The history books may show the 2017 Belgian Grand Prix as an assured, never-in-doubt, lights-to-flag race win for Lewis Hamilton, but actually, it was an example of a race in which the leader was required to be utterly faultless in order to claim victory – and therein lies the intensity.
You could argue that the race was won in qualifying, with Hamilton achieving a record-equalling sixty-eighth pole-position, but at the mighty Spa-Francochamps a multitude of variables – unpredictable weather, crashes, etc. – can render a well-earned starting position worthless.
As it was, Spa’s notorious weather was remarkably stable, with the rain saw in Free Practice 2 not returning for the rest of the weekend. Perhaps more remarkable however, was that the leading contenders in Sunday’s race all made it through the tight La Source hairpin on lap one unscathed, the top six all holding position, too.
And so an epic duel at the head of the field began between 2017’s leading men. Sebastian Vettel had his first sniff of the race lead following the long drag from Eau Rouge to Les Combes but the Scuderia Ferrari SF70H ran out of puff at the end of the long Kemmel Straight and Hamilton was able to defend his lead.
From there the pair traded fastest laps and extended a lead over third placed Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen in fourth. That Vettel and Hamilton so convincingly put their team-mates in the shade in Belgium suggests that we’ve reached the point in the season where this era’s two great drivers have elevated each other to a new level of performance as they each stake a claim for the 2017 title.
With both drivers so evenly matched on pace, the gap between them maintained at around the 1.7seconds mark, the battle for the 2017 Belgian Grand Prix would come down to strategy…
It was Hamilton who blinked first, pitting for new soft tyres on lap twelve, eradicating any possibility of Vettel and Ferrari performing any sort of undercut to snatch the lead. Instead, Vettel pitted two laps later, also for soft Pirellis. With a later stopping Raikkonen unable to hold up Hamilton, it was status quo as Vettel once again vainly chased Hamilton for the lead.
But Vettel had a trick up his sleeve in the shape of four, brand new, purple ultra-soft Pirelli’s…but would he stop again, sacrificing the time to change onto them? And would Hamilton bother pitting to cover off any undercut or stay out and hope the laps ran out before Vettel caught him, if indeed he could at all. And could the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team force Vettel into stopping by themselves pulling Bottas in for new tyres and applying pressure on Ferrari’s number one?
Happily, all those decision were made for them by Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon‘s reluctance to stay away from each other…
The Sahara Force India drivers have previous when it comes to crashing in to one another; at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix the pair made contact when Ocon squeezed Perez into the wall on the exit of turn two. That day, the incident cost the team a win at best, a podium at worst. The incident in Belgium may have cost Force India less in terms of points but a greater punishment lingers as team management have not only put a stop to the pair racing each other but have also threatened race bans for either driver should yet more on-track indiscretions occur.
Meanwhile, the resulting safety car, released to clear the debris littering the track from the Force India incident, allowed all runners, including Hamilton and Vettel to pit for fresh tyres. Thus, we had a ten lap shoot-out for the win, Hamilton maintaining track position but Vettel running on fresh rubber two steps softer than Hamilton’s.
The restart was enthralling, as Vettel hounded Hamilton on the exit of La Source and the pair ran as one through the mighty Eau Rouge.
Cue Vettel’s second sniff of the lead.
Once again however, Hamilton positioned his Mercedes perfectly, deploying all of its considerable power and defended his lead faultlessly.
There was, however, much more to how it unfolded than we could see at the time. Hamilton admitted after the race that he was in the wrong power mode at the restart, and that had allowed Vettel to get closer than he would otherwise have been.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, that actually worked against the German, as Vettel implied after the race when he said he was “too close.”
In a stroke of genius Hamilton also opted not to use full throttle in an attempt to keep Vettel stuck behind his rear wing.
“We got into Turn 1, I had very cold tyres, so I had a small lock-up” said Hamilton. “He was on the gas before me, I could hear him.
“And then as we were going down that straight I didn’t keep it full lit the whole way, I was at 90 percent throttle, just to keep him as close as possible. I knew he wasn’t going to come by, because he knows I would overtake him then at the top part with the tow.
“As we were going up Eau Rouge, that’s where I really gave it maximum power. We got to the top and he had no space to really propel himself, so he just pulled out alongside. It was a cool battle, but it was really great to go into Turn 5 having done just enough to stay ahead. I was really happy with that…”
And so Hamilton claimed a sublime victory and with it halved the deficit to Vettel in the championship standings. But most impressive of all was that despite the fierce battle between the two title protagonists and the level at which they have propelled themselves to – not to mention the way both men have figuratively pulled their respective team-mate’s pants down – but that for the duration of a tense Belgian Grand Prix, neither man put a foot wrong.
Elsewhere, Force India may have stolen the headlines for their two on-track incidents – and the post race fall-out on social media – but the crowds at Spa would have been more concerned by yet another retirement for Max Verstappen.
A cylinder failure within the Renault engine made it six retirements from twelve races, a result exacerbated by Daniel Ricciardo‘s ability to pluck great results from average beginnings.
Indeed, Ricciardo’s move around the outside of Bottas at the restart was the move of the race and the fact that the Australian was able to hold off both Raikkonen – who also passed Bottas – and the Mercedes driver until the finish suggests that Red Bull Racing are finally making strides towards the top two teams…if only Verstappen was able to reap the rewards of an improving car.
Behind the battle for the podium in Belgium there were success stories for the likes of Nico Hulkenburg who scored an impressive sixth for the Renault Sport Formula One Team, Romain Grosjean who quietly raced to a solid seventh and Felipe Massa, who turned a disastrous start to a weekend where he crashed in practice on his return from illness, into a points scoring result of eighth for Williams Martini Racing.
But once again, it was the McLaren-Honda Formula One Team who suffered further embarrassment, although the post race debrief may not have been quite as frosty as that at Force India.
With Stoffel Vandoorne suffering from a laughable sixty-five place grid penalty, things could only get better for McLaren in the race, right?
Well, while Vandoorne did at least manage to finish his home race, albeit in fourteenth position, it was yet another “embarrassing” race for Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard bemoaned the ease at which others were breezing by him of Spa’s long straights before retiring the car with an apparent loss of power, although Honda say they could find nothing wrong…was this the first instance of the ultra-determined Alonso giving up? It would be a sad day if that were the case.
Things are unlikely to get any better for McLaren at the next race, the 2017 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. All eyes will be on Ferrari at their home event however, as Sebastian Vettel looks to thrill the passionate tifosi and once again take the fight to Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.