The title battle is turned up a notch at Spa-Francorchamps
It was a beautifully poised game of cat and mouse between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel as the race approached its decisive stage. Hamilton had track position, Vettel had a new set of ultra-softs waiting for him in the pitlane, a luxury denied Hamilton who could just not get Vettel out of his undercut range. Approaching what might have been the second pitstops, who dared pull the plug first? If Ferrari pulled Vettel in for the undercut, Mercedes would have left Hamilton out there to one-stop. If Mercedes had pulled the plug (which they were debating, because there were signs that Hamilton’s left-rear was blistering), then Ferrari would have kept Vettel out there for the one-stop. A few seconds behind – ready to pick up the baton as required – were Bottas and Räikkönen. How would it have played? Would we have seen Vettel stopping and closing down a one-stopping Hamilton into the last few laps? Or Hamilton pitting to replace the blistering tyre – in which case Ferrari would have kept Vettel out, leading but being chased down? Or both staying out, with the support drivers then two-stopping to put one of the leaders under pressure?
But it didn’t happen any of those ways – because the Force India drivers clashed terrifyingly, for the second time, on the approach to Eau Rouge. The carbon bodywork/tyre carcass mess left after Sergio Pérez edged Esteban Ocon towards the wall brought out the safety car – and the cat and mouse strategy game was neutralised. It meant Hamilton and Vettel pitted on the same lap, so no undercut. There was still the possibility of a fight, though, as Vettel got those new ultras fitted, with Hamilton obliged to run the two-steps-harder softs. It would all be about the restart lap out of La Source, through Eau Rouge and the long slipstreaming run to Les Combes. Vettel’s tyres would give him better traction out the hairpin, better braking into Les Combes. Furthermore, Hamilton was reporting under-temperature tyres and a glazed brake disc. Safety car in, game on, the pair immediately breaking away from Bottas/Räikkönen/Ricciardo. Out of La Source, Vettel super-tight into Hamilton’s rear wing. Nose-to-tail flat-in-eighth through Eau Rouge, the two combatants for the world title duking it out inches apart at 190mph. Up the rise, over the top and Hamilton hugged the inside line of Kemmel, forcing the Ferrari the long way round….
Hamilton eventually prevailed. But apart from his Schumacher-equalling pole lap, the Ferrari was faster than the Mercedes on a Mercedes track. That’s why Mercedes left Belgium seriously concerned. “It was a win from getting position in qualifying,” avowed Hamilton. “If I wasn’t in the lead I wouldn’t have won; the Ferrari was quicker. It definitely wasn’t done on race pace.”
From La Source hairpin, through the compression rush of Eau Rouge, on up the Kemmel straight. Then later the flat-out run from Paul Frére through Blanchimont and up to the Bus Stop. Combined, those sections see the cars flat in top for almost as long as they take to do a full lap of the Hungaroring. As such, low drag and horsepower are accentuated more than ever. Pre-weekend, that seemed to make Spa a surefire Mercedes track, especially as the Brixworth part of the partnership had brought along an upgraded ers-H for the new engines that were introduced on both cars. Ultimately, that expectation turned out to be true in that a sublime Hamilton lap of controlled aggression secured him his Schumacher-equalling 68th pole position. “The car and the set-up I was able get with my engineers, to achieve the balance, was great. To really be able to lean on the car around this circuit, I’ve never had such a feeling. Pouhon, turn 10, was nearly flat, which is insane.”
As an historical aside, Hamilton’s average over that lap of 152.775mph finally eclipsed the average speed that Chris Amon set on the old 8-mile Spa track in the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix.
But the Merc advantage wasn’t as big as Hamilton’s lap made it look; the Ferrari, despite trailing 6-8km/h along most of the straights, was a pole contender.
