Sebastian Vettel trimmed Lewis Hamilton’s championship lead to 17 points on Sunday as he steered his Ferrari to a convincing victory in a crash-hit Belgian Grand Prix.
Hamilton, who started from a Belgian record fifth pole position, came home a well-beaten second for Mercedes, having been unable to threaten his German rival, who notched his third win at the majestic Ardennes circuit and Ferrari’s first since 2009.
It was Vettel’s fifth win this season, equalling Hamilton’s tally, and the 52nd of his career, surpassing the 51 of four-time world champion Alain Prost, and achieved with reasonable ease as he came home 11.061 seconds ahead of the Briton.
“More wins than Alain? Whoah,” said Vettel.
“I was lucky with the traffic today and I could see that Lewis eased off for the final 15 laps. I had a great start and as soon as I was ahead I relaxed. It was a very smooth race.”
Vettel cut seven points from Hamilton’s lead going into next weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.
“Congrats to Seb – I did everything I could and we ultimately did well, but he drove past me like I wasn’t even there on the straight, said the British driver.
“They’ve got some trick things going on in that car and we have got to just keep working.” Local hero Belgian-born Dutchman Max Verstappen finished third for Red Bull ahead of Valtteri Bottas, who started from the ninth row of the grid in the second Mercedes, and Sergio Perez in the leading ‘new’ Force India.
Frenchman Esteban Ocon, whose future is uncertain following Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll’s takeover of Force India, came home sixth ahead of another French driver Romain Grosjean and his Haas team-mate Dane Kevin Magnussen.
Red Bull-bound Frenchman Pierre Gasly of Toro Rosso finished ninth ahead of Swede Marcus Ericsson.
The race began with a dramatic first-lap collision involving German Nico Hulkenberg of Renault and the retiring Spaniard Fernando Alonso, whose McLaren was sent spiralling airborne over the halo-fitted cockpit of Monegasque Charles Leclerc’s Sauber.
None of the drivers were injured, but all were forced out of the race, along with Renault-bound Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull and luckless Finn Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari, who had also collided.
Hulkenberg missed his braking point and rammed into Alonso’s car, which flew narrowly over Leclerc’s Sauber, leaving black tyre smudges on his halo protection.
After yesterday’s rain-hit qualifying session, the race began in dry conditions with an air temperature of 17 degrees Celsius, or 62 degrees Fahrenheit and the track at 29, near perfect for spectators and teams.
Hamilton made a clean start and resisted an attack from Vettel at La Source before the opening lap was red-flagged following the accident behind them at the hairpin.
The Safety Car was deployed and stayed out for four laps, but in the immediate aftermath of the crash Hamilton was passed by Vettel who drafted past on the Kemmel Straight to take the lead.
When the race resumed, Vettel resisted an immediate attack from Hamilton and then built a lead of three seconds by lap 14. By then, Verstappen had climbed to third, passing both Force Indias to the delight of an estimated 50,000-strong ‘orange army’ in the crowd.
After trimming Vettel’s lead, Hamilton was the first to pit on lap 22 and switched from super-softs to softs, rejoining third. Ferrari responded by bringing Vettel in and he returned as leader, but with his lead cut ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton.
The defending champion passed the Dutch youngster before Les Combes and then began his chase after the German. As the pit-stops continued, Bottas rose to fifth behind Perez and then, when the Mexican pitted, he was fourth.
At the front, Hamilton eased off to preserve his tyres and allow Vettel to increase his lead of 4.4 seconds, suggesting the Briton was settling for 18 points.
Verstappen who finished 20 seconds behind Hamilton and more than 30 ahead of Bottas
“We stayed out of trouble and it was a bit boring, but I am happy to be on the podium,” the Dutchman said.
“Engine mileage is best kept in the bank for him,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner of Verstappen.