Feature: Conclusions from the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel kickstarted the second half of the Formula 1 season with an emphatic victory at Spa-Francorchamps, ahead of title rival Lewis Hamilton. Motorsport Week presents its conclusions from the Belgian Grand Prix.

Vettel, Ferrari Make Up for 2017, Recent Setbacks

Sebastian Vettel should have won in Belgium 12 months ago but was flummoxed by Lewis Hamilton’s inch-perfect defending. He should have won in Germany but threw it off the road in the wet. And he should have won in Hungary but for the wet qualifying session and a strategic setback. Vettel exorcised the demons of last year and the pre-summer pair of races by profiting from Mercedes’ weaknesses (traction, tyres, engine deficit) and perfecting the first few seconds that ultimately defined the Grand Prix. Vettel was in cruise control for much of the race and captured a win that reduces Lewis Hamilton’s points advantage from 24 to 17 as Ferrari gets set for its high-pressured home Grand Prix. 

Back on form? Ferrari dominated on Sunday

“I got it done and I was like ‘YES!’ inside the car and then it was Safety Car and I was like ‘NO!’ because obviously it means it’s the other way around,” said Vettel on his move. “The restart was probably one of my worst ones in terms of surprise because it wasn’t really a surprise and I had a lot of wheelspin so I couldn’t jump him. Then I knew that I don’t have anything to fear because he can’t pass me until Turn 19 so I focused on those two corners - Turn 19 exit and Turn 1 - and that worked really well.”

It marked Ferrari’s (Vettel’s) fifth win of the year, already matching last year’s tally, and the number could be much higher, emphasising the improvements the team has made. “We had our deficits last year, I think we had a car that worked really well on twisty tracks where a lot of downforce was required,” he said. “But we were missing out on tracks where the car needs to be more efficient like here, like Silverstone usually and a couple of other tracks. This year the car seems to be more robust in that regard and seems to work everywhere. Needless to say we improved the package as well - the power unit - so on all fronts I think we’ve done a step forward.”

Call my Bluff

Hamilton was able to finish second to maintain his lead

Mercedes should not have won in Germany or Hungary, but did so through maximising its potential, opportunistic brilliance, and a healthy dose of fortune. It warned at the time that its victories were not purely reflective of the pecking order and the outcome of the Belgian Grand Prix proved that its caution was justified. Hamilton conceded that Vettel’s move on the opening lap was “no surprise” as the combination of Mercedes’ relatively poorer traction and Ferrari’s stronger engine had an obvious outcome. The differences were laid bare once again at the post-Safety Car restart – when Vettel bolted clear – while the blistering on Hamilton’s tyre also pointed to another department in which Mercedes has to make gains compared to Ferrari. “Every time we do this press conference everyone’s like ‘who’ do you think is faster, you or Ferrari’, they’ve had some pace, the upper hand on us for some time, the pendulum has swung a bit,” said Hamilton. “Those last two races in particular [Germany and Hungary] we just did a better job with the cards we were dealt with even though they had a better car, pulled a bluff almost, [but there’s] only a certain amount of times you can do that. If you’re playing a deck of cards and you’re bluffing there’s only a certain [number of] times before your opponent realises that. Moving forward we do have performance coming, I’m sure they have performance coming, so I can’t predict what will happen.” Mercedes has not been beaten at Monza since the start of the hybrid era in 2014 – a win on Ferrari’s home ground, in the context of this title battle, could be pivotal. 

Start Crash Another Pro for the Halo

Nine months into the official implementation of the halo and it is somewhat futile to justify the introduction of a device that is here to stay – but it was a case of ‘work in action’ in Belgium amid the violently spectacular collision at La Source. Nico Hulkenberg’s error cannoned his Renault into Fernando Alonso’s McLaren, with the MCL33 pushed over the cockpit area of Charles Leclerc’s Sauber. The black marks on Leclerc’s white halo signalled that the device had done its job, and the slow-motion replayed demonstrated how Alonso’s car bounced onto the system, the right-front tyre lifting and breaking the suspension. 