Confirming the pattern seen almost everywhere this season, it carries more downforce than the Merc and was dynamite through sector two. Hamilton eventually screwed himself to take Pouhon almost flat-in-eighth on his pole lap (exit speed 302kph/188mph), but the Ferraris had been doing it flat since their new tyre runs on Friday morning. Yes, the best of the new generation of Formula 1 cars are now marginally flat in top through Pouhon, despite carrying skinnier Spa rear wings than last year. Others were using a downshift to seventh upon entry but no touch of the brake. On the slow T14/15 that swings the cars around from the middle sector and points them towards Blanchimont, the Ferraris (and Red Bulls) carried a consistent 2km/h advantage over the Mercs. Everywhere the turns went tight, the Mercs had to slow much more than the Ferraris – and that low-speed downforce advantage was visible in the surety with which the Ferraris braked. To see Räikkönen or Vettel into the downhill braking zone of Rivage and contrasting it to how busy the Merc was keeping Hamilton and Bottas there as they tried not to lock the inner fronts just underlined that.
Furthermore, Pirelli’s adventurous choice here of ultra/super/soft played further to Ferrari. The Merc was always on the cusp of overheating the softer tyres whereas the Ferrari worked any of the compounds well right from the start. The SF70-H featured a new third damper arrangement front and rear, believed to increase the range of rake available, reflecting the development gains being found in the wind tunnel. Keeping the diffuser airflow attached at low speeds (when the rear ride height is at its maximum) will allow the car to carry more rake, increasing its downforce at higher speeds. A new diffuser was part of the upgrade.
It worked beautifully. Räikkönen, always very much at home through this valley’s majestic sweeps, was the faster Ferrari driver right from the start of the weekend all the way up to his final Q3 lap – when he ran wide over the Liege kerb and destroyed his lap. Just as in Hungary, he felt pole had been within his grasp but a crucial error let it slip by. This was the most fantastically lucky break for Vettel. Not only had Kimi spoiled his own lap, but he’d placed himself perfectly to be in a position to give Vettel a fantastic tow from Paul Frére through Blanchimont and up to the Bus Stop. It was worth, reckoned Vettel, about two tenths. Räikkönen thus towed his team-mate to the front row, with a lap just a couple of tenths slower than Hamilton’s. “The car had lacked a bit of response at the front on my first [Q3] lap,” reckoned Seb, “but on my final lap I could feel as soon as I turned into turn one that it was better.”
Räikkönen was demoted a further place by Bottas. Never happy with the car at any point in the weekend, he felt the balance was good but the grip poor and was struggling particularly in the middle sector. He made a big improvement last time through to line up third, albeit still 0.5sec adrift of Hamilton.
Renault power was a little breathless at the top end, leaving Red Bull further adrift of the Merc/Ferrari battle than usual. Verstappen and Ricciardo spent much of practice doing back-to-back comparisons with different wing levels, trying to find a magic compromise that just wasn’t there. Verstappen nailed a beautiful lap just to get within 0.8sec of pole and was comfortably faster than team-mate Ricciardo in sixth.
A second adrift of the Red Bulls, Nico Hülkenberg put the Renault seventh but for most of the weekend and through Q1 and Q2 he’d been out-paced by team-mate Jolyon Palmer, who reported a breakthrough in the feel of his car, which was now of the exact same specification as Hülkenberg’s. It was therefore gutting for him that a gearbox leak prevented him from completing a lap in Q3. A replacement unit cost him five grid places, down to 15th.
Looking ahead to a race day battle with Renault, Force India went extreme in its usual Spa policy of prioritising sectors one and three. Pérez and Ocon, in eighth and ninth, were a full second slower than Renault – all of that deficit incurred in the middle sector – but were vastly faster at the end of the straights.
McLaren was disappointed that Honda wasn’t able to deliver the anticipated Spec 4 engine for here. Some of the updates were present in spec 3.5 and 3.6 versions, with Vandoorne initially using the latter before it needed to be replaced for a 3.5. He was loaded with 65 component and engine change penalties and so would be starting from the back regardless. With this in mind, McLaren concocted a slipstreaming co-operation plan between Vandoorne and Alonso, with Stoffel towing Alonso massively along Kemmel Straight. In Q1 Alonso was able to return the favour on the same lap up to the Bus Stop, helping Vandoorne to a quicker time than his team-mate. In Q2 Vandoorne was there only to provide the tow again and wouldn’t complete a lap of his own. The slipstreaming part of the plan worked perfectly and Alonso was looking good for Q3 qualification until… the algorithm of the Honda’s electrical power deployment became confused through Alonso taking Pouhon flat for the first time. Because he’d not lifted, the system assumed it was on a different part of the track that didn’t require the energy assist. It lost him 0.5sec and he failed to make Q3 by 0.09sec. He wasn’t happy…
The Q2 part of the grid was completed by the Haas’ of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso and Vandoorne, without a time.
