It was an intriguing more than action-packed Belgian Grand Prix this year, at the front at least. Lewis Hamilton only relinquished the lead when he pitted on lap 12, and soon got it back. He was imperious, but he wasn’t untouchable.
Could Sebastian Vettel have won?
Hamilton’s title rival in the Ferrari was a constant presence in his mirrors. Starting alongside him on the front row, Vettel got a very good drive out of La Source and up through Eau Rouge, however the straight line speed of the Mercedes and some good positioning kept Lewis in front. The two of them then settled into a cold war, with Vettel sitting around 1.5 seconds behind and looming.
To undercut or not to undercut
With Spa being a massive 7 km long and around a 1:47 lap at the time, the focus of the Hamilton-Vettel battle turned to who would pit first. Would Ferrari bring Vettel in a lap early to try and get a lap in clear air and get the undercut advantage?
In the end, Lewis got the “hammer time” call at the start of lap 12 and was the first to come in for new rubber. The Mercedes crew bolted on some soft tyres a quick stop got Hamilton out into a window, but Vettel also then put his foot down and wore through the ultras he had been protecting.
When Seb came in for his own stop it looked like it would be close, but an unintentional tow from Kimi Raikkonen through Blanchemont pulled Hamilton into a better position and by the time they were through Eau Rouge it was as you were once again.
Thanks to the chaos within the Force India team a safety car came out, allowing some pit stops. Having saved a set of ultrasofts on Saturday, Vettel was able to bolt on the purple-walled rubber while Hamilton was stuck on softs. As the pack slowly formed behind the safety car, Hamilton was struggling to keep the harder rubber up to temperature, and there was a feeling that Vettel was just waiting to pounce once the road Mercedes pulled in and handed the lead back to the racing variety.
Once the safety car did come in Vettel was immediately on the back of Hamilton. Coming out of La Source the traction difference had Vettel right on the gearbox of the Mercedes through Eau Rouge. As they turned onto the Kemmel Straight Vettel had to pull out from the rear wing of Lewis.
Again though, the raw power of the Mercedes shined through. With Vettel having to pull to the outside, Hamilton just had to spot his braking zone and did so perfectly.
The driver battle
Vettel really could have had Hamilton at the restart, the problem was that he was just too close coming out of La Source. It forced him to pull out of the tow very early, and if he had been able to stay there for a few hundred more yards he could have had been in a much better position to fight into Les Combes.
In his post-race interview with David Coulthard, Hamilton said he even lifted slightly between La Source and Eau Rouge to keep Vettel tucked underneath him and force an earlier move.
It was an amazing insight into the masterful race craft of Hamilton, and like a great chess player he was thinking three corners ahead.
Could anyone else have won?
No. Hamilton and Vettel were in a class of their own today. They put their teammates to shame and dominated the demanding ribbon of tarmac that is Spa-Francorchamps. It was a brilliant display of driving prowess from the pair of them, and while I think Vettel and the Ferrari had more pace on the day, Hamilton’s magnificent positioning and impressive mind for racing won the day.
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