A close-call for Leclerc at the race start

“I don’t know how it will have ended up without it but looking at it I’m happy it was there,” said Leclerc at his (unusually busy) post-race media session. “I’ve been lucky on this one. Looking at the halo it’s not looking good.” Several other leading luminaries lined up to praise the halo, while Race Director Charlie Whiting commented that it was “slightly speculative” to wonder about the outcome sans halo, but concurred with the general consensus. “It doesn’t take much imagination to think that the tyre marks could have been on Charles’ head,” said Whiting. “It would have been a bit of a miracle if they weren’t had the Halo not been there. There’s a huge extent of the tyre marks, as you’ve all seen I’m sure. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think that that probably would have made contact with his head.” 

Following on from the aerial Formula 2 accident in Barcelona – which left tyre marks on Tadasuke Makino’s halo – it was another positive for the FIA and its hardworking behind-the-scenes team that focuses on safety developments, both the major implementations and the smaller tweaks that go almost unnoticed. 

Force Races to Make a Point

On Thursday machinations were ongoing behind-the-scenes to ensure that Force India would be able to participate in the Belgian Grand Prix. They departed Spa-Francorchamps having locked out row two, battled for the lead, and taken a haul of points that already leaves them within reach of Sauber and Toro Rosso. 

Force India were on a charge in Belgium

The process that resulted in Force India getting excluded from the Constructors’ Championship was as convoluted as it was unprecedented, and while the loss of points was undoubtedly a blow, it was better to have that than the team not existing. And as for the name? Who cares if it’s silly. It’ll be on the to-do list for the future, but not quite yet. 

On-track the VJM11s were rapid throughout the weekend, comfortably leading the midfield charge, even if Esteban Ocon’s position in the pecking order was unreflective of this due to a puncture. Both drivers made Q3 and the slicks-in-the-wet gamble was undoubtedly one worth taking given Spa-Francorchamps’ fickle climate, and it provided one of the saves of the century when Sergio Perez slid wide through the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex. Come the start and the sight of the Pink Panthers trying to dart either side of leaders Vettel and Hamilton was a proper soul-stirring moment (and internally most fans were surely thinking “YES! COME ON, GO FOR IT), even if the duo wisely backed off the bag the points – demonstrating the increased maturity of both. Fifth and sixth represented a stunning result and lifts the re-born operation comfortably above Williams in the standings. They’re back – not that they ever went away.

Vandoorne’s Unhappy Homecoming

For drivers their home Grand Prix is supposed to be a buoyant affair, but for Stoffel Vandoorne his weekend was a disaster on-track and he faced pressure off-track amid uncertainty over his future.

Vandoorne could face the door if his results don't improve

The Belgian is an amiable but vanilla figure who has been dealt a rough situation by his circumstances, albeit he has been a complicit figure in a difficult 2018 season. 

Vandoorne arrived at Spa-Francorchamps with McLaren having already confirmed Carlos Sainz Jr. as one of its 2019 drivers and faced the prospect of going up against heavily-favoured reserve Lando Norris in FP1. That Vandoorne suffered a brake problem and a leak in that session only soured his mood further, prompting the catty (and much-needed) comment that if McLaren wants to compare drivers, then they should supply a reliable car. Valtteri Bottas’ unwitting ignorance in FP3 sent Vandoorne into a high-speed spin through Kemmel and he was fortunate to avoid a major accident. In qualifying he was slowest, with McLaren’s slipstreaming tactics backfiring, cementing his position as the slowest driver across all three sessions. Vandoorne started last after McLaren opted to change his engine, and he remained rooted to the rear of the field throughout, losing the train after stopping for Mediums behind the early Safety Car. In a season of misery for both Vandoorne and McLaren this was another appalling low.