Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes hoping that rule change can kickstart season at Belgian GP

F1 returns after summer break with Verstappen enjoying 80-point lead in drivers' championship

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After the rain-lashed disaster that was last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, Formula One’s return to the Ardennes signals the start of a frantic second half of the season with the drama already well under way.

And given Max Verstappen’s gargantuan 80-point lead, Ferrari need a drastic and sustained turnaround if they are to have any chance of becoming champions in 2022.

To put that advantage into perspective, Charles Leclerc could win the remaining nine races and still not become champion if the Dutchman is second each time.

Incredibly, there is not much between the rivals in terms of talent or machinery except that Ferrari have shown a disastrous propensity to throw away winning potential.

Six times they have done so while Verstappen, in contrast, has been almost robotic in his reliability.

Leclerc’s own mistakes in Imola and France cost him dearly, but usually it has been the team’s strategy and reliability at fault.

Under pressure, it seems, they crack and that’s not the modus operandi to take into a rescue mission over one of the most intense periods in the sport’s history: nine races in 12 weeks start with what are effectively two home races for Verstappen at Spa and Zandvoort.

Although there is an established hierarchy, with Red Bull and Ferrari chased by Mercedes, there is cause to believe Sunday’s race could see a total re-set.

The leading duo’s advantage was supposedly down to a questionable interpretation of the aero rules for the underside of the cars associated with the infamous bouncing.

It’s one of those cases where the design is not exactly illegal but, their rivals claim, definitely not within the spirit of the regulations.

Having been spotted by the FIA, the loophole has been closed for Spa onwards and it’ll be interesting to see who suffers most.

Gallery: Lewis Hamilton visits Kenya

Paddock thinking has it that Mercedes will be the biggest beneficiaries because they had not used the loophole while Ferrari and Red Bull had.

So could the champions suddenly go on a winning spree? They recorded their first double podium at the last race in Hungary and George Russell started from pole. Will the rule change be the final jigsaw piece that makes them winners?

Lewis Hamilton’s will certainly be hoping so; his car has been so bad at times 2022 threatens to be the first season of his soaring 16-year career to end winless.

But he certainly triumphs in the "best holiday" stakes having seen gorillas, lions and elephants in a four-country swing through Africa and insists he returns “a changed man … bringing the ancestors with me to Spa”.

Spa, of course, is one of the most famous circuits of them all – one of the F1 big beasts – rolling through seven kilometres of Ardennes forest, 80 per cent of which is taken at full throttle never far from 300 kph.

Forecasts of rain on both Saturday and Sunday have been greeted with groans but that makes my mood soar as Spa and Silverstone are the only circuits in the calendar on a sprawling scale and design that demand the best from both cars and drivers.

An $80 million track upgrade has resulted in several tarmac run-offs replaced with gravel traps that will make the challenge greater still.

Significantly the run-off for the iconic Eau Rouge/Raidillon section has been widened in an attempt to prevent fatalities from cars ricocheting off the barriers and back into the path of oncoming rivals.

The vast investment is presumably to improve its chances of remaining on the calendar amid swirling rumours that its future, like Monaco’s, is under threat despite an expanded 24-race schedule for 2023, its own epic status and yet another sell-out crowd.

Behind the scenes, the FIA’s confirmation of eco-friendly 1,000 plus bph engine rules for 2026 should preface announcements by car giants Porsche and Audi that they are coming into F1.

Porsche’s fourth F1 stint will be with Red Bull and Audi are replacing Alfa Romeo at Sauber.

The annual bout of driver musical chairs resumed without waiting for the paddock to reassemble.

McLaren’s decision on Wednesday to ditch Daniel Ricciardo at a price running into double figure millions is probably to keep rising Australian star Oscar Piastri out of the clutches of rivals Alpine.

Ricciardo has already been linked with former employers Alpine and American outfit Haas, where Mick Schumacher’s lacklustre form surely means his days are numbered despite his famous surname.

Will the end come at the circuit where his father’s epic story began?

Updated: August 25, 2022, 3:21 AM