Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Spa-Francorchamps, 2018

Vettel’s irresistible charge puts Hamilton on alert in title fight

2018 Belgian Grand Prix review

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The rain which fell during Q3 masked it, but this was a weekend of Ferrari domination.

The red cars were quickest in all three practice sessions. They headed the times in Q1 and Q2 as well, albeit by a slender margin over Mercedes. Then in Q3 the rain fell, Lewis Hamilton did his thing and his W09 took pole position by seven-tenths of a second.

But on race day Mercedes couldn’t contain Ferrari the way they had in Hungary. A power unit penalty meant Valtteri Bottas started from the back, depriving Hamilton of one line of defence against the Ferraris.

And Spa’s long, open blasts gave Sebastian Vettel the perfect opportunity to unleash the SF71-H’s remarkable power.

Vettel charges ahead

Esteban Ocon, Force India, Spa-Francorchamps, 2018
Ocon nearly stunned the title contenders
Although he kept his lead from pole position, Hamilton knew he was in trouble when he noticed when he noticed how far behind Vettel was as the accelerated out of Raidillon for the first time. Turning into the headwind on the Kemmel straight, Hamilton knew the Ferrari driver had the perfect run on him.

As they rounded the kink Vettel drew alongside and nosed ahead. Hamilton immediately tucked in behind and picked up the powerful tow Vettel had just enjoyed, and used it to take a look himself. But they were both running out of straight and running out of top speed.

Behind them the Force India pair – whose mere presence on the grid was the biggest story of the weekend – almost pounced on both of them. Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, who’d capitalised on Saturday’s rain to annex the second row of the grid, thundered up behind Hamilton and Vettel, and for a thrilling moment ran four-abreast.

Ocon, who had his nose down the inside of Vettel’s car for the lead, wisely backed out of the move, but lost third place to his team mate by doing so.

Further back a huge crash at La Source brought the Safety Car out. That handed Hamilton the chance to regain his lost lead. And for a moment, it looked like he was going to.

Vettel admitted his restart “was probably one of my worst”. He put his foot down as they approached Blanchimont and Hamilton tracked him as though an invisible cord connected the pair. “It wasn’t really a surprise,” Vettel admitted. “I had a lot of wheel spin so I couldn’t jump him.

“Then I knew that I don’t have anything to fear because he can’t pass me until turn 19.” Hamilton indeed had a look at the inside of the chicane but Vettel braked cleanly on the racing line, kept the position, then measured his speed carefully through the following tight corners to keep Hamilton behind. “I focussed on those two corners: turn 19 exit and turn one and that worked really well.”

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Hulkenberg avoids ban for pile-up

Fernando Alonso, McLaren, Spa-Francorchamps, 2018
Hulkenberg caused carnage
The Safety Car was needed because of an astonishing error by Nico Hulkenberg which ultimately wiped out one-quarter of the field. Having been relegated to the rear of the field by multiple power unit part changes, Hulkenberg admitted he was caught out by how little grip there was running in his rivals’ turbulence.

He braked too late and hit Fernando Alonso hard from behind which launched the McLaren up and over Charles Leclerc’s Sauber. All three were eliminated, and Leclerc became the first F1 driver to feel thankful for the presence of the Halo once he spotted Alonso’s tyre marks on it.

There were two other victim: Alonso hit Daniel Ricciardo’s rear wing, and the Red Bull driver then skidded into Kimi Raikkonen. Both pitted for repairs and although they returned to the track, later retired.

Alonso fumed at Hulkenberg afterwards and the Renault driver was quick to explain his mistake both publicly and to the stewards. The latter issued him with a 10-place grid penalty for Monza.

Six years earlier Romain Grosjean had been banned for one race for a similarly destructive crash, so shouldn’t the same apply to Hulkenberg? FIA race director Charlie Whiting, who can report incidents to the stewards but does not rule on them, offered his view, explaining that the Grosjean incident prompted the creation of the ‘penalty points’ system F1 now uses.

