Just before the sun rose over the picturesque landscape of the Ardennes forest on the day of the Belgian Grand Prix, the eyes of most of the sporting world were locked on the much-hyped Mayweather vs McGregor boxing match in Las Vegas.
And in many ways, this year’s Formula One championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has resembled that of a boxing megabout, with the two heavyweights trading blows in almost every one of the 11 rounds so far.
As the sport sprang back into action at Spa-Francorchamps following the long summer break, we were given possibly our strongest indication yet that the 2017 drivers’ championship could really go the distance.
Alonso loses patience
With the top three drivers in the championship lining up on the first three places on the grid, all eyes were trained squarely on the front as the field lined up in preparation for the hard charge down to La Source.
As the lights went out, all 20 drivers were extremely well behaved as they sprinted to the tight first turn. It was even-stevens among the front runners, with Hamilton leading from Vettel, with Valtteri Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and the two Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo behind.
Vettel had a good run on Hamilton through Eau Rouge and down the Kemmel Straight, but was unable to offer a serious challenge to the Mercedes into Le Combes and was forced to settle into second place.
Behind, the two Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon were lucky not to cause a massive accident after the two made contact on the run to Eau Rouge. Thankfully, the wheel-to-wheel damage was slight and no damage was done – although it would not be the only incident between the two team mates in the afternoon.
After a good start, Fernando Alonso was right in the thick of the action having jumped up into seventh position by lap two.It wasn’t to be for long, however.
Over the next four laps, Alonso lost a position for every tour he made of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, powerless to defend as Nico Hulkenberg, Esteban Ocon, Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean’s Haas all blasted past the McLaren.
“Embarrassing,” came the characteristicly blunt evaluation from Alonso. It would not get any better for the two-time world champion.
Verstappen’s mechanical curse strikes again
The Belgian Grand Prix may have been Stoffel Vandoorne’s first home race in Formula One, but you would’ve been forgiven for not realising due to the flood of orange-clad Max Verstappen fans that had filled the banks and grandstands around Spa.
But just like the last race that featured a large contingent of excitable Dutch supporters, at the Austrian Grand Prix, the thousands of fans that came out to see their young star in Belgium were again forced to face early disappointment.
Verstappen was running fifth, ahead of team mate Daniel Ricciardo, when the mechanical curse that has plagued him far too often in 2017 struck mercilessly once again as the 19-year-old began his eighth lap of the race.
A sudden loss of power left him facing an all-too-familiar scenario of crawling around the circuit as rivals blasted by, desperately fiddling with controls and settings for a solution that would never come. The Red Bull driver pulled off to the side of the circuit along the Kemmel Straight as if fate were deliberate mocking the Verstappen faithful that lined the bank opposite.
“I’m just very disappointed,” said Verstappen. “Of course because I retired but also because of the fans who buy an expensive ticket to watch the race and then they see me retire after eight laps.
“For a top team, those things can’t happen. Of course in the beginning you can say bad luck, but this is not bad luck any more. It’s just really bad at the moment.”
Raikkonen and Perez fall foul of stewards
While the stricken RB13 had been safely parked off the circuit, double yellow flags were still displayed while marshals removed Verstappen’s car. Kimi Raikkonen, pursuing Bottas’s Mercedes in fourth, kept his foot firmly to the floor along the Kemmel Straight despite the double yellow flags, earning himself a full ten second stop-go penalty.
It was harsh, but also hard to argue against. Raikkonen was incensed. “What do you mean?,” he barked through the radio. “He was on the side of the road?”.
Unfortunately for Raikkonen, the stewards do not take too kindly to any driver going flat out through any double yellow section of track and Ferrari had to bring him in for the excruciating full ten seconds, dropping Raikkonen down to seventh.
By now, the opening round of pit stops was well underway. Sergio Perez had pitted for new super soft tyres and had emerged behind Daniil Kvyat and Romain Grosjean.
With the tremendous straight line speed of the Force India, Perez charged up and scythed through the pair on the Kemmel Straight, but ran wide and Les Combes before rejoining ahead of the Grosjean.
It was an obvious case of a bold, but illegal, overtake. But having not handed the place back to the Haas, the stewards had no choice but to penalise the Force India with a five second time penalty that could have been avoided.
Force India’s team spirit implodes
Back out front, Hamilton and Vettel had both pitted for new soft tyres, with Hamilton retaining the lead of the race. Vettel had not let his rival get away however, with the gap never growing beyond two seconds at any point of the grand prix.
Further back, Fernando Alonso was struggling to figure out a way to make any progress in his McLaren.
Running outside of the points in 12th, Alonso asked the team about the prospect of any rain in the race on lap 25. He was told that there was no rain on the weather radar.
The very next lap, he called in to alert the team to an ‘engine problem’. The team duly brought him in to retire, but, curiously, there was nothing on the team’s data to suggest Alonso’s power unit was experiencing any issues.
“He radioed in with what he thought was a problem with the car,” explained Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa after the race. “Although there was nothing showing in the data, we decided to stop the car as a precaution.”
One team that was about to experience a whole heap of trouble however, was Force India.
On a two stop strategy, Perez and Ocon had both pitted for new super soft tyres and thanks to Perez’s five second time penalty, the two pink cars found themselves on the same part of the circuit, as they always seem to do in 2017.
