If there is a kind of race that Formula One badly needed to turn its fortunes for fans to believe that there is real competition on the circuit and win over new fans, then Sunday’s duel between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at the Belgian Grand Prix has to be it.
Against Vettel, Hamilton came into the race with a 14-point deficit. This is a defining season for Hamilton’s career given the numbers that he is racking up.
The Briton secured his 68th pole position to equal the legendary Michael Schumacher’s feat, the Briton achieving the milestone in his 200th grand prix, 43 fewer than those it took for Schumacher to get to that mark.
The grid at the start of the race was perhaps what we will be getting accustomed to, Hamilton on pole, then Vettel, Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and then the two Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. It was the eighth time that Verstappen had out-qualified Ricciardo this season.
Vettel had pole in his grasp before it was snatched away by Hamilton, nevertheless indicating that the Ferrari had sufficient pace to match the Mercs.
The start of the race was devoid of incidents for the top dogs. McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso was the star of the start, gaining three positions within the first lap to seventh, losing one to Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, then brilliantly getting it back.
The next few laps however were agonising for the former world champion as one by one, he was overtaken by younger drivers with better engine cars. By the fifth lap of the race, the top 12 cars were all running in the positions they started in, except the Force India duo of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez that had traded places in eighth and ninth positions. Verstappen had yet another day to forget as his Red Bull engine gave way on the eighth lap, which led to his sixth retirement in 12 races this year.
On the 12th lap, Hamilton pitted, giving Ferrari no chance of executing the undercut, and the smooth execution by the pit crew only saw him lose three positions, re-joining the race in fourth, behind Raikkonen.
The Ferrari crew had thought that Raikkonen would manage to hold up Hamilton, handing Vettel a golden opportunity to supplant the Merc. That was not to be however as Hamilton made light work of Raikkonen soon after Vettel had made his pitstop.
On the 30th lap, Perez and Ocon came into contact, when Ocon attempted to pass Perez on the run down to Eau Rouge. Perez squeezed Ocon to the wall, and the collision led to a puncture for Perez (and subsequent retirement) with plenty of debris spread on the track. It meant that the safety car came out, and with it, a change of tyres for the top drivers.
Hamilton and Bottas went for softs while Vettel put on ultra softs. Theoretically, this meant that Vettel had faster tyres, 11 laps to the end of the race. Keen to wrap up the race, Hamilton was getting impatient at the safety car’s presence, and even questioned why its driver was so slow.
At the restart, Vettel made an attempt to pass Hamilton, similar to one he had tried on the first lap but despite the Ferrari being side by side with the Merc, Hamilton was able to maintain his position. For almost the entire race, Vettel had stayed less than two seconds behind Hamilton. In a tense race, the German kept the race leader accountable up to the end of the race, finishing 2.358 seconds behind him.
For his effort, Vettel took the fastest lap title, setting a new record, but came out with his 14-point championship lead slashed by half. With this race, Ferrari proved that it’s equally a title contender, while McLaren Honda kept up their consistency of disappointing Alonso, with another non-finish. Ricciardo performed some ‘shoeysh’ magic of his own to end up third. Monza is beckoning.