“I think they looked back at the similar tyre of accident in 2012,” he said. “The accident was in fact what gave rise to the penalty points system.”

“I think Grosjean had four different incidents,” Whiting explained. “The idea was if he’d had those accidents at each of the tracks for three points, then that would be quite justified to ban him for the race. So that was the way it was made.”

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Hamilton’s full attack falls short

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Spa-Francorchamps, 2018
Vettel outran Hamilton
Back at the front of the field Hamilton was giving chase as best he could, but the gap between him and Vettel was almost four seconds by lap 14. Hamilton edged it back as far as he could, closing to within 3.2s of the Ferrari, then made for the pits.

The pit stop was clean and Hamilton lit up the track on his fresh tyres, which were worth around two seconds compared to a used set. He set the fastest sector times of the race so far in the final two sectors of his out lap and the first sector of his next lap, but by then Vettel had already come in.

His pit stop was the quickest complete time of the race – a tenth faster than Hamilton’s – so much so that Vettel confessed to being surprised when it was time to go again. Hamilton could have done without catching Verstappen at the end of his out-lap, but it didn’t cost him the lead.

Vettel pulled away again, doubled his gap over Hamilton from 5.2 seconds to 11 in the space of just seven laps towards the end before backing off. “I could see he wasn’t really pushing the last 15 laps, so I could relax a little bit more,” said Vettel.

Hamilton had to take greater care because Mercedes were struggling more with their tyres than Ferrari. “A particular place they really did well today is they didn’t have any blistering,” Hamilton admitted. “The tyres worked really well for them today, [that] definitely wasn’t expected.”

Mercedes’ inability to treat its tyres as well as Ferrari did exacerbated their straight-line speed weakness. “You can see there’s a deficit,” said team principal Toto Wolff. “It’s low-speed, it’s the traction and this is what I would summarise as the main weaknesses at the moment. Today we were, compared to Ferraris and the Red Bulls and Force India, the car that was cooking the tyres the most.”

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Bottas handed meaningless penalty

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Spa-Francorchamps, 2018
Bottas salvaged fourth from the back
A race which had begun spectacularly resolved itself into a procession, albeit it one involving the fastest cars F1 has ever seen on one of the last truly great racing circuits. After Hamilton took the chequered flag in third place, only one more car finished on the same lap in the next 50 seconds: Verstappen.

Bottas rose to finish fourth in spite of committing a similar error to Hulkenberg at the start, albeit less grave. He rear-ended Sergey Sirotkin at turn one and had to pit for a new front wing.

The Hulkenberg incident was later blamed for why the stewards took so long to investigate Bottas, notwithstanding the fact all the drivers involved in the other crash retired and an investigation could be postponed until after the chequered flag. Bottas eventually had five seconds added to his race time.

Had the stewards reacted more quickly, and Bottas had to serve his penalty in the pits, would he have been able to reach fourth place? He made his final pass on Perez on lap 40, and had the five-second gap he needed with two laps to go. But had he taken his penalty sooner he would have been on older rubber when trying to make his moves, and if nothing else it would have been a closer-run thing.

For the most part Bottas was able to blast past defenceless rivals on the extended DRS zone approaching Les Combes with little difficulty. But that didn’t stop him turning on the style when the opportunity presented itself. His side-by-side dive into Eau Rouge alongside Brendon Hartley evoked memories of Mark Webber’s move on Fernando Alonso at the same corner in 2011.

The Force India drivers were surely never going to fight Bottas too hard as, with the team’s points reset to zero, they needed to bank a solid result. This they delivered, with Perez a fine fifth ahead of Ocon. In the ‘best of the rest’ class, this was an emphatic one-two.

They were followed home by the Haas pair, Kevin Magnussen flying on his soft tyres behind Romain Grosjean. Pierre Gasly dodged the first corner chaos and bagged two more points for Toro Rosso, while Marcus Ericsson’s 10th for Sauber ensured they stay ahead of Force India for the time being at least.

