The Belgian Grand Prix: Where it all Turned Around for Hamilton?

October 10, 2017

- Grant Whittington

If you cast your mind back to August 26th, you will probably remember Lewis Hamilton arriving in Belgium as a pale imitation of his usual, confident self. After all, the Englishman had just suffered a surprising defeat in Hungary, as his rival and fellow three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel completed a seamless win to move 14 points clear in the Drivers Championship.

Hamilton’s reflective mood in Belgium was easy to understand, as he had been expected to win at the Hungaroring thanks to his impressive individual record there and the relatively slow nature of the track. The Brit also arrived on the back of a superb win at Silverstone, but despite this he finished more than 12 seconds behind Vettel and even sacrificed a place on the podium by honouring a gentleman’s agreement with teammate Valterri Bottas.

In hindsight, however, the Belgian Grand Prix served as a clear turning point in Hamilton’s fortunes, as the Brit secured an impressive (if nerve-jangling win) at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps to revive his world title tilt. This was the first of three consecutive victories for Hamilton, while his second place finish in Singapore has consolidated this run and helped him to open up a commanding 34-point lead in the Drivers Championship with just four races left.

So how did the Belgian Grand Prix unfold, and what how crucial will it prove in determining the outcome of the title?

Winning in Belgium: A Tipping Point in the Drivers Championship?

Hamilton’s stellar weekend began in qualifying, as he managed to record the fastest lap during all three practice sessions. On a track that allowed him to maximise his natural driving talent and unbridled will to win, the Brit was nearly an entire second faster than Vettel during the first session while he managed to extend this advantage during his second lap. His stunning time of 1:42:553 on the final lap was well over a second quicker than Vettel, who simply could not live with his opponent at any point during the day (despite excelling himself).

This has certainly emerged as a theme during the F1 season, with Hamilton having won an impressive 10 of the 16 pole positions that have been contested to date. This is despite Ferrari’s perceived speed advantage, and much of this is due to Hamilton’s effortless superiority as a driver and ability to thrive in all types of conditions.

Pole position was always likely to be decisive at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, where power and the correct choice of tyres are often the key factors in determining a result. Hamilton definitely leveraged these elements to his advantage, even though the race was a tense and scrappy affair in which the Brit never led second place Vettel by any more than two seconds.

The race quickly evolved into a battle between Hamilton and Vettel, or more specifically the powerful Mercedes and the rapid Ferrari. This contest took a surprising turn after a seemingly innocuous collision between the two Force India drives on the downward slope from La Source to Eau Rouge, however, which prompted the stewards to call in the safety car. This was controversial to say the least, while Hamilton was immediately concerned that Ferrari’s use of ultra-soft tyres would afford Vettel greater grip and help with any overtaking manoeuvres.

Mercedes responded by putting Hamilton on soft tyres, to help him consolidate his position and narrow lead.

As the race resumed for real, however, Hamilton was immediately put under pressure as Vettel moved in behind him and prepared himself to pass up the long and winding Kemmel straight. Fortunately the Brit, who was competing in his 200th race, managed to leverage his unique power advantage of his Mercedes to resist Vettel’s overtures and retain his slender lead. Hamilton then reeled off two consecutive fastest laps to add a further 1.4 seconds to his lead, which enabled him to see out the race in a relatively comfortable manner.

Hamilton ultimately secured the win by just 2.3 seconds, as he took the chequered flag in a time of 1:24:42.820.

The Aftermath: Now and Then

In the immediate aftermath, Hamilton slashed Vettel’s Championship lead in half, moving to within seven points of the summit with a hard-earned win. Beyond this, it also seems to have galvanised and focused the mind of the British driver, who has struggled for more than 18 months with consistency both in terms of his own performance and the Mercedes car.

As for the race itself, this also served as a microcosm of the season. Both the Mercedes and the Ferrari have distinct advantages, with each excelling at different circuits and even during alternative junctures of the same race. The powerful Mercedes definitely held a clear advantage in Belgium, so it was imperative that Hamilton recovered from a disappointing showing in Hungary to cut Vettel’s lead. This seemed even more important with races in Singapore and Malaysia set to follow, as the nature of these tracks seemed ideally suited to the Ferrari model.

The defeat in Belgium seemed to take something out of Vettel, however, who was beaten into third place by Hamilton at Monza before suffering a huge set-back after starting on pole in Singapore. Clearly struggling under the pressure being exerted by Hamilton, Vettel attempted an overly aggressive defensive manoeuvre at the first corner of the Marina Bay Street Circuit, exiting the race while also taking out teammate Kimi Räikkönen. This allowed Hamilton to romp to an unexpected win, as he has continued to extend his lead over Vettel ever since the chequered flag at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

With barely a handful of races remaining, Hamilton’s lead appears to be almost insurmountable, particularly given his own ability and the consistent performance of the Mercedes throughout the season (this was something that plagued the British driver last year). The Brit has also won seven races as opposed to Vettel’s four, and it seems increasingly likely that he will secure his fourth world title ahead of his German rival.

If he does, he will almost certainly look back on Belgium as his most important and decisive victory.

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