Williams failed to get either car out of Q1. Stroll got in only a single lap before suffering damage to a rear wing end plate, believed to have been caused by the extreme vertical standing wave vibration of the rear tyres seen on many of the cars out of slow corners. This left him 18th. Massa got in two runs but neither was good enough to better 16th. The car’s sudden loss of single lap pace is bizarre and not yet fully understood. Massa had crashed his car on his first flying lap of Friday, taking too much inner kerb at turn eight and being spat into the barriers. This put him out for the rest of that day and gave the mechanics (including a guesting Guy Martin!) plenty to do. Massa would also take a five-place grid penalty for failing to slow sufficiently for double waved yellow flags.
Daniil Kvyat was struggling to make up lost track time from power unit problems on his Toro Rosso and was 17th, 0.7sec off Sainz and taking a five-place gearbox penalty. Marcus Ericsson was marginally quicker than Sauber team-mate Pascal Wehrlein.
This closely-matched race was one of key critical moments that decided its destiny. Five of them.
1) lap one to Les Combes
Most of the capacity crowd seemed to be dressed in Holland’s orange on this warm late summer day in the beautiful wooded valley. Those positioned overlooking Les Combes, the end of the 1.4 km uphill straight, would be best-placed to see perhaps the race’s most crucial moment as they arrived there on the first lap. If Hamilton got there first, he had a chance of winning this race. If Vettel managed to use his slipstream on the preceding Kemmel straight to vault ahead, there was every reason to believe he’d edge away out of Hamilton’s reach.
Unusually, there was little incident between the startline and La Source, Hamilton, Vettel, Bottas, Räikkönen, Verstappen and Ricciardo arriving at the first turn in grid formation. Behind them, Hülkenberg’s Renault had been slow away and was pincered by Force Indias – with Alonso going around the outside of them all to run seventh. Hülkenberg, Pérez and Ocon continued to fight out territory on the corner’s exit and down the hill towards Eau Rouge, Pérez – who had forgotten to engage start mode and was now down on power – going to the right of Hülkenberg as Ocon aimed for the gap between his team-mate and the support race pit wall. Pérez moved further right, so Ocon was wedged briefly between Pérez’s sidewalls and the concrete wall, a terrifying plume of rubber smoke in the middle of the 200mph pack. They all scraped through there somehow and into Eau Rouge it was Hulk-Ocon-Pérez, with Sergio later accepting full responsibility for the incident.
Hamilton crested the rise, the Mercedes snapping menacingly as he took plenty of turn four exit kerb, Vettel’s Ferrari hard in his wake. Hamilton made for the right of the track, Vettel hooked behind him, using that hole in the air for all it was worth, knowing these could turn out to be the crucial seconds that won or lost him this race. He flicked out of the tow, the engine in opening lap mode giving him everything it had and for a brief moment he gained on the Merc. But then the silver car’s lower drag and greater power told – and Hamilton was safe. Restricting the Ferrari to his pace through the twists of the middle sector, Hamilton was then able to pull away as they reached the valley floor and headed for Blanchimont. As they arrived at the Bus Stop, the Merc was well out of the Ferrari’s reach. So it would be for the next few laps, the Merc pulling out of Vettel’s grasp at the passing places, Vettel clawing it all back through the middle sector.
Hülkenberg towed his way past Alonso up to the Bus Stop to reclaim seventh. The powerless Honda then left Fernando defenceless on the Kemmel Straight as he was passed on consecutive laps by Ocon, Pérez and Grosjean. “Magnussen is 1.4sec behind,” he was told. “I don’t want to know!” responded the clearly deeply frustrated driver. “Embarrassing,” he said as each car powered past, some not even having the courtesy to use DRS.
