Daniel Ricciardo claimed his second-consecutive race victory today in Belgium as the inter-team battle at Mercedes reached new heights.
The battles between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have been raging all season, both on and off the track, but today came the first collision, which resulted in a puncture for Hamilton, and the resulting pit stop dropped him to the back of the field.
There was no miraculous comeback for Hamilton today – the damage to the car from the flailing tyre carcass was too great – and a second-place finish for Rosberg meant that his championship lead is now up to a huge 29 points.
Valtteri Bottas grabbed another podium finish for Williams, finishing comfortably ahead of Kimi Räikkönen, collecting his best result of the season.
It was a disappointing race for debutant Andre Lotterer, who completed just one lap before his Caterham gave up the ghost. The bad luck also continued for Lotus, with both Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean retiring with mechanical failures.
The threat of imminent rain loomed in the dark Belgian skies at the start of the race, but the track remained dry throughout. On the grid, all drivers opted for a brand new set of the soft Pirelli tyres, apart from Adrian Sutil, who went for a fresh set of the medium compound.
There was drama for Fernando Alonso at the start of the formation lap, as a few of his engineers failed to get off the grid by the 15-second signal. The Spaniard eventually got away on the parade lap (no doubt thanks to his trespassing pit crew), but his team had earned him a five-second stop/go penalty before the race had even started.
When the race did start, Lewis Hamilton got off the line brilliantly, and beat pole-sitter Nico Rosberg into the first corner. Sebastian Vettel, who started from third, also snuck past his fellow German but, in a botched attempt to overtake Hamilton, soon lost second place back to Rosberg.
The headline clash happened on Lap 2, when Rosberg chanced an overtaking manoeuvre at the end of the Kemmel Straight. It was never going to come off, but Rosberg’s front wing clipped the left-rear tyre of Hamilton’s car and gave the Brit a puncture.
Hamilton limped back to the pits, and emerged on a fresh set of the medium tyres, but down in P19. Rosberg, now the race leader, was missing a large chunk of his front wing and complaining about a lack of front grip. An opportunistic Daniel Ricciardo leaped on a mistake from Vettel and stole second from his team-mate.
Rosberg came in for his first pit stop at the end of Lap 8, and took on a new front wing, in addition to a set of medium tyres. He re-emerged from the pits in fifteenth place.
Once the first round of pit stops were complete, Ricciardo found himself leading the Grand Prix, ahead of Kimi Räikkönen in second and Sebastian Vettel in third.
Rosberg had got himself back up to fourth, and by Lap 16 was starting to apply pressure to Vettel. However, when making a move, he heavily locked his front-left tyre, and eventually lost fourth place to a charging Valtteri Bottas.
Around the midpoint of the race, Hamilton was still someway adrift, rooted down in P16 and struggling with a damaged floor that was caused by the earlier puncture. At one point, Lewis even used team radio to question whether they should retire the car and save the engine, suggesting that he’d had enough for the day.
After the second stops, a slightly out-of-sync Rosberg found himself in second place, just a few seconds behind Daniel Ricciardo, but on tyres that were around eight laps older. Räikkönen was third, and Bottas had overtaken Vettel on track to move up to an impressive fourth place.
Rosberg came in for a third pit stop, nine laps from the end of the race. Rosberg emerged from the pits in third, but was then quickly overtaken by an alert Bottas. He regained the place a few corners later though, and was soon back on the tail of second-place man Räikkönen, who was on an old set of medium tyres and provided little resistance.
Rosberg now had eight laps to chase down the 21-second deficit to Ricciardo. The Australian’s tyres were getting old, and Rosberg began catching him at the rate of around three-seconds per lap. However, he had too much to do, and Ricciardo took victory by a margin of 3.3 seconds.
While this chase was on, Bottas won a battle of the Finns to take third-place from Kimi Räikkönen, and Hamilton finally got his wish to retire, five laps from the end of the race, as his team called him into the pits.
There was plenty of drama at the end of the race in the battle for fifth place. Positions changed throughout the last few laps, with some close and daring overtaking manoeuvres from all parties. Kevin Magnussen fought valiantly to hold onto fifth pace after challenges from team-mate Jenson Button and double world-champion Fernando Alonso, but on the final lap, Sebastian Vettel took that fifth place, Magnussen was sixth, and Button finished seventh ahead of Alonso.