SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- Lewis Hamilton secured an important victory in this year's title race after holding off Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel for 44 laps at the Belgian Grand Prix.
In a race which saw the two championship protagonists go wheel-to-wheel twice along the Kemmel Straight, the Mercedes driver prevailed, slashing Vettel's championship lead to seven points in the process. A late Safety Car period gave Vettel one last chance to attack, but despite Hamilton being on a slower tyre, the Mercedes driver was able to hold off the challenge and take his fifth win of the season.
Daniel Ricciardo claimed a brilliant third position for Red Bull after a stunning move at the Safety Car restart saw him hold off Kimi Raikkonen while simultaneously passing Valtteri Bottas on the Kemmel Straight. Raikkonen took advantage of Ricciardo's pass to snatch fourth from Bottas, whose championship challenge took a critical blow as he crossed the line fifth. Nico Hulkenberg took a well-earned sixth place for Renault ahead of Romain Grosjean in the Haas and Felipe Massa, who went from 16th on the grid to eighth in the Williams. Esteban Ocon and Carlos Sainz took the final points on offer in ninth and tenth.
Hamilton holds off Vettel at the start
Hamilton made a good getaway from pole position to lead Vettel through La Source, but the Ferrari driver quickly recalibrated and looked to Les Combes at the end of the Kemmel Straight to try his move for the lead. As Hamilton punched a hole in the air through Eau Rouge, Vettel drafted behind and when the pair exited Raidillon, Hamilton had to cover the inside line to protect his position. Vettel got his nose alongside but in the final 500 metres of the straight Mercedes' power advantage was clear to see and Hamilton just stayed ahead.
Further down the field -- and in a sign of things to come -- the Force India drivers made contact as Esteban Ocon ricocheted between teammate Sergio Perez and the concrete wall on the run down to Eau Rouge. Remarkably both drivers emerged unscathed, and along with the rest of the field completed the first lap without any further incident.
"Embarrassing, really embarrassing"
Fernando Alonso moved from 11th to seventh by taking a wide line through the opening corner, but in the space of the next six laps he dropped four places as his McLaren routinely ran out of puff on the Kemmel Straight. "Embarrassing, really embarrassing," Alonso blurted over the radio before asking his engineer to stop giving him information on lap 17, by which point he had dropped to 15th. On lap 27, Alonso reopened the radio channel to ask if any rain was due to hit the track, and when the response came back negative he replied a minute later reporting a terminal engine problem. Max Verstappen lasted just eight laps before his Renault engine gave up, forcing him to pull to the side of the track and into retirement. Raikkonen was caught speeding in the yellow flag zone as the marshals removed Verstappen's car and was later hit with a ten-second stop-go penalty as a result.
In the meantime, Hamilton remained just out of Vettel's reach and on lap 12 made his planned pit stop to switch to soft tyres. Vettel followed suit on lap 14 but in the intervening two laps lost ground to the Mercedes driver and exited the pits three seconds behind. With Bottas comfortably in third and Raikkonen dropping to eighth with his penalty, the battle for the podium positions appeared to be over ... but that was before Ocon returned to the track from his second pit stop directly behind teammate Perez.
Force India's clash ... again
Ocon, who had been ahead of Perez before Force India's second round of pit stops, had a point to prove and on lap 30 and got a better exit from La Source to attempt a move through Eau Rouge. He looked to the right of his teammate on the run down to the high-speed left-right-left only for Perez to move across and squeeze him towards the wall. With nowhere to go, Ocon's front wing endplate made contact with Perez's right rear, sending debris flying into the catch fencing and slashing open Perez's tyre.
Remarkably, both drivers kept their foot pinned to the throttle into Eau Rouge, only for the Mexican to back off as the rear of his car snapped sideways at over 250km/h. A substantial part of Ocon's front wing came to a rest in the middle of the circuit and FIA race director Charlie Whiting wasted no time in calling for a Safety Car.
Hamilton secures a crucial victory
When the Safety Car emerged all of the remaining cars pitted for fresh rubber, essentially resetting the race ahead of the final ten laps. Both Mercedes drivers opted for the soft compound tyres while Vettel in second, Ricciardo in fourth and Raikkonen -- now back up to fifth after his penalty -- opted for the faster ultra-softs. Behind the Safety Car, Hamilton struggled to get his harder compound tyres up to temperature and Vettel loomed large in his mirrors as he prepared for the restart. Much like he did at the start, Vettel was able to draw alongside but once again Hamilton just had enough of a power advantage to keep him at bay at the top of the hill into Les Combes. Once through the first sector after the restart, Hamilton was able to use the high-speed corners in sector two to get his tyres up to temperature and from that point onwards managed the gap to Vettel behind.
Bottas in third place was unable to match the restart of his teammate and Ricciardo and Raikkonen both found a way past the Mercedes on the entry to the chicane. Ricciardo went to the inside while Raikkonen went to the outside, leaving Bottas with nowhere to go as he ran wide and dropped to fifth.
Back at the front, Hamilton went on to cross the line 1.4s ahead of his title rival, securing a seven point swing in the drivers' championship in the process. He now heads to Monza next weekend in the knowledge that a repeat result would leave the pair level on points with seven races remaining.