By Philip Duncan, PA F1 Correspondent, Francorchamps
Lewis Hamilton has been handed the best chance of winning his first race of the season after Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc were dealt grid penalties for Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.
Verstappen, who has been an unstoppable force this year, and Leclerc – the Ferrari driver whose title challenge has faltered through faults by man and machine – are among six drivers to be punished for exceeding their number of allocated engine parts as Formula One returns to action following its summer shutdown.
McLaren’s Lando Norris, Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, Alpine driver Esteban Ocon and Mick Schumacher of Haas will also be penalised.
Depending on how the penalties unravel, Verstappen and Leclerc will start somewhere in the final quarter of the 20-man grid for Sunday’s 44-lap race at Spa-Francorchamps.
After losing out so controversially to Verstappen in last year’s contentious title decider in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton, in his under-performing Mercedes machinery, endured a turbulent start to the season.
But the 37-year-old headed into the recent one-month break with renewed vigour following five consecutive podiums, including two back-to-back runner-up finishes in France and Hungary at the end of July.
When Hamilton takes to the grid here, 265 days will have passed since his last triumph – victory in Saudi Arabia, the penultimate round of last season.
— Formula 1 (@F1) August 26, 2022
It is a losing streak of 14 races – the longest Hamilton has had to endure in his 15-and-a-half seasons in the sport – but the punishments for Verstappen and Leclerc could allow him to maintain his remarkable record of winning at least one race in each F1 campaign he has participated in.
Hamilton, who will also be armed with a fresh engine which is his final one this term before he faces a grid sanction, finished sixth during second practice on Friday.
However, the seven-time world champion was a mighty 1.3 seconds adrift of Verstappen, with the world champion proving he could yet force himself into the reckoning come Sunday despite his penalty.
Verstappen, who has established an 80-point title lead, meaning he can afford to finish second at each of the remaining nine rounds and still retain his world crown, ended the day eight tenths clear of Leclerc. Norris was third, one place ahead of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.
“It doesn’t feel disastrous out there,” said Hamilton. “It is just that we are a long way off at the moment.
“But we often find this on the Friday and things change on Saturday. That gives me hope we can turn it around.”
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who will also hope to take advantage of his rivals’ penalties to claim the second win of his career and prevent Hamilton from glory, finished fifth. Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell was eighth.
The future of the Belgian race staged at the famous track in the Ardennes has been mired in doubt as F1 chiefs continue to expand the sport’s schedule. A record 24 races is on the table for next year.
But it is understood the event will remain on the calendar for at least one more season after a deal to take the sport back to Kyalami in South Africa, starting next year, failed to materialise.