Lewis Hamilton may have won the Belgian Grand Prix as predicted, but Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel made him work for victory in his 200th race start.
Formula One’s 2017 season of twists and turns resumed at the historic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, which served up a predictably unpredictable race that promised the last eight rounds of the year would go down to the wire.
Mercedes was expected to dominate the weekend after blitzing the British Grand Prix at the similarly profiled Silverstone Circuit, and there was little sign of trouble for the Silver Arrows after qualifying.
Hamilton stole the show on Saturday, and not just because Vettel was unable to match him — the Briton took his 68th career pole position, equalling the all-time Formula One record set by Michael Schumacher.
The record-matching performance was poignant in its timing, coming 25 years since seven-time champion Schumacher made his Formula One debut, as chance would have it at the very same Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
But the emotional pause was short-lived because on Sunday it quickly became obvious that Ferrari was out to trash Hamilton’s perfect weekend.
Hamilton pulled away from the lights, but when he would ordinarily sprint away into the distance Vettel stubbornly clung to his gearbox, never drifting by more than two seconds.
Mercedes rolled the dice with an early pit stop in an attempt to build a gap, but even this failed to shake the German who, if anything, moved only closer in spite of the strategic gamble.
A lap-30 safety car — deployed to clean debris from a crash between Force India teammates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon — intensified the pressure. Hamilton had only a set of the slow soft tyres left to use, whereas Ferrari shod Vettel’s car with a set of the fastest ultrasoft compound.
The safety car restart was fierce. Vettel’s grippier tyres put him within striking distance at turn one, but some cunning defensive driving by Hamilton, who slowed subtly into Eau Rouge to deprive his rival of enough road to execute a pass, saved him his unlikely lead.
The defensive masterstroke won him the race, but Hamilton was painfully aware how close Vettel had come to usurping him.
“While we’ve had a very, very solid well put together weekend, it was only just enough to stay ahead,” Hamilton said. “Ferrari were quicker, so I’m a little bit cautious mentally knowing that we might not be the quickest everywhere up ahead.”
Meanwhile Vettel’s happiness, though mingled with disappointment he was unable to extend his championship lead, spoke volumes of the team’s relief to perform strongly at what had been earmarked as a weak circuit for Ferrari.
“Overall the car was very good,” he said. “We are on the right track, and I don’t think we have a circuit we should fear going [to] from now. I’m very, very happy.”
Before Spa-Francorchamps the circuits remaining were thought to favour the Mercedes car on balance, but a reassessment of the calendar now suggests Ferrari will be either equally quick or quicker at all bar perhaps one: the team’s upcoming home race in Monza, Italy.
The Italian Grand Prix on 3 September is the calendar’s most stringent test of engine performance, a field in which Mercedes still holds an advantage. Ferrari, however, has its final power unit upgrade timed for introduction at the so-called Temple of Speed and will hope even this weakness could be neutralised by the end of the weekend.
The 2017 title is going down to the wire in November, and despite losing the Belgian Grand prix, Ferrari has emerged as the in-form team carrying the momentum.