Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton claimed victory at the Belgian Grand Prix to close the gap to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at the top of the Formula One Drivers’ Championship standings to just seven points.
Despite a determined battle, Vettel was forced to settle for second place. Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo who from sixth on the grid to claim the final podium spot ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and the second Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen. The hordes of Dutch fans filling the grandstands in support of Max Verstappen were left disappointed when the Red Bull driver was forced out of the race with a mechanical problem.
At the start Hamilton held P1 when the lights went out and a clean start saw the top six cars exit La Source in grid order, with the Briton being followed by Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen and the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso made an excellent start and picked up three places in the first two laps, rising from P10 on the grid to seventh. However the Spaniard’s time in seventh was shortlived as first Hulkenberg retook his starting position and then Alonso was passed by the Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez. Lap one was the highpoint of the McLaren driver’s afternoon, however. Lacking power he was easily bypassed by rivals and after terse radio messages that it was “embarrassing” the Spaniard told his team to avoid radio contact for the remainder of the race. His pain ended on lap 27, however, when he pulled into the pit lane and retired from the race.
At the front of the field the settled order of the first few laps was disrupted on lap seven. Exiting the Bus Stop chicane, Verstappen cycled through the gears but as he hit sixth he suddenly lost power. As his engineers radioed through possible solutions, Verstappen trundled through Eau Rouge and up to Raidillon but with as the fixes evaporated so to did the Dutchman’s hopes and he pulled over halfway down the Kemmel straight to retire.
Hamilton pitted from the lead at the end of lap 12, taking on soft tyres in a quick, 2.3s stop. That dropped him to fourth place behind Räikkönen and left Vettel in the lead and chasing lap time.
Vettel’s stop eventually came at the end of lap 14 but the German was unable to make an impression on Hamilton’s lead and he once again slotted in just over a second behind his title rival.
Behind him Räikkönen was now chasing Bottas, but his race hopes were dented when he was handed a 10-second stop/go penalty for failing to slow for the yellow flags displayed when Verstappen halted at the side of the track.
The second Red Bull of Ricciardo was just a couple of seconds behind and when Räikkönen took his penalty the Australian moved up to fourth behind Bottas. Räikkönen dropped to sixth, 4.6s behind Hulkenberg.
At the midway point of the race Vettel was an ominous presence in the mirrors of Hamilton and the Briton’s race engineers was telling him to maintain track position as the German appeared to find better pace out of the soft compound Pirelli tyres.
Hamilton responded and extended his lead to 1.7s by lap 28 but the battle was nullified on lap 30 when the two Force India drivers, battling over 10th place collided. Ocon pressured Perez as they exited La Source but the Mexican held firm with his team-mate on the inside. The result was a broken front wing for Ocon, a puncture for Perez and debris across the track.
That brought out the safety car and most of the field pitted for new tyres. Hamilton opted for soft compound Pirellis, but Vettel had a set of ultrasofts in reserve. Bottas was now also on softs, but like Vettel, fifth-placed Ricciardo chose ultrasofts.
When racing resumed Vettel attacked Hamilton as the pair ran down the long Kemmel Straight, but the Briton defended well and just managed to hold off a the German’s determined charge.
Bottas, in the other Mercedes, was not so lucky. He was passed by Ricciardo on the outside on the run towards Les Combes and to make matters worse was also ambushed by Räikkönen, who snuck past down the inside under braking.
Vettel set about trying to find another avenue of attack but Hamilton managed to find more pace and slowly worked a 1.3s advantage with four laps to go. Behind them Ricciardo was also making his position safe, holding a 2.2s lead over Raikkonen lap 42.
And that was how it finisheds with Hamilton holding Vettel at bay to take his fifth win of the season and the 58th of his career. Ricciardo took his sixth podium of the year ahead of Raikkonen while fifth-placed Bottas was left to rue the re-start. Nico Hulkenberg took sixth for Renault ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean and Williams’ Felipe Massa. The last two points places went to Ocon and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz.
Hamilton’s win means he heads to next weekend’s Italian Grand Prix just seven points in arrears to Vettel who leads the title race with 220 points.