Belgian GP qualifying: Time for an Eau Rouge revision; Russell is the man for Mercedes

Two different facts seemed undeniable after qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix.

One, George Russell is fantastic.

Two, Eau Rouge is not, at least not any more, and planned changes to that part of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit are long overdue.

Lando Norris' crash in Q3 at that part of Spa-Francorchamps was the most recent example. Thankfully, the McLaren driver has been cleared to race on Sunday having passed medical check-ups, but it was another frightening moment at one of F1's most contentious corners.

Eau Rouge is out-dated and dangerous

Eau Rouge is the name of the downhill stretch of track which then goes back uphill and kinks away to the right to Raidillon, and runs towards the Kemmel Straight.

It is a legendary corner that has featured in Formula One for many years, but is no longer fit for purpose in its current form.

Watching cars go through there from trackside -- which they routinely do these days flat-out -- is a genuinely stunning experience. You often hear F1 drivers remark Eau Rouge is no longer a corner in the traditional sense, given how they are able to take it at full throttle. That's not surprising given the downforce gains made by F1 cars over the past decade alone.

In recent seasons Eau Rouge has become a hotspot for big accidents.

The most notable was the accident which killed Anthoine Hubert in a 2019 Formula 2 race. On the second lap of the race, Hubert lost control on the approach to the hill, hit the barrier and was spat back onto the race track, where his car was T-boned at high speed by Juan Manuel Correa. Correa suffered extensive leg injuries and only returned to racing this year in Formula 3 - this weekend he is racing at Spa for the first time since the 2019 accident.

In August of this year during the 24 Hours of Spa endurance race, former Williams driver Jack Aitken was injured in a scary crash at the same point Norris went off. That section of track was also the scene of a multi-car pile-up on Friday evening, which saw two W Series drivers go to hospital.

Saturday's F1 qualifying session took place during a heavy downpour. As Sebastian Vettel said after qualifying, it was hard to escape the feeling F1 had "got lucky" with the outcome of Norris' crash. Whenever any series races at Spa at the moment it seems as though there is a sense of when, not if, a big crash will take place at that part of the circuit.

There are plans in place to alter this part of Spa-Francorchamps at the end of the year. As outlined by Motorsport.com, the circuit will push back the wall Norris and the W Series drivers crashed into, effectively creating a bigger run-off area along the left-hand side of Raidillon at the top of the hill.

The hope is that change will prevent the most obvious area where cars can hit and bounce back into the racing line, instead giving cars space to slow down and stay on one side of the race track if they spin off the road. However, it is worth pointing out that Hubert's crash occurred when he hit the wall on the opposite side of Raidillon, effectively right alongside where Norris' car came to a stop on Saturday afternoon.

Whether the planned changes will be enough remain to be seen.

Drivers voiced mixed opinions on Saturday afternoon.

Max Verstappen was in favour, saying: "The changes I saw yesterday which are going to happen at the end of the year -- so for us next year -- I think they look very good.

"It is a very fast corner and when you go through it everything is fine. Of course the problem is when the barrier is so close and one person hits the barrier, it's very easily that the car bounces back onto the track and onto the racing line and then you can collect another car."

Daniel Ricciardo shared the opinion of his former Red Bull teammate.

"I hear that loud and clear," he said of the fears over Eau Rouge's safety. "The balance is in the form of what history has shown. As exciting as Eau Rouge is, it does tend to have big accidents almost every year.

"I think the corner will still be scary and exciting even if they push the barrier a few meters back. It is also the way the cars bounce back on the track. That is another danger.

"It is kind of just realigning for safety. I don't think it is changing the pure character of the corner. It is just removing any of the unnecessary danger. No one benefits when the danger is pointed in that direction, you know what I mean."

Fernando Alonso suggested that the element of danger would always remain at a part of racetrack like Eau Rouge.

"Even with a different barrier, probably you save some of the accidents, but it is still a high-speed corner," he said. "It is the nature of the circuit and that is why it is special."

Championship leader Lewis Hamilton had voiced concerns about Eau Rouge on Friday, albeit about the size of a large bump that he said has appeared this year. The Mercedes driver's theory was that the bump had been caused by mudslides after heavy rainfall in Europe this year, and a river runs directly underneath the Eau Rouge section.

"I think they've just got to get rid of the bump and then leave Eau Rouge as it is," Hamilton said on Saturday. "But they'll do what they do. I don't feel they need to spend the money."

Russell vindicates the hype

For about 20 seconds in qualifying, it looked as though George Russell was going to claim pole position.

Verstappen spoiled that party somewhat by snatching that from the Williams driver at the death, but a front-row start is still an incredible achievement in a car which had zero points to its name until the Hungarian Grand Prix one month ago.

Russell's lap was sublime, a perfect example of driver skill and team strategy combining together perfectly. It is why the suggestion that F1 is purely about machinery over driver skill is flawed as an argument. A car is a big part of the equation, of course, but the composure and talent of a driver are key ingredients in the kind of result Russell achieved on Saturday afternoon.

"Firstly, I think the team did an amazing job," he said. "In these conditions you've got to be on the track at the right moment with the right tyres and it's really difficult with the engine as well because you're deploying your battery, on such a long lap if you don't have it on the maximum deployment you're going to struggle.

"Sometimes you want to do two laps in a row so you can't fully deploy your battery. We knew we had that last lap and we just said 'we've got to go for it, that last lap, give it everything we've got', and we really did."

With rain expected again on Sunday, Russell has his eyes set on a big result.

"There's no reason we can't do more of the same tomorrow," he added. "Our true pace was probably between P7 and P12 but starting there is going to be so difficult to race, so difficult to follow with the visibility.

"So there's no reason why we can't hold position but equally being realistic that having Hamilton starting behind me, and Perez, all these faster cars, we'll pick our battles right and we've just got to be making the right strategy calls at the right moment."

Russell's been one of 2021's standout performers and the growing feeling in the F1 paddock before the summer break was that he will replace Valtteri Bottas as Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes teammate in 2022.

That decision was expected to be made public ahead of this weekend's race, but Mercedes has held off doing so for now.

In the hours after Russell's performance, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff conceded the decision has in fact been made behind closed doors.

When asked if a decision has already been made, Wolff said: "Yes.

"If it would have been an easy decision we would have made it earlier as we know what we have with Valtteri and we know what we have with George, and both of them deserve being looked after in the best possible way as both of them are part of the family and we hold them up high."

Wolff stopped short of revealing the actual decision, although every indication is that Russell is the man.

Talks are believed to be ongoing around Bottas' future, which may explain the delay. The Finn has been linked with Alfa Romeo and with a return to former team Williams, who gave him his F1 debut in 2013.