Lewis Hamilton closes in on Sebastian Vettel’s lead after Belgian win

Mercedes driver celebrates 200th F1 race by moving to within seven points of championship leader

Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after winning the  Belgian Grand Prix at  Spa-Francorchamps. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after winning the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

 

Lewis Hamilton opened the second half of the Formula One season in the exact way he would have wanted with a win from pole position for Mercedes at the Belgian Grand Prix, beating his world championship rival, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, into second place. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was in third, with the sister Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen fourth and the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas fifth.

It is the three-times world champion’s fifth win of the season, putting him one ahead of Vettel, while crucially his 58th career victory on the occasion of his 200th grand prix has brought him to within seven points of Vettel in the world championship.

After Vettel’s victory at the last round in Hungary, Hamilton’s success continues the sequence of no driver scoring back-to-back wins this season, such has been the ebb and flow of the championship. It was his third win in Spa, having won here in 2010 for McLaren and 2015 for Mercedes.

His run to take pole had been superlative and he followed it with a peerless race. As was the case at Silverstone the Mercedes, designed to be optimised on high-speed tracks with fast corners, was in its element. Hamilton established his lead and barring two occasions when Vettel came at him, could not be caught.

Ominously for Ferrari of the remaining eight races, the majority will be slightly better suited to the Mercedes’ strengths but at least Vettel proved that Ferrari are much closer to their rivals on this type of circuit than they were at the British Grand Prix. The title fight looks like it is guaranteed to go to the wire.

The four front-runners made a clean start in grid order, Vettel stayed in touch with Hamilton on to the Kemmel Straight and had a sniff of a chance of a pass with the slipstream but Hamilton held a defensive line and the lead. Vettel believed he could match the Mercedes pace and in the early stages remained within a second of Hamilton but the pair were in a class of their own out front however. By lap 10 Vettel was still hanging on to Hamilton, 1.6 seconds back but Bottas and Raikkonen in third and fourth were six seconds in arrears.

Hamilton pitted to take the harder soft rubber on lap 13 and his team-mate Bottas came in two laps later but Ferrari chose not to respond, leaving Vettel and Raikkonen out. Hamilton, on fresher rubber, caught Raikkonen quickly and needing to pass him swiftly, did so on the Kemmel Straight, two laps later. Vettel took the soft rubber on lap 16 and emerged once again behind Hamilton.

On lap 17 Raikkonen was given a 10-second stop-go penalty for failing to slow for double yellow flags around Max Verstappen’s car which had come to a halt on the Kemmel Straight. He took the punishment a lap later, demoting him to seventh. Vettel, meanwhile, was very much still with Hamilton, still just 1.3 seconds back on lap 19, with Bottas still in third, seven seconds behind. Vettel could hold the gap but did not look like he could close enough to threaten Hamilton, their lap times almost identical.

Force India’s duelling drivers had a torrid afternoon and a stern debrief waits them, although Sergio Perez is likely to have to answer the more difficult questions. Esteban Ocon was squeezed into the wall by his team-mate Perez going down the hill into Eau Rouge on the opening lap and the pair did came together once again at the same spot on lap 30. This time Perez taking a puncture from the contact and the debris caused the safety car to be deployed.

The leaders all took the chance to pit with Hamilton sticking to the soft rubber but Vettel opting for an unused set of the ultrasoft – the rubber expected to be up to 1.4 seconds a lap faster than the softs. With the tyre advantage at the restart Vettel pulled alongside once more on the Kemmel Straight but Hamilton was again just able to squeeze his nose in front and hold the lead. Ricciardo also picked up third place on the restart after Bottas overcooked it into Les Combes and Raikkonen moved into fourth.

Hamilton had done enough when he was most threatened and with his rubber up to temperature the Ferrari did not get close again. By lap 36 the gap was a familiar 1.4 seconds. Vettel could match the Mercedes but not get close enough to pass. Hamilton held the lead until the chequered flag, taking it with a 2.3 second gap to his rival.

Red Bull’s Ricciardo attempted an alternate strategy, taking the supersoft rubber on his first stop and then gaining a free stop behind the safety car he took the ultrasoft and made the most of it. His third place is the Australian driver’s sixth podium this season.

His team-mate fared less well with Max Verstappen continuing to suffer from bad luck, he retired on lap eight, with a mechanical problem, the sixth time he has failed to finish this season. “Unbelievable. I cant believe this,” the disconsolate Dutch driver told his team.

As always at Spa there were some gripping moments and drama in the pack, not least Alonso’s move to pass Nico Hulkenberg. Going three abreast down the Kemmel Straight with Ocon’s Force India was breathtaking stuff. But the Spaniard was once again dismissive of the power deficit from his Honda engine calling it embarrassing, after a string of intemperate radio messages he retired the car on lap 27, with what he described as a loss of power.

Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg was in sixth; the Haas of Romain Grosjean seventh. Felipe Massa made a strong comeback drive to make eighth from 16th on the grid, Ocon survived to claim ninth and Carlos Sainz Jr was once again in the points for Toro Rosso in 10th.

(Guardian service)

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