2) Tyre usage
“For the moment we can go with him,” reported Vettel after a few laps, as he continued to hover around 1.5sec behind Hamilton. They’d edged steadily away from Bottas (“It was just like it had been all weekend,” reported Valtteri) and Räikkönen (“the car was OK for the first few laps on the ultras but soon I was struggling with the rear and sliding around.”)
As Verstappen accelerated his Red Bull towards Eau Rouge on the eighth lap he lost power. A loss of pressure in a cylinder triggered a sensor that shut the whole thing down. He pulled disconsolately to the side. His mechanical reliability record this year has been truly awful. “Renault are quite aware that its reliability and product isn’t where it should be,” said Christian Horner afterwards. “We’re a paying customer and it’s obviously below par the service we are seeing – the reliability issues, the failures. We pay a hell of a lot of money for the engine. They need to sort it out.” Ricciardo thus inherited fifth, albeit already some way distant of Räikkönen.
Yellow flags were flying adjacent to where Verstappen had pulled off on the Kemmel straight. Räikkönen stayed flat-out through them – reasoning that he could see the Red Bull was stationary and off the track. The FIA stewards took a dim view and he was later served with a 10sec stop/go penalty.
The ultra-soft tyre that most of the field had started with was reckoned good for around 15 laps and as the pitstop windows approached, there was a strategic choice to be made between one and two stops. Those switching to the super-soft would definitely have to stop again, whereas fitting the soft would allow you to keep that choice open. Different cars were better suited to different tyres. The Mercedes, for example, tended to overheat the super-soft and ultra but treated the soft very well. The Ferrari worked well on all three compounds. Hence why Mercedes had not bothered to retain an extra set of ultras through qualifying but Ferrari had – and this was possibly going to be the winning of the race for Vettel. He was still right with Hamilton, who just couldn’t pull the gap required to get himself out of undercut threat. By lap 12 he had pulled a pitstop’s worth of gap over fourth-placed Ricciardo, and Mercedes brought him in to head-off the imminent threat of a Vettel undercut. Bottas was brought in next lap, forcing Ferrari to bring Vettel in from the lead. They were all fitted with the hardest tyre (the soft), giving them the choice of one or two stopping.
Red Bull committed firmly to a two-stop by fitting Ricciardo with super-softs, as did Force India with both Ocon and Pérez. They were each undercut by Hülkenberg’s earlier-stopping Renault. The Haas pair were in early, urged by Magnussen, and switched to the soft, as was Massa who had made good progress from his lowly grid spot and was now running in the wake of Grosjean and Magnussen.
Ferrari kept Räikkönen out leading in the vain hope that he might be able to delay Hamilton as Vettel chased the Mercedes down but such was Kimi’s lack of traction out of La Source on his old tyres that Hamilton was easily able to put a DRS pass on him up the Kemmel straight to retake the lead on lap 15. Only then was Räikkönen brought in. A couple of laps later his 10sec stop/go penalty was confirmed and he was back in, rejoining seventh, behind Ocon. He quickly picked off the Force India and Hülkenberg but was now over 30sec behind Ricciardo’s fourth place.
Up front, the second stint looked much as the first had with Vettel shadowing Hamilton, applying the pressure, trying to make Lewis crack, but without the end-of-straight speed to get by. Bottas was around 7sec back and keeping up rather better on the soft tyre than he had on the ultra. He was more than 20sec clear of Ricciardo, who despite his softer tyres wasn’t lapping any faster than the cars ahead.
3) The Force India situation
Pérez had exited his stop behind the earlier-stopping Haas of Grosjean and had immediately slipstreamed past on the Kemmel straight, but Romain braked late into Les Combes and Sergio took to the run-off, missing out part of the track and emerging ahead. By the letter of the regulations, he should have given the place back but pressed on regardless, anxious not to lose touch with team-mate Ocon ahead. Race control announced he would have 5sec added to his race time. This would come to have a significant bearing on the destiny of the race.
This was a very tricky phase of the race for Hamilton. The Mercedes was overheating even the soft tyres. His engineer would warn him about the creeping temperatures and Hamilton would retort that if he backed off further he’d allow Vettel into his DRS range. He would just have to manage it as best he could, balancing one demand off against the other. But, just as in the first stint, he could not pull out the margin required to get himself out of undercut threat if they were to stop again – and if Hamilton did come in to replace the tyres, then Ferrari would simply keep Vettel out there and the race might be lost for Mercedes. Theoretically, the window for the second stops opened at around lap 25/26, by which time Vettel was still hovering around 1.6/1.7sec behind. It was a tense game of very high speed cat and mouse.
Things were even more tense on the Force India pit wall. Pérez had caught back up to Ocon and with Hülkenberg just ahead of them was on the radio claiming they needed to move Ocon aside as he had better pace and could get after the Renault. Instead, because he had that 5sec penalty, they brought him in for his second stop early, on lap 25. Ocon was brought in next lap and was dismayed to find as he exited the pitlane that his team-mate had undercut ahead of him. “Why did you bring him in first?” he demanded over the radio. The reply that Pérez had a 5sec penalty and that Ocon shouldn’t worry didn’t placate him. They’d exited behind Massa and were quickly chasing the Williams down but racing wheel-to-wheel with each other too. Going in to the 29th lap Ocon was quicker into and through La Source and perfectly placed to use his greater momentum to pass down the hill. Pérez saw him coming and eased right – and just kept coming until there was no more room left. Ocon’s left-front endplate was flicked off by Pérez’s right-rear tyre, puncturing the latter. “What is this guy doing?” raged Ocon over the radio. “That’s twice now!” He later observed they’d been having a good race, “until he tried to kill me – twice.”
Afterwards Pérez was not really repentant. “I think he was a bit too optimistic because there was just no room to make a move. I was covering my line and I expected him to attack after Eau Rouge – he had the whole straight to overtake me. I think we both misjudged the situation and we ruined the race for the team.”
As they both headed for the pits – Ocon for a new nose, Pérez crawling along with his tyre in shreds – and debris littering the track just before the entry to Eau Rouge, the safety car was deployed. This turned the race from what it might have been into something quite different, and although it looked like an unfortunate development for Mercedes – because with everyone effectively forced to take advantage of the safety car to pit for new tyres, it meant Vettel got to use the new ultra softs he’d saved while Hamilton had only new softs – in actual fact it did Mercedes a favour. It got them out of a very tricky decision.
“It was looking like Lewis’ right-rear was developing a blister,” said Toto Wolff, “and we had been monitoring that and deciding whether to come in or not.” Had they done so Vettel would certainly have stayed out. Without the safety car, to have come in would have put Hamilton 18sec behind with, say, 15 laps to go. It would’ve been close, but would his fresher tyres have allowed him to average 1.2sec faster than Vettel in a Ferrari that was looking after its tyres just fine?
Instead, they all circulated line-astern on fresh tyres behind the safety car: Hamilton on softs, Vettel ultras, Bottas (softs), Ricciardo (ultras), Räikkönen (ultras), Hülkenberg (ultras), Grosjean (softs), Massa (ultras), Magnussen (softs), the delayed Ocon (ultras) and Sainz (softs). Just before the safety car, Alonso had been running between Massa and Sainz, getting ever-angrier as cars passed him. “Is there any rain forecast?” he asked. “No,” came the reply. One minute later he reported an ‘engine problem’ and retired…
The safety car circulated for five laps, some time after the debris had been cleared, with Hamilton suspecting a bit of race control manipulation as he struggled to maintain temperatures in his harder compound tyres and reported a glazed brake disc. It came in at the end of the 33rd lap and Hamilton had the pack backed up from Paul Frére as he allowed the safety car to escape. With Vettel shadowing his every move in a Baku-like situation, Hamilton was playing it very canny and finally let rip through Blanchimont. Here was another moment of race-deciding destiny. Vettel, with greater tyre grip for at least the first lap, was going to get a golden opportunity to pass through his superior traction out of La Source. How were he and Hamilton going to play this?