Ocon tried a move down the outside of his team mate into La Source but Perez covered the inside, with Ocon taking a tighter line on exit to get the power down earlier. The two ran down the hill to Eau Rouge, with Ocon taking to the right of Perez, just like he had done during the opening lap contact.
Perez knew that Ocon was coming and squeezed him to the right, expecting him to back out of the move as the space disappeared against the rapidly approaching inside barrier. He didn’t.
Instead, Ocon was forced to abandon at the last moment, but not before he clipped Perez’s right-rear tyre with his front wing. Perez suffered an almost instantaneous and catastrophic puncture, while a major chunk of Ocon’s front wing end plate flew into the catch fencing and back onto the circuit.
Perez was now cruising back to the pits on three wheels while Ocon was also recovering in need of a new front wing. The team had once again managed to strike themselves with an entirely self-inflicted blow.
Both drivers blamed the other, but it was hard not to feel as though the clash could’ve been entirely avoided had either of the two had been smarter. Instead, chances of a solid double points finish looked as though they were now in pieces on the Spa-Francorchamps tarmac.
Perhaps tellingly, Force India boss Otmar Szafnauer said after the race that the ‘rules of engagement’ between the team mates would now have to change.
Ricciardo snatches third
With so much debris on such a fast approach on the circuit, the Safety Car was deployed. The front runners all piled in for tyres, with Ferrari taking a more aggressive approach by fitting Vettel with ultra softs compared to Hamilton’s softs.
Having kept within reach of Hamilton throughout the first 31 laps, it looked like this could be Vettel’s best opportunity of mounting a serious challenge to Mercedes’s lead of the grand prix.
As the race restarted, Vettel did a superb job of sticking with Hamilton, who wasn’t able to get any kind of jump of the Ferrari behind. But with Vettel closing on the run to Eau Rouge and the Kemmel Straight to follow, Hamilton briefly lifted in an attempt to get Vettel to check up and lose crucial momentum up the hill.
Vettel was still able to stick in the slipstream of the Mercedes and attempt to position himself for a pass at Les Combes, but Hamilton positioned his car perfectly in defence and was able to rebuff the Ferrari’s advances.
Behind the leaders, there was a terrific scrap over the final podium position. Bottas was under intense pressure from Ricciardo’s Red Bull, with Kimi Raikkonen in fifth having made up a lot of lost time under the Safety Car.
Ricciardo timed his run to perfection, using the advntage of the slipstream through Radillion and sweeping around the outside of Bottas down the Kemmel Straight. At the same time, Raikkonen was also in the Mercedes’s tow and took to the inside, leaving Bottas stranded in the middle of the three wide pack.
Ricciardo swept through Les Combes into third, while Bottas took to the escape road after running out of grip and and allowing Raikkonen through as well. In the space of one corner, Bottas had not only seen a potential podium seemingly disappear, he had also been dealt a major blow to his own championship aspirations.
Having been unable to pass Hamilton at the restart, Vettel tried everything he could with his ultra soft tyres to create another opportunity to pass, while Hamilton focused on not making a single mistake and checking off the final nine laps.
Hamilton held on to take his fifth win of 2017, just 2.3s ahead of Vettel to close the Ferrari driver’s advantage in the drivers’ championship to just seven points.Ricciardo took his sixth podium appearance of the season in third, ahead of the two Finns of Raikkonen and Bottas.
The two main contenders for the title may not have exactly traded blows in this round, but Hamilton knew that the race had been a close one.
“The Ferrari was very strong today and they put on a fantastic fight,” he said. “We were both pushing every single lap and there was no room for error or mistake. It is fun to be racing against another team and Sebastian at his best and the car at its best – that’s what racing is all about.”
Vettel may have been frustrated not to have overcome Mercedes in the end, but only because he believed that Ferrari really did have the performance to do so.
“If we had got out in front, I think we had the pace to stay there,” he said.
Behind the front five, Nico Hulkenberg took sixth for Renault, capping off a strong race for the French manufacturer despite Hulkenberg’s virtual invisibility on the world feed for the whole race.
Grosjean took seventh for Haas to ensure that the American team will exceed its points tally from its debut season, while Felipe Massa spared both his and Williams’ blushes after a difficult weekend.
Ocon recovered to finish in ninth – which he later tweeted was despite his team mate ‘trying to kill him’ – with Carlos Sainz Jnr taking the final point for Toro Rosso in tenth.
The summer break may be the one major breather that the ten teams have all season long, but it is also one of the last great opportunities for teams to squeeze extra pace from their cars.
After a long and close battle between Ferrari and Mercedes so far in 2017, the Belgian Grand Prix showed that neither team is likely to have the upper hand for the rest of the season.
As the number of remaining rounds get smaller, those little margins that separate the two on any given weekend are going to become more and more crucial.
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2017 Belgian Grand Prix
- Alonso should have had same penalty as Magnussen – Palmer
- 2017 Belgian Grand Prix team radio transcript
- Top ten pictures from the 2017 Belgian Grand Prix
- Force India expect no more driver clashes
- 2017 Belgian Grand Prix Star Performers
2017 F1 race reviews
- Rosberg denies Hamilton a winning end to his championship year
- Rosberg frustrates Hamilton as Vettel gives hope to Ferrari
- Rosberg gets his revenge as Hamilton holds back
- Hard-fighting Hamilton pounces on Rosberg error to seal third title
- Rosberg’s misfortune brings Hamilton within touching distance of title