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After matching Michael Schumacher’s pole record, a hard-fought win took Hamilton closer to the title
Twenty-five years after Michael Schumacher’s breakthrough victory at Spa-francorchamps, Lewis Hamilton equalled the seven-time champion’s mighty tally of 68 pole positions, before driving to yet another win under colossal pressure from Sebastian Vettel in the final quarter of the race.
Hamilton still has some way to go to surpass Schumacher’s 91 victories, but he was certainly on impressive form, beating last year’s pole time by 4.2s, and soaking up the pressure after a Safetycar period eliminated the advantage he’d built over the opening portion of the race.
QUALIFYING Hamilton was peerless in Q3. Fastest through all three sectors, he set a new track record in the process. While Vettel matched him in the final sector – thanks to a tow from Kimi Räikkönen – he was already just over 0.2s down before entering it. That was good enough for P2, though, since Valtteri Bottas left 0.4s on the table in the middle sector on his fastest lap and was ultimately half a second off his team-mate. Bottas missed the front row, but held onto third place on account of Räikkönen making a mistake on his final run and abandoning the lap in favour of giving Vettel a tow.
Red Bull had tried a low-drag setup on Daniel Ricciardo’s car during Friday practice in an attempt to reach a higher top speed, but found it was too greatly offset by diminished cornering performance – something that Ricciardo likened to driving a Formula 3 car. They rowed back on the changes overnight, but Ricciardo still trailed team-mate Max Verstappen by just over 0.4s in Q3.
Nico Hülkenberg was best-of-the-rest in seventh place behind Verstappen and Ricciardo and ahead of the Force Indias of Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon, a combustible duo who qualified a little over a tenth of a second apart.
“It’s a special day, definitely,” said Hamilton. “I knew it [equalling Schumacher’s record] was on the horizon and I knew at some stage I’d get that 68th pole, but I really hadn’t thought about it very much. I didn’t apply pressure, I was like, ‘It could come soon, it could take a long time,’ but now, being here, it’s an unusual place to be. I remember coming here in 1996, my first grand prix, watching Michael come by out of Turn 1 and the engine just shook my rib cage – it was incredible. And that was when my love for the sport took another step.”
RACE Hamilton made a slightly better getaway than Vettel, but the Ferrari maintained second place into La Source ahead of Bottas, Räikkönen, Verstappen and Ricciardo. Hülkenberg was slow off the line and lost out to both the Force Indias and Fernando Alonso, who rocketed past all three of them.
An outside line into La Source enabled Hülkenberg to claw back the loss to the Force Indias and get alongside them on the run down to Eau Rouge, but Pérez and Ocon were locked in their own battle. A charitable interpretation of what happened next would be to say that Hülkenberg’s presence on the left forced Pérez to edge right, leaving Ocon committed to a diminishing gap – banging his left-hand wheels with Pérez and rubbing the right-hand ones against the wall. This scenario would be revisited later on, when it would have a significant impact on the outcome of the race.
Hamilton coolly held on to the lead up front from Vettel, Bottas, Räikkönen, Verstappen and Ricciardo. Hülkenberg and Alonso duelled for seventh until the Mclaren started to go backwards and then dropped out entirely. Verstappen lost power and brought his Red Bull to a halt on the Kemmel Straight on lap 8, bringing out doublewaved yellow flags that Räikkönen was later judged to have ignored, earning himself a ten-
HARRIED HAMILTON TO LES COMBES, LEWIS KEEPING AHEAD ONLY BECAUSE OF HIS EXQUISITE FEEL FOR THE BOUNDARIES OF GRIP UNDER BRAKING
second stop-go penalty – but only after he became the last of the leading group to pit, on lap 15. This dropped him to seventh place, but events in the second half of the race would fall in his favour.
Räikkönen passed Ocon and Hülkenberg to move into fifth, while Ricciardo, having inherited fourth from his team-mate but having also lost touch with the leading trio during his opening stint on ultrasofts, found his second set of tyres more to his liking and stabilised the gap to the leaders.
When the two Force Indias collided again on the run down to Eau Rouge on lap 29 – Ocon would later accuse his team-mate of trying to kill him – enough detritus was left on the track for Race Control to deploy the Safety Car. Hamilton, whose comfortable lead was eliminated at a stroke, described it as “a BS call”.
Most of the field pitted, and both Ferraris took on the new set of ultrasofts available to them on account of having made only one run during Q2. Hamilton and Bottas, on the only tyres available to them (softs) were therefore vulnerable. On the restart, Vettel harried Hamilton all the way to Les Combes, Lewis keeping ahead only because of his exquisite feel for the boundaries of grip under braking. Bottas, though, lost out to both Ricciardo and Räikkönen, who went either side of him.
Over the remaining tense 11 laps of the race, Vettel gave chase. However, Hamilton’s greater consistency enabled him to stay out of DRS range, stringing the gap out to 1.7s on the final lap, and then crossing the finishing line 2.3 seconds to the good.