4) Hamilton’s fortunate restart error
Hamilton made a crucial error. “I didn’t have the right power mode. I pulled away initially, but between the chicane and turn one he was catching me. Although it was a mistake in actual fact it worked really well because if I had come out of [La Source] with that gap, he would have had the momentum, being three or four car lengths behind, to really propel and really get a good tow [towards Eau Rouge], and come and slip past me.
“I had very cold tyres, so I had a small lock-up. He was on the gas before me – I could hear him – and then as we were going down the hill I didn’t keep it full lit the whole way, I was at 90 per cent throttle, just to keep him as close as possible. I knew he wasn’t going to come by, because he knows I would overtake him then at the top part with the tow. As we were going up Eau Rouge, that’s where I really gave it maximum power. Got to the top and he had no space to really propel himself.”
Vettel was thus forced into coming out the slipstream very early on the straight, going for the outside as Hamilton left no room on the right. The Ferrari edged slightly ahead, but on the outside, and then its power unit de-rated at its usual place – while the Merc’s kept delivering. So Hamilton stayed ahead.
5) The crucial power de-rate
Mercedes had worked away all weekend at a little tweak to the ers-K mapping. On a normal lap, the electrical energy boost cuts out some way short of the end of Kemmel straight. Keeping it deployed for the last 10 per cent or so of that straight yields hardly any lap time. As it is limited, it’s far better to save it for use where it will deliver greater lap time gain – like the exit of Pouhon, for example. That’s the conventional way of setting up such a system at Spa, and that’s why Vettel’s engine de-rated towards the end of the straight. But Mercedes had a setting that allowed its drivers to override that cut-out at the crucial moment such as this – and that’s why Hamilton’s extra grunt kept coming as Vettel’s ran out. On such details can races be won.
“I am a bit angry at myself,” admitted Vettel later of the way he handled the restart, “because I was probably too close to Lewis out of turn one. I tried to open the gap down Eau Rouge but it’s a difficult compromise. You see the cars coming behind and you know that you need to defend, instead of focusing on attacking.”
The safety car had been great news for Räikkönen, wiping away his 20sec deficit to Ricciardo. And now they were both gaining on Bottas who had suffered terrible traction out of La Source and thereby made himself vulnerable down the Kemmel Straight as both the Ferrari and the Red Bull got a slipstreaming run on him. Räikkönen went for Bottas’ outside, Valtteri moving that way to dissuade him, but in doing so opening a gap to his inside, through which Ricciardo opportunely thrust himself. With Räikkönen passing one side and Ricciardo the other, Bottas was forced to the run-off and merged at the back of the queue, with Ricciardo now third from Räikkönen.
Remarkably, Ricciardo was able to fend off the faster Ferrari for the race’s remaining laps. Just as Hamilton was fending off the faster Ferrari of Vettel right to the end. Those final 14 laps were run at a qualifying level of intensity as Vettel threw everything he had at trying to make Hamilton crack, Lewis soaking up the pressure in the knowledge that his car was faster at the crucial passing places. They pulled out 11sec over Ricciardo in the last 14 laps, but Daniel had yet again conjured a result out of unpromising material, while Räikkönen and Bottas in fourth and fifth were made to look like number twos on the day – and Kimi must surely have been reflecting on that qualifying error.
Hülkenberg delivered Renault a solid sixth, keeping just of reach of Grosjean-Massa-Ocon behind, with Sainz taking a resilient final point. Magnussen had retired from this group shortly after the restart, having flat-spotted his tyres then in avoiding the concertina of cars at the Bus Stop and taking to the escape area.
Hamilton enjoyed the celebrations of his 58th career victory on his 200th Grand Prix. But there was a worrying undercurrent for him. Spa should have been a comfortable Mercedes track. There are others coming up that seem sure to favour Ferrari (Singapore, Malaysia). If Ferrari was actually quicker than Merc at Spa (except in qualifying), then how is he going to win this championship? His team was thinking the same thing and it’s believed that internally the choice has now been made: barring anything unusual, Hamilton is its champion-elect, with Bottas now in support. It’s now a flat-out duke-it-out duel. Just like this race.