There was no reward for soon-to-be-ex-Renault driver Carlos Sainz Jnr despite climbing eight places after dropping to the back of the grid due to an engine change.

Vettel passes Prost

Vettel returned from the summer break in the best way possible by scoring the 52nd win of his career. He has now surpassed Alain Prost’s former record tally of 51, making him the third most successful F1 driver of all time in terms of victories.

Is he also on course to surpass Prost’s tally of four world championship titles? With he and Hamilton occupying the top two positions for the third time in the last four races, and their team mates increasingly looking like support acts, it’s almost inevitable one of them will.

Hamilton’s title lead has been cut to 17 points. If Ferrari’s power advantage is decisive at Monza, and Singapore remains a bogey track for Mercedes, he is in real danger of being unable to stop Vettel taking the lead.

The series now heads to Ferrari’s home race, where Vettel will be looking to cut further into Hamilton’s title lead and give the team its first Italian Grand Prix win since 2010. He may have been ahead in the points standings at this point 12 months ago, but his title hopes arguably look better now than they did then.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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19 comments on “Vettel’s irresistible charge puts Hamilton on alert in title fight”

  1. Nice report with interesting quotes put into context.

    Agree his chances look better than last year even if the points say otherwise, but can’t help but think the Ferrari tactical errors will prove to be decisive. We all saw the usual mid race blunder not coming in first and almost losing the lead even if everyone saw Hamilton blistering and knew he was bound to come in within a few laps, but the panic of qualifying was even more worrying and cost their protagonist a possible 3 points (6 in reality) as Raikkonen was properly fast at Spa this time and could easily have been ahead of Hamilton as well.

    1. @balue not pitting first was far from a blunder, it was by far the best thing to do. It was also according to plan. Get a lead that prevents undercut, defend that lead, pit one lap after Hamilton.
      Pitting first in this situation would not have been smart. First and foremost, it wasn’t needed given the sufficient advantage. But second and more importantly, pitting first makes you vulnerable for a (virtual) safety car because if there is one and your opponent pits during it, he gets the lead due to the lesser amount of time lost for pitting under (V)SC.
      Good tactic, good execution.

      1. even croft said it… ferrari have to wait lewis to pit so they can see what tires he use

    2. I am actually wondering how much Max cost Lewis because he came out behind Max and probably without Max, Lewis would have been just behind Seb at the pit exit and neck and neck through whole sector 1.

      1. Ultimately, I doubt it would have changed the result, but it would have made the fight between them a lot more interesting as Seb tried to retake the lead from Lewis in his car with less traction.

        Waiting for Lewis to pit first was the absolute right way to go, especially since he was unable to hold on to his tires for as long as Seb. If anything, I was concerned they would do the same thing they’ve done several times this year and last, which is leave Seb or Kimi out for too long to enjoy the advantage. Ferrari botched qualifying badly, but their race execution was excellent.

      2. without the 19 other cars he probably have won.

  2. Those 2012 tyre gremlins STILL lingering…

    Seriously though, in Spain, Merc was class. Was it too cold for them in Spa?

    Can anyone shed any more light as to their issues on the soft tyre?

    1. I only saw visible blistering on the supersofts so I suspect Hamilton / Mercedes through the towel in after the pit stops and just took extra care of the softs in order to make it to the end without dramas.

  3. @mattds Without the super fast pit stop, Ferrari could easily have lost the lead and might never have regained it. The advantage of the undercut on this track was known and the SS was anyway approaching its usable stint length, but as I said, Hamilton was obviously inbound with a lap time push and blistering, even I could see that.

    1. The Ferrari was flying even more on the softs, I would bet Hamilton would be overtaken again in a few laps at most. It’s not like this was a street track where overtaking is almost impossible.

