical directive of FIA. According to this new ruling, engines which are introduced from the Italian GP onward can only use 0.9 liter of oil for a distance of 100km. The previous limit was 1.2 l per 100 km. It is believed that teams made a gentleman agreement that they won't introduce any new engines before the new ruling and Mercedes broke that to gain an advantage over Ferrari which could be especially useful in qualifying.

Red Bull

The energy drink-owned team made a typical Spa-specific experimentation with various downforce levels. Max Verstappen was running with a medium-level downforce configuration while his team-mate’s Daniel Ricciardo’s car was calibrated with a Monza-like, low-downforce aerodynamic setup.

Vastly different setup directions between team-mates are not unknown at Spa as it is probably the track where it is the most difficult to find the best aero configuration, balance and compromise between the never-ending straights and the brutally quick corners.

To find a remedy for its power deficit, Red Bull tasked Daniel Ricciardo with trying out a very brave and partly hazardous setup option which included a Monza-like rear wing. The Australian’s trial did not bring the results the team hoped for.

“I still lost too much in the second sector. For sure we won’t keep the same set-up tomorrow. Whether we’ll go in Max’s direction or try to find a better compromise between the two we’ll see, but we’ll definitely be stronger tomorrow,” said the Perth-born driver.

Ricciardo set a time of 1:46.072 while Max Verstappen clocked a 1:45.225. The more than eight tenths deficit shows that the higher downforce level brings a better overall package. Ricciardo set the best first and third sector time, but lost a frightening 1.634 second in the middle part compared to the best time in that sector set by Kimi Räikkönen. Compared to his team-mate, Ricciardo gained 0.593 seconds in the first, 0.144 seconds in the third sector, but lost out in the second track section by 1.554 seconds.

As rain is predicted to the track located in the Ardennes, the higher-downforce setup could be even more useful as the steeper wings produce higher loads into the tyres which helps the tyre warm-up procedure in damp and cool conditions.

McLaren-Honda

McLaren-Honda tried out a new power unit configuration during the post-race test in Hungary. Honda wanted to introduce its latest power unit called ‘spec 4’ as early as possible. However, Honda chief Yusuke Hasegawa confirmed his group of engineers were not confident enough with such an early introduction so the Japanese company decided to bring only ‘half of the upgrades’ to the power sensitive circuit of Spa.

Fernando Alonso got the specification 3.5 while his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne received the specification 3.6. The Spaniard’s configuration did not trigger any penalties, but the Belgian’s one involved the change of the internal combustion engine. Vandoorne’s unit included a reliability upgrade as well. McLaren-Honda used the change to fill up the Belgian’s pool with a new turbocharger, MGU-H, MGU-K, energy store and control electronics.