Finally the summer break is over as Formula 1 returned to the Ardennes forests for the 13th round on the calendar, the Belgian Grand Prix.
Lots of things happened during the summer break; the shocking news of Daniel Ricciardo moving to Renault next year, Carlos Sainz moving to McLaren and the retirement of Fernando Alonso. Most important though was the news that (formerly) Sahara Force India was saved from bankruptcy by an investor group led by Lance Stroll’s father, Lawrence Stroll. It took until one day before the Grand Prix to really save the team because problems with previous investors meant that the team wasn’t officially allowed to start. FIA gave clearance as the team changed their name to Racing Point Force India. This came with its consequences though, as they lost all their Constructors’ Championship points from the previous 12 races.
The Saturday of the GP started bizarrely as Valtteri Bottas didn’t see Stoffel Vandoorne coming up Kemmel straight just after Raidillon in FP3 which resulted in the Belgian evading the Finn by running onto the wet grass. Vandoorne lost control of his McLaren and just missed the barriers. The incident was noted by the stewards, who only reprimanded the Mercedes driver. It was already a tough weekend for Bottas who started the race from the back of the grid due to his team fitting new parts to his car, which resulted in a grid penalty.
Then the qualifying started. Out of Q1 were Vandoorne, Stroll, Sergey Sirotkin, Alonso and Sainz. During Q2 the clouds came out, but there was still no sign of rain. The five drivers not making it into Q3 were Nico Hülkenberg (who didn’t even get to drive in Q2 due to a grid penalty), Marcus Ericsson, Charles Leclerc, Brendan Hartley and Pierre Gasly. When the lights went green in Q3 all drivers went out on slicks because of potential rainfall. It was at Blanchimont that Bottas showed it was raining hard; spinning out of nowhere at high speeds. Only the Force Indias tried to set a lap on the slicks, which saw a spectacular save by Sergio Perez at Eau Rouge and Raidillon just keeping him from the tyre barriers. Then everyone went out on the intermediates, some fast times were put on the leader boards, but the rain was decreasing near the end of the session. Force India profited from this situation as they spectacularly took P3 and P4, with Romain Grosjean also surprisingly taking P5 and Lewis Hamilton took pole in front of rival Sebastian Vettel.
With a very mixed up grid the race on Sunday was looking to be crazy, which was definitely the case although not as you would expect. The Verstappen grandstand coloured Spa bright orange on race day, just like Max Verstappen’s special helmet for the weekend.
After the five red lights went out it took only a few hundred metres before total chaos ensued. Hülkenberg completely missed his brake zone on the left, causing him to fully lock all of his tyres. He couldn’t do anything to avoid a collision with Alonso in front of him, who got catapulted into the air just over the car of Leclerc. Damage on Leclerc’s Halo showed that Alonso was dangerously close to hitting him. In all this chaos, Alonso hit the rear of Ricciardo’s car who lost a big part of his rear wing. The team could repair the car, but would eventually retired it near the end of the race to safe parts. In a chain reaction it was then Ricciardo who hit the back of Kimi Räikkönen’s car, causing a puncture. After some pit stops the race was over for the Finn as well. On the right side it was Bottas who braked too late as well, but only causing light damage to his front wing.
With all chaos behind them it was Vettel who took the lead from Hamilton after a better exit through Eau Rouge saw him overtaking the Brit on Kemmel straight. Just after his overtake the Safety Car (SC) was brought out to clean up the mess at La Source.
In lap 4 the SC came back into the pits. Hamilton tried to overtake Vettel into the final chicane, which allowed Vettel to pull away because he locked up. This was strange as they weren’t past the SC line yet. Three laps later it was Verstappen who overtook Esteban Ocon for P4, as the Dutchman clearly wanted to impress all the Dutch fans around the track. Meanwhile Bottas was storming through the grid, with a spectacular move at Eau Rouge on Hartley, giving him P13. Just later he also got into P12 when overtaking Sainz. In front it was Hamilton that was initially losing time to Vettel, but as the laps went by he gained more and more, and closed the gap between himself and the German. In lap 9 the other Ferrari driver Räikkönen came into the pits to retire from the race as the damage the car sustained after the manic start was too severe. Verstappen then overtook Perez for P3, leading to big cheers from the crowds who hoped he could finally get a podium at his home Grand Prix.
It was lap 22 when Hamilton went into the pits to fit soft tyres. Vettel responded to his decision by coming into the pits one lap later, also opting for the soft tyre. Vettel came back on track still leading the race with a gap of around two seconds between himself and Hamilton, who overtook Verstappen using DRS on the long straight. Verstappen hadn’t made a pit stop yet so he didn’t defend as aggressively as he usually does.
An interesting fight took place for the last points around lap 27/28 between Ericsson and Hartley. The Toro Rosso driver overtook Ericsson on the Kemmel straight, but the Swedish Sauber driver fought back by going down the inside of Hartley regaining his tenth place. On lap 28 it was Hartley who got his P10 back again by using DRS on the straight but only one lap later it was Ericsson who overtook the Kiwi that very same way again. In lap 31 Ricciardo had to come into the pits to retire his car. There was too much damage to continue and by retiring the car they can fit a new gearbox without any penalties as a result. Bottas, starting in 17th place, got P4 in lap 40 when overtaking Perez.
The race could have been more interesting without the chaos at the start, which meant that five cars retired from the race. There were a few interesting battles from time to time, but overall the gaps between the cars were big.
In the end it was Vettel who took the win, with a struggling Hamilton taking second place. Third place went to Verstappen, who finally got a podium at his ‘home’ Grand Prix. In fourth it was Bottas who really fought his way back into the top but just couldn’t get close to a podium. Force India should be happy with a fifth and sixth place meaning they now have 18 points, moving them into ninth in the Constructors’ Championship. Completing the top ten was Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen, Gasly and Ericsson.
The win for Vettel meant that he gained seven points in the Drivers’ Championship, bringing the gap between himself and Hamilton down to 17 points. Bottas is closing in on Räikkönen, who was unlucky in the race, as he now has 144 points to Kimi’s 146 points. Verstappen has finally passed his teammate in the Championship. The Dutchman has 120 points and Ricciardo has 118 points as his retiring from the race meant he left with zero points.
It’s already race week again with the Italian Grand Prix taking place this weekend. Will Vettel please the Italian Tifosi at Ferrari’s home Grand Prix, or will Hamilton try to extend his lead in the championship?
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool