Sebastian Vettel’s commanding win at the Belgian Grand Prix closed the gap to championship leader Lewis Hamilton to 17 points. Ferrari’s new power advantage enabled Vettel to blast past Hamilton’s Mercedes on the opening lap for the lead on the high-speed Kemmel Straight and never look back. The German crossed the line with a convincing 11.061-seconds gap to the current championship leader for his fifth win this season and his third at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.
It was Vettel’s 52nd career Formula One victory, placing him in sole possession of third on the series’ all-time win list, ahead of Alain Prost and behind only Lewis Hamilton (67 wins) and Michael Schumacher (91 wins).
Hamilton held a further 21.7-second margin over Max Verstappen in third place, with Valtteri Bottas battling back to finish fourth from his 17th place on the starting grid to finish fourth.
With the jarring dominance of Vettel’s SF71 straight-line advantage in clear air and at race spec at Spa, and the Italian Grand Prix at Ferrari’s home track at speed-hungry Monza just a week away, this year’s championship is now wide open.
Ferrari seemed a sure bet for pole position in the dry. The Scuderia looked dominant in practice and their pace carried forward into Q1 and Q2. However, the forecasted rain arrived early, turning Q3 into a gamble for the fastest ten drivers, pitting their daring against any reliable grip.
In a matter of minutes, the 4.3-mile Spa track surface went from dry to rain-soaked and back to dry. Those who braved the first lap with heroic efforts were relegated to the tail end of the timing charts as the drivers behind them on the track found the surface rapidly drying to restore speed.
At the flag, the pole went to wet-weather master Lewis Hamilton with a lap of 1:58.179 all of 0.726 seconds faster than runner-up Vettel. Just behind were the two enthusiastic “new” Racing Point-Force India drivers, Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, turning their team’s escape from bankruptcy earlier in the week into a second-row shutout. They were followed by Roman Grosjean (Haas), Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull), Kevin Magnussen (Haas) and Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes).
Spa’s La Source Hairpin is just 270-meters after the starting line and thus a traditional magnet for first lap shunts. Hamilton snatched the lead from Vettel, Ocon and Perez at lights out as the two Haas cars and Verstappen stayed to the inside of the queue. Just behind, Nico Hulkenberg locked both front wheels on his Renault and slammed into the rear of Fernando Alonso, who was launched into the back of – and then over the top of – Charles Leclerc, leaving heavy black tyre marks on the Sauber’s white Halo head protection device on the way down. All three drivers were unharmed despite a collision that could have instantly become horrible.
Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen were also victims of the accident, as Alonso’s flying McLaren sliced Ricciardo’s rear wing off his Red Bull, pushing the Australian into the rear of Raikkonen’s Ferrari. Raikkonen was able to continue after pitting with a puncture but retired a few laps later.
Seconds ahead, upon the Kemmel Straight, a frantic Hamilton received a graphic lesson of Ferrari’s stunning new engine upgrade at speed in clear air and race spec. Vettel trailed Hamilton through Eau Rouge and Raidion and then surprised the nearly 100,000 fans by quickly swallowing the distance to Hamilton’s Mercedes, and in an instant, streamed passed the here-to-fore master of straight-line velocity with speed to spare. Such was the hole in the air that both cars created, the two Force Indias of Ocon and Perez thought about launching a move on Vettel after nearly squeezing past on both sides as the pair rocketed toward the end of the straight to make it four abreast, but backed off before Les Combes.
Then and there, Hamilton ceased to be a factor in Belgium. He saw his Mercedes helpless against this new Red Rocket at full speed and could be forgiven for spending the remainder of the Grand Prix fretting about next week’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza’s “Temple of Speed.”
Hamilton’s only opportunity to scratch out a victory came on Lap 21 at his single pit stop. His Mercedes had blistered its first set of rear tyres, and he pushed hard on his out lap on a new set of softs to pressure Vettel. Indeed, the gap dropped from 3.2-seconds before the pit stop to 1.7 – seconds after. Vettel stopped the next lap for mediums, and had the Scuderia bobbled at all, Hamilton would have taken the lead.
The stop was pure speed, and Vettel re-entered the race with Hamilton trailing Verstappen who hadn’t made his second stop. During an interview after the race, Hamilton admitted that even if he had taken the lead, he was powerless against Vettel’s SF71’s speed.
The remainder of the Grand Prix was a procession, with only Verstappen moving from eighth on the grid to third by Lap 10, but any chance of victory was already long gone. The Dutchman ran a quite and lonely race, resolving to entertain the thousands of travelling Dutch fans who had made the short trip across the Netherlands-Belgium border with his first Spa-Francorchamps podium.
The young Verstappen is still not 21 but he’s now the defacto Red Bull team leader with Ricciardo’s departure for a Renault seat in 2019, and back to an excellent run of form that should make him a threat to take Singapore and perhaps repeat in Mexico.
The Force Indias of Perez and Ocon fell to fifth and sixth by the finish, but the result was still impressive given that the team was in administration on Wednesday. The “new” team had its points wiped off the championship board ahead of the weekend to return to the grid under new ownership in Spa, but Sunday’s bounty of 18 points has moved it up to ninth, just one point behind Sauber. There will be much more to come.
The Haas duo took a solid seventh and eighth finish ahead of Pierre Gasly in the Toro Rosso Honda in ninth and Marcus Ericsson, who scored the final point for Sauber, in tenth.
So it’s game on for Ferrari as they return to Monza and possibly regain the championship lead, all in a week’s time. See you there.