Four-time Belgian Grand Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen made an impressive return from Formula 1’s summer break by leading opening practice for this weekend’s race at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.
Raikkonen led Ferrari to the head of the field with a late lap on the ultra-soft compound tire, posting a fastest time of 1:45.502 in the SF70H car.
His effort was enough to edge out Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who had led for much of the session after a rapid lap on the soft tire, only to finish 0.053 seconds behind in P2.
Sebastian Vettel underpinned Raikkonen’s pace in the second Ferrari by lapping just one-tenth of a second slower, suggesting the Italian marque may be able to take the fight to Mercedes at Spa despite prior concerns given its high-speed nature.
Max Verstappen took P4 for Red Bull ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, while Valtteri Bottas finished sixth for Mercedes.
Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat both finished in the top 10 for Toro Rosso, taking P7 and P9, with Esteban Ocon splitting the pair for Force India. Stoffel Vandoorne rounded out the top 10 for McLaren.
The session was interrupted early on following a crash for Felipe Massa at the exit of Malmedy, running wide through the gravel after getting loose and slamming into the barrier. The Brazilian was taken to the medical center as a precaution before being cleared, while the Williams team was left with a sizeable repair job to complete in time for second practice.
Bottas also had an off-track excursion soon after posting his fastest time of the session, clipping the gravel at Turn 12. His Mercedes car was largely unharmed, damaging only the front wing after scrubbing off plenty of speed before clipping the barrier.
Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.
It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.
“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”
In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.
With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.
In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.
“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.
“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”
Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.
“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said. “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”
Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.
“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.
“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”
Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.