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Vettel Strokes It Home At Spa
Graham Read, Formula 1 Correspondent
Ferrari’s victorious Sebastian Vettel waves to the fans on the Spa podium
Formula 1 returned to action this weekend in Belgium following the sport’s now annual summer break to allow team members to spend a little more time with their families and it was Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel who was victorious, taking his third Belgian win and the 52nd of his F1 career.

This race has long been held at the historic Spa Francorchamps track, the longest on the Formula 1 calendar and set deep in the Ardennes countryside not far from the German border. As such, massed ranks of Michael Schumacher fans used to travel to the event to support their hero and these days young Dutch driver Max Verstappen is continuing this trend as tens of thousands of his orange clad supporters made the short journey from Holland.

Runner-up Lewis Hamilton powers his Mercedes through the famous Eau Rouge corner
Spa’s location also means that, although the Grand Prix is usually held in late August, the weather can be very unpredictable, with anything from hot sunshine to significant rain the norm and this year was no different in the final part of qualifying at least.

In Friday’s opening free practice session Vettel topped the time sheets ahead of the Red Bull pedalled by Verstappen and later the same day the other Ferrari, driven by Kimi Räikkönen, was fastest. Ferrari’s strong form continued in final practice the following morning as Vettel and his team-mate were quickest, but rain was to throw a spanner in their works in qualifying.

The two initial parts of the qualifying process were run on a dry track, with both McLaren and Williams cars dropping out in the opening period. However, in the crucial third section to determine the top ten on the grid for the following day’s race rain soon started to fall, forcing teams to pit to switch to intermediate wet weather tyres.

Just two of the thousands of happy Max Verstappen fans from Holland
As the clock ticked down towards zero Vettel held provisional pole position, but as the conditions started to change Lewis Hamilton stole it from his German rival with an excellent final effort. The Force India team, who only recently almost went out of business, judged the conditions well near the end of the session and their drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez were understandably delighted to claim third and fourth places on the grid ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean, Räikkönen and the two Red Bulls.

There was high drama when the red lights went out to signal the start of the Grand Prix and the pack of 20 cars charged the short distance down to the first corner, the tight La Source hairpin. Some drivers were wisely adopting a slightly careful approach, knowing that for any hope of success they had to survive the early skirmishes to complete the 44 lap race. Others though seemed intent on throwing caution to the wind.

The opening section of the iconic Spa Francorchamps circuit in the Ardennes
Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes hit the rear of Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams and Räikkönen’s Ferrari suffered a right rear puncture after being impacted by the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo.

Far more seriously Nico Hülkenberg locked up all four wheels at the opening corner and ploughed his Renault into the back of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren, shunting the latter sideways before the stricken car flew over the top of the Sauber of young Charles Leclerc.

Force India’s Esteban Ocon was delighted with his third place on the grid after qualifying
The incident proved the value of the controversial Halo cockpit protection structures introduced for this year as the Sauber’s Halo ended up showing the results of significant contact from Alonso’s airborne McLaren.

Out front Hamilton initially held off second placed Vettel, but on the long uphill run along the Kemmel Straight the British driver was slipstreamed by the German and the pair plus the two Force India cars arrived almost as one at the following Les Combes righthander.

The stranded cars at La Source triggered a safety car period to facilitate their removal, but the race resumed at full pace at the end of the fourth lap. Hamilton made a slight mistake which was enough to mean he was out of range for a slipstream of his own up the Kemmel Straight past Vettel and from this point on the Ferrari driver controlled the Grand Prix ahead of the Drivers’ Championship leader Hamilton.

By the ninth tour Ferrari had to retire Räikkönen’s damaged car and one lap later Verstappen swept past Perez at Les Combes to take third position. Meanwhile Bottas, who had started down in 17th place on the grid due to penalties for replacement power unit components for his Mercedes car, was steadily making his way through the field.

By lap 21 Hamilton’s left rear tyre had become badly blistered and the Mercedes team pitted him to switch him to fresh Soft specification tyres. Ferrari responded immediately by bringing the leading Vettel in for the same change of tyres.

As the Grand Prix progressed there was a great battle for tenth position between Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber and the Toro Rosso of Brendan Hartley - Sweden versus New Zealand, from which Ericsson was ultimately to emerge on top.

The pattern was well established out front though, with Vettel keeping Hamilton at bay who in turn was comfortably clear of third placed Verstappen, and with four laps remaining Bottas sped past Perez to complete the leading quartet, if over half a minute behind the final podium position. Perez and Ocon rounded out the top six, concluding an excellent weekend for the Force India outfit.

Vettel’s victory reduced Hamilton’s lead in the Drivers’ Championship to 17 points and on the Constructors’ front Mercedes left Spa 15 points clear of Ferrari.

The next race, the Italian Grand Prix, takes place in just a week’s time in Ferrari’s backyard as the F1 drivers battle to master the fastest race of the year around Monza’s iconic Royal Park circuit.

The Scuderia Ferrari team always hopes to impress at its home event in front of a sea of fanatical fans in red and with both titles still very much up for grabs the excitement is already building. If you aren’t fortunate enough to be heading there in a few days’ time, rest assured I will bring you news of all the action shortly after the chequered flag has been waved as this thrilling F1 season continues to progress.

Also by Graham Read...
Mercedes Takes The Constructors’ Title As Hamilton Wins In Brazil
Victory For Verstappen, But A Fifth Title For Hamilton
Räikkönen Wins In Texas As The Title Battle Continues
Britain’s Newest F1 Driver - George Russell
Hamilton Closes In On A Fifth Title
2018 Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix

1 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 1hr23m34.476s
2 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +11.061s
3 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +31.372s
4 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +1m3.605s
5 Sergio Perez (Force India) +1m11.023s
6 Esteban Ocon (Force India) +1m19.520s
7 Romain Grosjean (Haas) +1m25.953s
8 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +1m27.639s
9 Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso) +1m45.862s
10 Marcus Ericsson (Sauber) Lapped
11 Carlos Sainz (Renault) Lapped
12 Sergey Sirotkin (Williams) Lapped
13 Lance Stroll (Williams) Lapped
14 Brendon Hartley (Toro Rosso) Lapped
15 Stoffel Vandoorne (McLaren) Lapped
16 Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) Retired
17 Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari) Retired
18 Charles Leclerc (Sauber) Retired
19 Fernando Alonso (McLaren) Retired
20 Nico Hülkenberg (Renault) Retired

2018 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship (after 13 of 21 Grand Prix)

1 Lewis Hamilton 231
2 Sebastian Vettel 214
3 Kimi Räikkönen 146

2018 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship (after 13 of 21 Grand Prix)

1 Mercedes 375
2 Ferrari 360
3 Red Bull 238

Vettel Strokes It Home At Spa, 27th August 2018, 8:43 AM