Vettel Wins a Dogged Duel at Spa Francorchamps Ahead of Hamilton
Hamilton's imperious saga as seen so far in 2018 got a feisty counter-punch by Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel as racing resumed at Spa-Francorchamps after the mid-season halt. Seb Vettel's searing pace proved too good a match for Lewis Hamilton's Silver Arrow, putting his Ferrari right on the top step. The Briton, in stark contrast to his own dominant display in qualifying in a rain-hit affected Saturday, had to settle for a fighting second. That, along with Vettel's 10-second gap was rather dull and vapid.
In the absence of rain (there was not even a single sprinkle) at Spa-Francorchamps, a track suited to overtaking, there was but one car right at the front, the clear front-runner from the opening lap and it was hardly a surprise that it was Vettel's Ferrari.
But this was not before Spa-Francorchamps unveiled an opening lap onslaught. Renault's Nico Hulkenberg triggered the incident by colliding into the rear of Alonso's McLaren, under-braking to send the Spaniard flying into the air in a nearly-deadly skirmish at the back of the grid. On the way, the retiring 'El Nino' also hit Sauber's Charles Leclerc, with the young driver enduring a second DNF in a row after Hungary.
The immediate change in the proceedings meant the deployment of the Virtual Safety Car for four laps, but some drivers went unhurt and others made places ahead, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen jumping up into fifth, closely followed by the Haas of Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen.
Two vital casualties from the opening lap drama were Kimi Raikkonen (who retired after sliding down to seventeenth) a four-time winner at Spa and Ricciardo, in the other Red Bull. Daniel, now damaged (front-wheel) by the mayhem on Lap 1 was forced to contact the rear wheel of car number 77, Bottas. The Finn had begun his Belgium challenge from tenth & got pushed further down to fifteenth. After running a few laps as the VSC departed from the proceedings, the Australian endured a DNF himself.
All this time, Sebastian Vettel who'd begun second, barely half a second behind Lewis Hamilton had found himself a great slipstream in the run down to Eau Rouge. He managed to pass the Mercedes and put himself up into first. From there-on, Vettel would first play the great defender as Hamilton tried pretty much everything to pass the Ferrari. But he soon stretched his legs.
By the time Lap 15 struck on the horizon, Vettel's gap over Hamilton, that had barely been 1.9 secs would extend to over 4 seconds. A few laps later, Hamilton jumped into the pits for fresher rubber, the four-time world champion opting for the softer compound but in so doing, conceding a place to Verstappen, who had been third, having passed the impressive qualifying Ocon earlier.
Vettel would box on Lap 22 and come out marginally ahead of Verstappen, who was being pursued by Hamilton, distraught at having lost track position to this arch-rival and keen to mount a comeback.
From the onset of lap 22 till the checkered flag, one would see a dramatic battle unfold between Seb, aided by the imposing race pace of his Ferrari and a charging Lewis Hamilton who'd find (around Lap 32) that the hitherto-intense two-way battle for lead was Vettel's for the taking. There was no surprise that Coulthard on the commentary suggested that Hamilton had 'thrown in the towel' early given the menacing pace of the Ferrari. The Silver Arrows needed rain for a resurgence, but it wasn't to be.
There were big gains, however, for Max Verstappen who drove home to collect a fighting P3, his debut podium at Spa-Francorchamps, a track where he enjoys grand support, thanks to the cherubic Orange-clad Verstappen fan army.
One of the brightest spots under the dark envelope of the skies at Spa was the magnificent recovery that Mercedes' Valterri Bottas forged. He fought his way through from the back of the field to gain around 11 places, including some excellently controlled moves on Kemmel Straight and Eau Rouge on Perez, Ocon, Hartley and Carlos Sainz Jr.
A big gainer from the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix was newly-named "Racing Point Force India"..Whilst the name change does mean all of "Force-India" points have been taken away, they made a good start to new life. Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez resulting from their impressive fifth and sixth results, gave the team 18 points to nearly tie them with Sauber after only 1 race. Whilst their priorities have now certainly changed for this season with their previous results wiped, it's a welcome reprieve.
As F1 moves to Monza for the next weekend, there's a high possibility for Vettel to settle the score with Hamilton once again, at a track where he previously lost to the triumphant Briton in 2017. But for that to happen, he'd have to produce his A-game from the very top drawer, of the kinds he enthralled fans here in the heart of Belgium. Lewis, on the other hand, would be curious to do a repeat of his imposing 2017 Monza win. Last time there the Silver Arrows won by over 30 seconds!
For now, the season has started again! Lights out and away we go!