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Lewis Hamilton went to the Belgian Grand Prix with a mission, he looked like a man on one all weekend, and he completed it with a much-needed victory from pole position on Sunday.
It was exactly what he needed, but while the satisfaction he gained from it was clear on his face afterwards, so too was the realisation of the difficulty of the battle ahead.
This was no cruise to the flag for Hamilton. He was under intense pressure from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel throughout. He held on, by a whisker, in a race full of deep tension rather than excitement.
The win was crucial. Had Vettel passed Hamiton on either of the two occasions on which the Ferrari got a run on the Mercedes through Eau Rouge and up the long Kemmel straight, Vettel would be heading into Ferrari’s home race in Italy next weekend with a 21-point lead rather than seven. Coming back from that would have been difficult for Hamilton. And he knew it.
But the underlying message of the race for Hamilton and Mercedes was clear. This was a job well done, but a long, hard fight is ahead over the remaining eight races against a rival who arguably looked tougher on Sunday night than at any point so far this season.
A man on a mission
Hamilton had made it abundantly clear from the start of the weekend that he had no intention of going away from Spa-Francorchamps with anything other than his fifth victory of the year.
“I am here for blood, I am here to win and I am here to stay,” he said on Thursday, and that resolution was apparent in his driving from the first session on Friday.
The problem was Ferrari. The narrative this season has been complex and fascinating, and one of the aspects of it is that while the two cars are closely matched in overall performance, their individual characteristics have meant there have tended to be “Ferrari tracks” and “Mercedes tracks”.
Spa, with its long straights and sweeping corners, was very much supposed to fall into the Mercedes category. But it did not work out that way. Yes, Hamilton was fastest in Friday practice over one lap, but the long runs in race trim told a different story. Vettel and Ferrari were flying – half a second clear of Hamilton, whose team-mate Valtteri Bottas was struggling and out of the picture all weekend.
The Mercedes engineers were worried. That Vettel pace looked ominous. And they were right to have their concerns.
Even when Ferrari were one-two in final practice, rival teams said they felt Hamilton would still get pole because of Mercedes’ potent qualifying engine mode, enhanced this weekend by an engine upgrade. And so it proved. But again Vettel was close.
At the start, Hamilton converted his pole into a lead at the first corner, held off Vettel’s inevitable challenge through Eau Rouge and up the long straight and settled into the lead. But Vettel stuck right with him.
The German set the fastest lap on lap two. Hamilton responded next time around, and the pattern was set. Hamilton out front, Vettel less than two seconds back. It stayed like that all race.
Vettel had another chance to pass after a mid-race safety car for a clash between the two Force India drivers. Everyone pitted, Vettel fitted ultra-soft tyres, Hamilton’s softs, and Hamilton was concerned about the extra grip the German would have but again he held the Ferrari off.
“I did everything I needed to do but it was tough,” Hamilton said, “which you’d expect. The Ferrari was quicker today.
“He was able to follow way too close and even on the pushing laps he was able to stay within a tenth. There was no room for error. That was the smallest breathing space I had. I just had to keep them at bay. Just.”
Concern for Mercedes
The theory that Mercedes would be on top in Spa was based to some extent on the British Grand Prix, where Ferrari had their worst race of the season.
Vettel said that he felt his team could have run a better weekend there and that they would be closer if they could go back, but even he said he felt Mercedes were “favourites” in Belgium.
So post-race, the message was clear – if Ferrari can be this close at Spa, what might they achieve at other tracks where the balance appears more even?
“I wasn’t thinking about points, I was thinking about position, I was just thinking: ‘I want to win,” Hamilton said of his tussles with Vettel up the straight.
“I told you what I was coming here for and I’m not leaving here without it. There was a real aggression feel. And I had that afterwards. People were like: ‘Oh you don’t look happy.’ I’m happy but it’s not over and I know the difficulties that may be up ahead being that Ferrari were quicker (here).
“I was a little bit cautious mentally knowing that we might not be the quickest everywhere up ahead and I am trying to work out how to apply positive energy to my guys to encourage them to bring some more magic in these next eight races so we can win.
“It is going to take everything from every single one of us to finish these next eight races to come out on top. Which is how a championship should be. So I am really looking forward to that challenge. I need to have strong weekends like this but that’s the plan.
“Every race is different and it is really unknown. But I am excited and I hope people listening are excited as well.”
A race full of tension and skill
As Vettel admitted, it was a race of connoisseurs rather than casual observers.
“It was a very good race,” he said. “Probably not fun to watch because we were close but nothing happened. But fun to be in.
“The quality was very high, very close lap times. The positive thing is we had very good race pace, it was difficult to follow in the middle sector but we stayed close.”
Hamilton added: “He did a great race, he was very consistently throughout and it was fun to be racing against Sebastian at his best and the car at his best, we were within half a tenth every lap and that is what racing is about.”
The key moment was the re-start after the safety car. Hamilton was unhappy it had been sent out, saying “I guess they wanted a race.”
But as it turns out, it worked in his favour. He had a blistered right rear tyre that Mercedes were concerned might need changing. So, as team boss Toto Wolff pointed out: “It would have been a less comfortable race (without it) because we would have needed to decide whether to pit Lewis with the blister on the rear tyre.
“It was not a critical blister but there were 14 laps left and it would have put us and Lewis in a very difficult situation. Annoying as the safety car looked, it was actually optimum for us and Lewis at that stage of the race.”
Out on track, Hamilton knew he would be up against because of the disparity in tyre performance so he concentrated on getting a good jump on Vettel through Blanchimont, the fast corner before the final chicane.
That worked, but he undid his good work by being in the wrong engine mode, and he provided some fascinating insight into the calculations a racing driver has to make at 200mph as he battles inches apart from his rival.
“I broke away but didn’t have the right power mode so he started catching me up,” Hamilton said. “Initially it felt like a mistake but in actual fact it was a really good thing because if I had gone into that last corner with that gap and gone into Turn One with that gap, he would have had the momentum being three or four car lengths behind to really propel, really get a good tow. so it worked out perfect.
“He was on the gas before me (out of the La Source hairpin). I could hear him. And then as we were going down that straight I didn’t keep it full lit the whole way. I was 90% throttle to keep him close because I knew he wasn’t going to come by because he knows I would overtake him at the top part of the straight with the tow.
“So as we were going up Eau Rouge, that’s when I really gunned it and had maximum power and got to the top and he had no space to propel himself so he just pulled out alongside.
“It was a cool battle and it was really great to go into Turn Five having just done enough.
“After that it was nine, 10 laps whatever of qualifying, heavy fast laps to maintain the gap. I had to pull some really good laps out to stay ahead of him because he was really quick.”
Glass half-full for Vettel
Vettel said he was “not entirely happy” because of his failure to get past there. But the lessons of the race were not lost on him.
“The good thing is the pace,” he said. “I don’t think we have a circuit we should fear going from now.”
For Mercedes, that is absolutely not the case. Two weeks after Monza, the long-haul ‘fly-away’ races start in Singapore, where Mercedes insiders are quite open about expecting Ferrari to walk it.
So important as this win in Belgium was for Hamilton, another in Monza in seven days’ time is just as crucial.
“Next race we need to get at least those seven points again,” he said. “Following that there are going to be some real difficult races coming up and I don’t know whether we are going to be able to keep the Ferrari behind.”
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