Belgian Grand Prix 2018
There was not a sprinkle of rain. There wasn’t a spot of blaring sunlight either. On Sunday, the weather didn’t seem to bother the fastest car on the grid one bit.
Truth be told, it was hardly a surprise to know which that car was. Out here in the wondrous beauty of the Ardennes, the Ferrari wasn’t merely moving about but flying on blistering straight-line speed.
And car no. 5 proved just why the team is called the ‘Prancing Horse.’
In stark contrast to a rather action-packed qualifying session on Saturday, the race was a polarised opposite of the weather-dependent practice run.
An action-packed weekend at Spa-Francorchamps
Ferrari was faster in the drier patches of the track they said. Mercedes would be quicker in the wets, it was told.
But, in the 44-lap contest, none of the trials and tribulations of Saturday’s nervy qualifying mattered a bit.
Under overcast conditions, Sebastian Vettel aced a solid race at Spa-Francorchamps to put Ferrari right on top at the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix. His arch-rival, Lewis Hamilton, who bagged an incredible 78th pole on Saturday could only play catch-up to the German driver, though bagging a vital second.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen notched up his first-ever podium at a track where he enjoyed the maximum fan-base, a special first for a driver who had retired last time around in 2017.
But in bringing up his 52nd overall win, Vettel also brought curtains to Ferrari’s somewhat somnolent form in the past on a track where he’s now tied with Hamilton for three wins apiece, one shy of his teammate, Kimi Raikkonen.
The Prancing Horse last won the Belgian Grand Prix in 2009, when aided by the KRS, Kimi Raikkonen- one of the eventual casualties of Spa-Francorchamps’ opening lap skirmish- passed Giancarlo Fisichella in a domineering move at Eau Rouge.
Big ups for several drivers on the grid
Throwing a fitting reminder to Ferrari’s raw pace back then, there was no denying the Maranello-based car’s dismissive straight-line speed once again as it challenged the Brackley-based outfit for raw-pace.
In the end, Hamilton’s earnest submission, “We did pretty much what we could in these circumstances,” was merely an indication of the challenge that lies ahead for Totto Wolff’s outfit.
Come Monza and one may again witness an enthralling spectacle of Ferrari’s domineering race pace, suited to a track that aids better straight-line speed.
But before the relatively easy win for Sebastian Vettel in the end, there was the massive opening-lap drama. As soon as the five red lights went green, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, locking up under breaking in the run-down to the first turn, a sharp right-hander collided with Fernando Alonso of McLaren.
The high-speed accident tore up Alonso’s car, prompting ‘El Nino’ to further collide with the Sauber of Charles Leclerc. The commotion resulting from this wrecking crew meant that Daniel Ricciardo would get pushed nearly into the tail of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, that ultimately resulted in the Finn getting an opening-lap puncture.
While the likes of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez in Racing Point Force India (now, driving under a British license and currently 1 point behind Toro Rosso in the Constructor’s championship) got a good getaway as did the Williams of Sirotkin and the other Renault of Carlos Sainz in the midfield, there was collateral damage for Raikkonen and later, Ricciardo, both of whom would race-retire owing to mechanical fallouts with their cars.
It didn’t help Kimi that having already begun sixth, a couple of positions ahead of Ricciardo, he’d find himself being drafted right to the end of the pack. Jumping into the pits, twice, he’d eventually wane out as would Ricciardo, after dropping a lap behind those who continued unhurt.
How Vettel dominated the Spa-Francorchamps
That told, it was inside the very opening lap itself that the eventual outcome of the Belgian Grand Prix would change. In the run-up to Eau Rouge, Sebastian Vettel, defending well from third-placed Ocon, managed to get a great slipstream into Hamilton, then the leader, and would pass the Briton to gain the track position.
Perhaps a move that went a tad bit uncelebrated given the opening lap fiasco at the tail-end of the grid, Vettel wouldn’t relent and would keep defending brilliantly from Hamilton in the early stages of the competition, before imposing his superior Ferrari race-pace to win with an iron-fisted triumph.
An early gainer of the Grand Prix was Max Verstappen who immediately jumped into the top five inside the opening lap and kept himself busy for a strong finish, managing his debut podium at Spa-Francorchamps eventually.
But as soon as the Virtual Safety Car descended into its out-lap, four laps after the opening-lap drama, Vettel, defended brilliantly before making Hamilton play cat-and-mouse with his Ferrari, a car that clearly wasn’t in it for the win until the final round of the damp qualifying on Saturday.
On Lap 7, a feisty move from a belligerent Verstappen, who dived into the right of Ocon, resulted in the Dutchman putting himself up into third.
From the onset of Lap 7, some serious recovery was being made by the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, who, at one stage had jumped down to 15 and would immediately begin his comeback. By the time Lap 15 arrived, Bottas had broken into the top ten as Verstappen held on brilliantly onto third.
Hamilton dived into the pits on Lap 22 for a compound change, the Mercedes driver opting for the softer tyre, having begun on the supersofts, arguably for better traction. This would mean him conceding second to Verstappen, then about 14 seconds behind race-leader, Vettel.
Vettel would dive into the pits one lap later and managed to put his Ferrari- thanks to an excellent pit-stop-just ahead of Max, being pursued closely by third-placed Hamilton.
Then, on the Kemmel Straight, Lewis passed Verstappen with great ease and from thereon only one car remained ahead in his sight; the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. The gap between Vettel and Hamilton was then a dainty 1.9 seconds.
It was at this juncture from the onset of Lap 22 to Lap 44 that Spa-Francorchamps would unfurl two parallel narratives. On the one hand, would be Hamilton’s resumption of the pursuit of Ferrari. Given the latter’s dogged pace and unrelenting power (stemming from the newer power unit) it would ultimately seem a wild goose’ chase. On the other hand, Spa-Francorchamps would be about Ocon and Perez defending well until they finally gave up to a faster Mercedes of Bottas.
Some interesting moments, however, came around Lap 29 as the Vettel versus Hamilton show right at the front kept both Ferrari and Mercedes supporters interested, perhaps hoping against hope for Hamilton’s regain of the lead. At around this time, Sauber’s Ericsson passed the Toro Rosso of Brendon Hartley at the hairpin, only to see a brilliant fightback from the Kiwi forged under superior stright-line pace.
On Lap 30, it seemed that Ferrari’s straight-line speed was so much on the higher side that Hamilton nearly threw in the towel. At this time, the gap to Hamilton had grown to 4.8 seconds.
In the final five laps as the top three remained unchanged, Bottas, continuing his impressive recovery finally managed to pass Sergio Peres, who had defended brilliantly for nearly 12 laps. But the gap to Verstappen would be an onerous one for Bottas to close down on.
What lies ahead
Eventually, as Hamilton grew wearier of Vettel’s indomitable pace up at the front, the gap between the German and the Briton grew wider.
As he flew past the checkered flag, Sebastian eventually enjoyed a 10-second gap over Hamilton. Earning a commanding win, moving ahead of Alain Prost, it remains to be seen what the Ferrari versus Mercedes saga can bring next weekend at Monza.
For starters, Hamilton would want to derive strength from his brilliant triumph back in 2017. But there’ll be renewed vigour in the Maranello camp for Vettel to off-set Hamilton’s title advantage even further. Bring on Monza!