No matter what happened, Nico Rosberg needed to win the Belgian Grand Prix, in order to stall the momentum Lewis Hamilton had built up by turning a 43-point deficit, into a 19-point lead. Pole position was a good start, but what followed was better.
Claiming his first chequered flag since Europe, in June, Rosberg controlled the race and was hardly troubled from behind, although a Safety Car and red-flag period massively helped his cause.
Daniel Ricciardo claimed an ‘away’ victory, by finishing P2, in Max Verstappen’s backyard, on a troubled afternoon for the teenager. From P21 on the grid, Hamilton came through to claim an unexpected podium finish.
Behind them, Force India had one of their strongest ever weekends with Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez hauling 22 points, catapulting the Silverstone based team ahead of Williams in the constructors table.
The grove based outfit finished where they started with Valtteri Bottas, eighth and Felipe Massa 10th.
Ferrari somehow salvaged a double points finish, after a first corner collision, with Vettel in sixth, and Kimi Raikkonen in ninth. Starting last, Fernando Alonso hauled his McLaren-Honda into a points position and was running strongly, before an encouraging seventh place finish.
All the action was behind the leaders, with there being utter chaos and disarray, in the first half of the race – things quietened down in the second half.
Ferrari’s collide – again
From P2 on the grid, Verstappen got a poor getaway and was trying to go up the inside of Vettel, on the outside and Raikkonen in the middle. The Finn was squeezed and contact was made, with Vettel spinning to last, Raikkonen a puncture, and Verstappen a broken front wing.
Limping back to the pits, Raikkonen dragged the underside of his sparking Ferrari around the 4.352 miles of Spa, leading to a small fire on his Ferrari.
With all the chaos behind, Rosberg had opened up a 4s lead on the first lap alone, with Hulkenberg the first of those trying to give chase to the W07.
On the second lap of a frentic start, Carlos Sainz’s right rear Pirelli blew up on the Kemmel straight, leading to a spin at the Les Coombes chicane, and a destroyed rear wing, he was forced to retire.
Three more retirements followed in close suit, with Pascal Wehrlein rear ending the McLaren of Jenson Button at the exit of the first part of Les Coombes, leading to the retirement of both, whilst Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson also retired with an engine problem.
Magnussen lucky to walk away
Just as things started to settle down, the TV cameras panned to the aftermath of a massive shunt at the top of Raidillion, the fast left hander at the top of Eau Rogue. A car had gone into the barrier, but it wasn’t clear who.
The feed then switched to the on-board car camera which showed it was the Renault of Kevin Magnussen who had written off the chassis after losing control on the exit. Limping away from what was left of his car, Magnussen was reported to have cut his left ankle, but was conscious, being taken to hospital as a precaution.
The 12g impact, actually tore the headrest out of the RS16. The Safety Car was immediately called for, with some runners deciding to pit in, but Alonso and Hamilton did not, leading them to be a legitimate fourth and fifth when the red-flag was thrown on lap 9, to give the marshals time to repair the shattered barrier.
It seemed that Hulkenberg would be best placed to profit from the Safety Car, switching to Softs, whilst Rosberg and Ricciardo had yet to do so, however, the red-flag period ended his hopes, as you are allowed to change tyres in the red-flag period, which the two leaders did.
Verstappen vs Raikkonen – round two
After a 20 minute delay the race was restarted behind the Safety Car for a lap, before the field was unleashed, with a majority of runners of the Soft tyre, Rosberg, Perez and Verstappen the only exceptions.
Hamilton soon dispatched Alonso, and set off after Hulkenberg, as Verstappen and Raikkonen got touchy.
In Hungary, two races ago, the veteran Finn was unhappy with the Dutch/Belgian’s defensive techniques. If he was unhappy then, he’d been furious with the latest exploits.
“His only interest is pushing me off the track”, complained Raikkonen, after he was forced to take to the escape road at Les Coombes, but things were to get worse next time around.
Getting DRS and slipstream of the Red Bull, Raikkonen jinked to the right, to dive up the inside into the chicane. The door was open and the Ferrari went for it, but then Verstappen firmly slammed it shut, causing a sharp and sudden braking.
The famously dead-pan Finn then radioed into say “he’s just f*****g turning in when I’m going full-speed.” The bleep machine then failed to bleep out another expletive.
After that, if it could go wrong for Verstappen it did. A stint on the mediums was a disaster as he continued his afternoon of playing bumper cars, with Perez the latest come across the punchy Dutchie. Vettel soon put the 18-year-old in his place, dispatching him efficiently on his recovery drive.
Advantage Force India
In one of the best races in the Force India’s history, some luck and strategy hauled the team into fourth in the constructors, with Perez’s pass of Massa, at the Les Coombes hotspot a symbol of their ongoing battle for fourth.
Williams were caught out by the Safety Car/Red Flag timing and hesitation in moving Massa out of the way for Bottas to have a go at “sitting duck” Alonso.
On debut, Esteban Ocon brought his Manor home a credible 16th of 17 finishers, behind the two Haas’s on a day they would’ve hoped to finish in the points.
Jolyon Palmer was running in the points, before the red-flag caught him out, and being forced to lift and coast to protect his overheating tyres.
What with Pierre Gasly’s strong weekend in the GP2 championship a win and third, Danill Kvyat’s future at Toro Rosso looks ever bleaker for 2017. Strong pace in the closing stages wasn’t enough to haul in those ahead, coming home P13.
Despite winning, Nico Rosberg will be gutted to see who was standing to his left on the podium. Taking a 60 place grid penalty, Lewis Hamilton’s race to third was a fantastic effort.
Rosberg would’ve hoped to leave Spa in the championship lead, but Hamilton does, still with a nine-point lead.
Max Verstappen, no matter how talented he may be, needs to work on his race craft. His defensive tactics have come under fire already this season, and maybe some words of wisdom from Christian Horner, Helmut Marko and his father Jos would go down well.
The collision with the Ferrari’s robbed the race of their presence up front, but their recovery drives, to haul 10 points total, was a good effort, although Red Bull extended their lead in the constructors by a further eight points.
The 2016 Belgian Grand Prix was a classic, and Formula One does it all again next weekend with the Italian Grand Prix from Monza next weekend.