Sunday 27 August 2017

Belgian GP Report - Class of two

"This is a snapshot of 2017 - a class of two out front, head-to-head."

Lewis Hamilton won out after an intense race long battle
Photo: Octane Photography
As Martin Brundle noted it is indeed a familiar story for this season. Whatever we seem to muse in advance somehow it pans out to two men and the teams that they lead. Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes; Sebastian Vettel and his Ferrari. So it was at Spa.

In another story of 2017 this Belgian Grand Prix fight rarely was wheel-to-wheel. But it was intense and unrelenting. Any mistake would have decided it there and then. It never came from either

It even perturbed the best of them. "I would not liked to have driven that one," admitted Niki Lauda. "From first to last lap it was flat out, there was no room for anything."

As ever here the start and first long run to Les Combes mattered - poleman Lewis's launch was better than Seb's in second but he still had to cover the inside line at the top of the hill from his foe. But, crucially, he retained first place.

Quickly it became a game for two players, Valtteri Bottas in third was nearly eight seconds away after 11 tours.

Seb however after a lap or so commented contently that he could run with Lewis. "Ferrari were ultimately the quicker car today," Lewis conceded. "I was just able to keep them at bay.

"If the cars were reverted I don't think I would have been able to hold on to Vettel quite as close as he did with me."

Hamilton, crucially, kept his lead at the start
Photo: Octane Photography
But Lewis with track position remained a second or so out of reach, then pitted first to bolt on soft tyres, possibly to run to the end. Seb shadowed his strategy and remained behind after his halt two laps later. That was that?

No. At Spa things aren't often that simple. Plenty mused about a Ferrari roll of strategy dice, as it had a spare set of new ultrasofts for Seb. And it was time-honoured Spa frolics (the Force India pair colliding and Sergio Perez's punctured machine strewing the track with debris - more of that anon) and a resultant safety car period that provided the fork in the road.

It appeared the day might pivot - Lewis took on new softs while Seb indeed bolted on his saved ultrasofts, for an 11 lap sprint to the flag. It resembled potentially the Spanish race in reverse, where Seb like Lewis had led all day in an another frenzied face-off but a late twist - then a Virtual Safety Car - allowed Lewis on softer tyres to reverse the places.

Seb did have his chance so to do, when the safety car was released Lewis looked a sitting duck in the long run to Les Combes, but then the Mercedes stretched clear at the vital moment before the turn. Lewis - again crucially - kept his place.

But there was more to it. "I had power in the wrong setting [before the Bus Stop chicane], so I didn't pull away as I hoped," said Lewis. "Then he was on my tail.

"Going down the straight [to Eau Rogue] I let off the power a little bit as if he was further away he would have had the chance to gain momentum and slipstream past.

"As soon as he pulled out he's facing the full force of the air just as I was and he had no hope! I was really pleased with that move!"

The Spa race quickly became a game for two players
Photo: Octane Photography
Seb noticed Lewis's tactic. "I was fearing that I wasn't close enough but I was too close so at the top of the hill I had to go out and then it was a drag race.

“But it was good fun."

We underestimate Lewis's ability to use his loaf. The plaudits didn't end there. "Lewis. His braking at Les Combes, at the re-start, on cold-ish softs, under massive pressure, was as good as you'll ever see in our sport," added Peter Windsor.

For Seb the chance never came again. Neither relented to the flag, but Lewis remained more than a second to the good, and won.

"It was a really good weekend," said Lewis. "Sebastian put up a great fight but this is what I said I was going to do and I did it."

"It was good fun and it was really intense," Seb concurred.

"Every lap I was waiting for Lewis to do a mistake - he didn't. He was probably waiting for me to do a mistake - I didn't.

"It was really close."

The championship points gap is down to seven, and better for Lewis the probability is that Mercedes will now fully back him for the title with Valtteri Bottas (now 41 shy) as a support act. Many say he was wrong to cede his place to Bottas in Hungary, but they might not be appreciating the full picture. The Finn will now be much more willing presumably to aid Lewis than if Lewis had reneged on the deal.

Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have
plenty of reasons for optimism
Photo: Octane Photogrpahy
Seb doesn't have such worries of course, and at a Spa track supposed to clearly favour Merc he still was able to chase Lewis all the way to the flag. He's not going anywhere.

"This is a Mercedes track," said an observing Pat Symonds, "well they've been racing for nearly an hour and a half and there's a second and a half between them, and that to me says it all.

"I really thought the Mercedes could dominate here. They've won but they haven't dominated. I think that's a great sign for Ferrari.

"We've said it's too close to call [for the title], this to me it puts it a little bit in favour of Ferrari."

"I think we had really good pace if you compare this track to Silverstone we did better here," added Seb.

"We've done good steps forward and I'm looking forward to next week [Monza], obviously our home race, so yeah it has been a good day overall."

Lewis meanwhile was wary. "We haven't made any gains or made any changes to the car for lower speed circuits with high downforce," he warned.

"If anyone out there thinks we have the best car this year needs to think again because it's not the case.

Daniel Ricciardo once again scavenged a podium place
Photo: Octane Photography
"There are parts on our car which are better than Ferrari and vice versa, but they do have the upper hand, their car is stronger.

"Singapore, that's really where the test is going to be."

As for the rest, what can you say about Daniel Ricciardo? His team mate may be putting the manners on him in qualifying but you can't fault him in maxing race results. For much of the way he looked clear best of the rest behind the Mercs and Ferraris, but he was able to snatch third in the run to Les Combes after the late safety car, which he kept.

Kimi Raikkonen and Bottas followed him home.

Max Verstappen meanwhile for the nth time retired early with something not his doing - a mechanical failure stopped him after eight laps. You almost expected half the population of the tribunes to leave with him, but to their credit they remained.

Kimi's day was spoiled earlier by getting a 10 second stop-go penalty for not slowing under double waved yellows, when Verstappen was parked at the side of Kemmel straight. It's something said plenty before, that there's little difference between getting hit at 200mph and 195. But that it's been seen plenty before also means Kimi had no excuse for not avoiding a penalty. You can say the extent of the penalty was harsh too, but you can also see why such things are taken seriously.

It was another trying day for Force India
Photo: Octane Photography
At least he had a better day than his old sparring partner Fernando Alonso. He did his bit by getting up to seventh elegantly around the outside of La Source first time through, but it proved a poisoned chalice. Getting mugged on Kemmel was a lap-by-lap occurrence for a while. He retried grumpy with an engine problem at mid distance.

And it was a much better day than Force India's. The trouble brewing between its pilots since Canada and stirred in Baku and Hungary culminated here. Esteban Ocon attacked his team mate out of La Source, Perez pinched him into the wall. In the resultant collision Ocon damaged his front wing and Perez punctured (they'd already collided on lap one but that was more one of those things). Ocon already was in a bad mood as he wondered as lead car why Perez was just allowed to pit first.

Once again it cost the team; Ocon's ninth was its meagre takeout on a day it should have had a hefty double points haul. Simmering chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer spoke of team orders in future.

Williams by contrast managed to reverse its slide. It had a woeful time on Friday and Saturday but Felipe Massa was able to stay out of trouble to bag eighth place.

Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean showed typical class in getting sixth and seventh; Carlos Sainz completed the scorers.

But as is often the case this season it was shadowed by what was happening at the front. That fight, in many ways, got a bit more intriguing today.

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