      1. The dirty air generated by these cars is such that Vettel wouldn’t be able to pass Hamilton, had the undercut worked, only if there were to be another safety car. For that to be a possibility the pace difference between the cars would have to be of at least a full second – the difference between the best of the midfield teams and the top 3. That’s why whenever a driver from the top 3 teams starts out of position they know with some degree of confidence that 6th position is pretty much guaranteed, sometimes a podium if there are some favorable circumstances (safety cars, crashes or punctures, etc). Since the difference between the Mercedes and Ferrari is much closer, whoever got in front would always stay ahead. It could well have been Hamilton, had he not botched it after the safety car – he is to blame for that one, not because he suddenly has a much slower car.

      2. @postreader: That is not likely as we have seen previously between evenly matched cars, but if it was the case, even more argument to be first in, as should an unlikely SC happen and Mercedes get the jump after staying out, Ferrari could just go by later. Mercedes would anyway lose seconds lapping on old tyres waiting for the SC to come out.

        1. @balue – It was always the safest option to cover the undercut. Vettel had the race under control at the front during the first stint. He built a big enough gap to cover for the threat of the undercut, even if at Spa its effect is bigger as normal. Granted, he maybe should have added one or two more seconds to ease the pressure on the mechanics, but the pace difference at that stage between Vettel and Hamilton just wasn’t that big. It actually swung in favor of Hamilton, since he cut down the gap in the last couple of laps before pitting.

          If Vettel had come in first and then a safety car went out, Hamilton would have emerged leading. It would have basically settled the result, and we would all be talking about how dumb Ferrari were again. Anticipating the undercut would have been riskier for Vettel, unless he didn’t have anything to lose, only that was certainly not the case.

          Pitting first was something Ferrari used to do last year and at the beginning of this season because at those points they didn’t have the fastest car. They tried to force Mercedes’ hand via strategy, hoping that they would trip over themselves, since it was basically their best shot at upsetting the Mercedes team and fight for victories. The tables have turned and now Mercedes is filling that role.

  4. “After Hamilton took the chequered flag in third place,”
    Yes, of course, we all know what you meant to write but… the problem with all these simple little errors is that, in years to come, when researchers are searching the internet, mistakes like this will be confused with the truth…
    In the meantime I regret to say it gives a rather amateur air to this site…

    1. Or you could have written: “@keithcollantine you have a typo there”

  5. Monza is not a given for Ferrari. I was a little surprised to see Mercedes faster in Q2, constantly.
    Let’s see….

    1. You mean Sector 2? The part of the track that ISN’T all about power and traction?

  6. Vettel’s irresistible charm puts Hamilton on alert.

  7. /RANT
    Lap 11

    Lap 44

    Yup! Another fantastic day of F1 racing. This is pathetic. It’s almost scripted. It’s got to the point the gossip is more interesting than the racing. The same idiots keep crashing and ruining the races of world champions. No matter how often these guys crash they still don’t understand the basic principle that you don’t win a race from mid-field on the first lap.

    The thing humans say that I hate the most is: “It’s always been like that.” Imagine how little progress we would see in tech if intelligent people took that to heart. Wait! Maybe we’d have F1 cars that can pass each other.

    Too few teams rule the game. The FIA (wait a minute – Jean Todt – now I get it) is too wishy washy to do what’s right for the sport (drastic budget cuts) because they think that the two or three top teams leaving would be a disaster. Sorry, it would be a breath of fresh air. Let Ferrari and Merc leave. It doesn’t matter to me or to them. They will still sell all the cars they can build. Red Bull is involved in not many sporting activities fans would probably soon forget they were in F1. Money and ego is one of the worst combinations.

    I most likely wouldn’t think this if there was a lineup of hopefuls waiting to get into F1. But there isn’t. Its too damned expensive. F1 only exists for itself. Teams should be able to come in without the support of some other team.

    I don’t care if ‘It’s always been like that.’ It hasn’t, but let’s pretend.

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