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Can Ferrari finally secure victory at Spa?

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- Ferrari's first front-row lockout since the Bahrain Grand Prix should be followed by its first win of the season... right? The red cars have looked dominant this weekend but you would forgive a Ferrari fan for feeling pessimistic given how the season has gone so far.

Our round-up of qualifying's biggest talking points starts with the two red cars.

Half the job done for Ferrari

A Ferrari will start from pole position for the fourth time this year on Sunday, but based on the team's track record this year there are absolutely no guarantees it will still be at the chequered flag. Ferrari has had an uncanny knack of throwing away shots at victory this year after missing out on clear chances in Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Canada, Austria and Germany in the first half of the season.

As expected, the extra horsepower from Ferrari's power unit gave it a distinct advantage over a single lap at Spa-Francorchamps on Saturday, but the long-run pace from Friday suggests that might not translate the same kind of advantage in the race.

The red cars have had a straight-line speed advantage all year thanks partly to its class-leading engine and partly due to the efficiency of its aerodynamics. On Saturday, it was clear to see the advantage of the Ferrari on the straights as, comparing best sectors with best sectors, Vettel and Leclerc held a 0.4s advantage over the Mercedes cars in sector one and a 0.3s advantage in sector three.

"We knew that it was going to be difficult and probably third and fourth was what we expected as the optimum result," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff told Sky Sports. "I think it could have been second, but if we have a deficit anyway with our package, that is enormous and the power is just ridiculous on Ferrari on these kinds of tracks."

That much is clear from watching side-by-side comparisons of Charles Leclerc's lap and Lewis Hamilton's as the Ferrari gains huge chunks of time on the Mercedes on the straights at the start and end of the lap.

In Sunday's race, however, it is likely to be a different story. Tyre management will be key, and in that respect the extra downforce of the Mercedes could give Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas an advantage. On like-for-like long runs on soft tyres during Friday practice, Hamilton and Bottas held an advantage in the region of 0.7s over Vettel -- putting Leclerc's Saturday advantage in a different light.

Either way, it should be an interesting race as Ferrari's straight-line speed advantage will offer Leclerc and Vettel protection from the Mercedes cars on the straights and into the main overtaking zones.

Leclerc shows his class

Although the focus inevitably switches to the race after qualifying, it's worth savouring that lap from Leclerc. He finished the session over 0.7s clear of teammate Sebastian Vettel -- a massive margin in F1, especially over a teammate.

Leclerc was the only driver among the top two teams who looked happy with his lap after a significant amount of jostling for track position played out on each of the drivers' outlaps. The manoeuvring was down to a desire among all drivers to get a slipstream from the car in front (see below), but on his best lap, Leclerc said he prioritised tyre temperature over a tow.

"At first I really targeted the perfect slipstream on the first run in Q3, but after that, I really felt that the tyres weren't ready for Turn 1 and I actually lost quite a bit of time," he said. "So then for the second run in Q3, I just asked the team to send me whenever the car was ready to be alone, and to try to do the job alone without slipstreams.

"In my opinion, on my car, it felt better to have the tyres in the right window than having a slipstream, so we went as soon as possible."

But looking at Vettel's best sector times, even if the four-time champion had hooked up all three sectors, he still would have been over 0.2s off his teammate. Whichever way you cut it, it was a fantastic lap by Leclerc.

Traffic jams at the Bus Stop

It's rare that you see a Formula One car moving at walking pace on track, but during qualifying you will have noticed a number of occasions in which cars were stuck in slow-moving traffic in the final sector of the lap. So severe was the issue, that at one point it almost spelt disaster for Mercedes as Hamilton nearly went into the back of teammate Bottas as both cars slowed to let Kimi Raikkonen and Kevin Magnussen through on fast laps.

There are no rules dictating the way drivers position themselves on outlaps, but inevitably the teams look to gain the greatest advantage possible from the track conditions and the cars around them. As a basic rule, the later you leave a qualifying lap, the better the track conditions due to more rubber going down on track. And on a circuit like Spa-Francorchamps, there is also a big advantage to be gained on the straights from slipstreaming the car in front.

