The writing was on the wall for Lewis Hamilton from the moment that Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari overtook his Mercedes on the opening lap of the Belgian GP, as if the Silver Arrow was still in its quiver.
They left behind them carnage in the first corner after Nico Hulkenberg made a complete mess of braking for La Source and smashed into the back of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren. That in turn was sent the Spaniard flying over Charles Leclerc’s Sauber in an eerie replay of the mayhem triggered by Romain Grosjean here six years ago.
Nobody was harmed but the halo on the Monegasque’s car bore clear signs of impact where it had done its job of protecting his head.
“Hulkenberg came at 300kmh and hit us,” Alonso said, “then we played bowling with the rest of the grid. It’s difficult to understand how you can miss the braking point so much.”
Not even the intervention of the safety car for the first four laps, as the debris was cleared up, could prevent Vettel from controlling the race thereafter and winning as he pleased, to close down Hamilton’s world championship points lead to 17 points.
The Briton’s expression afterwards was that of a man who knows he can expect the same when the circus heads to Ferrari’s home ground at the superfast Monza next weekend, when Vettel’s wingman Kimi Raikkonen will be hoping for better fortune after suffering damage when Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull was caught by the flying Alonso and pushed into contact with him in the first corner melee.
Vettel was reflective when he was informed that he had just overtaken Alain Prost’s 51 wins, and clearly delighted to be back on top form after the disappointments that befell Ferrari before the summer break.
“I made a great start and knew that I would have my chance going up the hill,” he said. “I timed it well and we were better there this year because we had a bit less wing. The timing was crucial and I managed it perfectly, but then a Force India came as well…”
For a moment at the end of the main straight on that opening lap it looked like third fastest qualified Esteban Ocon might pull off a sensational overtaking move as he ducked from fourth going up the hill and pulled halfway alongside Vettel, on the inside line, as they headed into the braking area for the Les Combes corner. But the young Frenchman decided that discretion was the better part of valour and resisted the temptation to tough things out.
“Once I was ahead,” Vettel continued “I was quite relieved that I had got that done, and then we had the safety car! But I got a very good exit from the last corner on the restart and managed the tailwind while braking for the first corner. Lewis was pushing very hard, but by the second stint I could turn everything down and control the race.
“I think also I was fortunate that most of the traffic I encountered was on the straight where I could pass easily, so I didn’t lose much time. But he was not pushing very much over the last 15 laps. I really enjoyed the race. It’s always fun to drive this track, and in a great car it’s even better.”
Hamilton was philosophical afterwards, having eased off in the final stages to take as little out of his power unit for the races that lie ahead.
“Congratulations to Seb,” he said. “I did everything I could in the race and think we did quite well here this weekend, but he just drove past me like I wasn’t there on the straight.
“On the restart I might have been able to sneak past, but he would just have got me on the straight again. We came here with a pretty good engine upgrade and generally every time we bring one they bring a bigger one. We have known for the last four races or so that they have something that enables them to be quicker on the straights. They’ve got a few tricks on their car, and we just have to work harder.”
Tricks. Was he suggesting trickery?
“Not at all. We all have trick things on our cars, and trick is just a word in racing for special things. Like I said, we just have to work harder to match them.”
After fighting past the Force Indias of fast-starting Sergio Perez and Ocon, which had been the surprise of qualifying on the second row, Max Verstappen had a lonely race to third in front of thousands upon thousands of orange-clad Dutch fans, which made up a little for Ricciardo’s retirement as it made more sense to conserve the Australian’s power unit after he lost two laps having his first-corner damage rectified.
“It was initially a bit chaotic and I had to get past a few cars,” the Dutchman said, “but then I got settled down and did my own race. Third was all I could achieve with the pace that the car had, so I‘m very happy with today.”
After his moment of heroics Ocon fell back and spent the rest of the race chasing after team-mate Perez. Neither could resist Valtteri Bottas’ charge from the back of the grid to fourth in the second Mercedes, but the Finn never got close enough to challenge Verstappen.
But as the pink and white duo finished in strong fifth and sixth places they garnered the first 18 points for the new Racing Point Force India team. That made up for the loss of the 59 points that ‘old’ Force India had to surrender when they went into administration just before the Hungarian GP in August, and only a feisty drive to 10th place by Marcus Ericsson prevented them drawing level with Alfa Romeo Sauber for eighth place overall.
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