As a result, teams will release their cars from the pits as late as possible, playing chicken with one another so they are not the car at the front of the queue and the only one without a tow. But more important than anything else is making sure there is enough time to start the lap, which often results in panicked moves on the outlap to make sure a driver beats the countdown to the line and starts his lap.

On Saturday, all the cars managed to cross the line in time, but very few of them did it with their tyres at the right temperature. After the session both Vettel and Hamilton gave interesting insights into why the problem was more of an issue this year than before.

"What we should take from this -- seriously -- is that tyre-wise we shouldn't be so much on the limit," Vettel said. "Obviously you're fighting for a tow and so on but you're also fighting to get into the optimum [tyre temperature] window, which years ago wasn't that critical, whereas now it is.

"So you're fighting for the best spot on the track -- which will hit a peak next week in Monza -- for finding the right tow because it does make a difference, but it has also been part of those type of tracks, let's say. But I feel if we had better tyres we could play with probably a bit more speed and so on."

Hamilton added: "I agree with Seb. Every weekend they put the [tyre] pressures up so high it's crazy, which again makes it a little bit harder for us. The tyres are so hard, so getting them working is difficult, and they're talking about taking [tyre] blankets off for the future, so we'll never get temperature in the tyres if they do that.

"I think this year is definitely the slowest we've been. Today felt a little bit dangerous at one point because we were going round Turn 15 on the kerb and there was a car coming and I couldn't move or I'd go on the grass. I was stuck behind Valtteri and I think the next it was Hulkenberg or whatever.

"I can imagine if I was on a lap and I was coming round that everyone was crawling around at five miles an hour it would be a bit of a worry and a bit of a distraction. So I'm not really sure what we can do to stop it from happening but maybe we have to be on the pit speed limiter or something like that. You shouldn't be able to go five miles an hour or two or whatever we were doing because we were literally going as slow as possible to let people past."

What happened to Albon?

After all the attention on Red Bull's decision to replace Pierre Gasly with Alex Albon over the summer break, we learned very little from the first competitive session with the two drivers at their new teams on Saturday. That was because Albon was carrying an engine penalty into this weekend's Belgian Grand Prix and was due to start from the back of the grid regardless of where he finished in qualifying.

As a result, all of his practice sessions were aimed at understanding the car's performance over a long run and there was no point in unnecessarily putting the car on the limit in qualifying. Meanwhile, Gasly was knocked out in Q1 after both he and Toro Rosso teammate Daniil Kvyat missed out on a chance to set a second lap time due to Antonio Giovinazzi's engine failure cutting the sessions short.

With Gasly starting 14th and Albon 18th on Sunday's penalty-corrected grid, it will be fascinating to see who performs better relative to their machinery.

Mercedes mechanics keep Hamilton in the running

Although he didn't secure a front-row grid position, Hamilton should consider himself lucky he took part in qualifying at all. A big crash at the Fagnes chicane in final practice demolished the front of his car and required his team to completely rebuild the front of his car.

Pushed on why he had the accident, Hamilton said: "You're looking way too deep into it, man. Shit happens. I'm only human.

"I think my track record has been pretty good but it sometimes happens and yes, it's frustrating and it never feels good, whether it's in your first year or if it's in your 13th year whatever, it doesn't really make any difference but you can always learn from it.

"So there's always a silver lining, there's always an opportunity to pick yourself up, to rebuild and there's always an experience with your guys and I think today was a massive challenge for the team.

"I think they did an exceptional job and I'm really happy, generally, with the job that I did in qualifying, so collectively it's a positive. But I go in the back of the garage and I see my broken parts and I'm like 'oh my baby' but they'll fix it, they'll fix those parts hopefully or maybe I'll have to put them up in Toto's office or something and sign it and say sorry."