Here we are, all back at puppy school after the summer break. And where better to resume proceedings than the hallowed twists and turns of Spa Francorchamps? I love this track. I’ve been there and it really is the mutt’s nuts. So I was hoping for a Belgian belter but sadly, it was a bit more Flemish flop. First lap crash drama aside (more of which later), the race didn’t quite live up to its promised billing after Saturday’s rainy qualifying. All the ingredients were there. Our championship contenders nicely poised in the front two grid slots . The recently rescued Force India team defying the odds with a spectacular second row start. Crowd favourite Max Verstappen hoping to give his orange barmy army something to cheer about. Valtteri Bottas ready for some flying Finn action from the tail end. We were in for a treat, surely?
The race did have its moments and there was some decent overtaking. Mostly DRS and slipstream assisted mind you, but we’ll take the passes where we can, right? Choosing Top Dog was a real head scratcher this week. There were no real standout drives although I was impressed by several of the midfield lads who battled hard to secure valuable points, not to mention keeping themselves in contention for those race seats still up for grabs in 2019. In what has been my toughest pick of the year so far, who is the prize pooch of Pouhon? Give those finest Belgian doggie chocs to…
I haven’t picked Sebastian yet this year. Seems bonkers to be saying that. He’s been a contender many times of course, but someone else has always pipped him to the prize. Perhaps other drivers have had to work harder for their result? Maybe Seb’s victories have come too easy? We rarely get to see Lewis and Sebastian racing wheel-to-wheel in their quest to be the first driver of their generation to be a five time world champion. Everyone was hoping for exactly that in Spa, but that Ferrari is looking pretty darn quick right now. The engine upgrades are working beautifully and Vettel is digging deep to wring every ounce of performance out of himself and the car.
Last year, Hamilton got the better of Seb with some canny tactics, despite being in a slower car. This time around, Vettel made the most of his power advantage and deployed a smart game plan of his own. He drove an intelligent, controlled race throughout and, whenever we thought Lewis might be onto him, Sebastian had an answer. The race was pretty much won on the opening lap. Pole sitter Hamilton may have got off the line pronto, but Sebastian tailed him in close proximity all the way from the La Source hairpin, up the vertiginous incline of Eau Rouge, through Raidillon before getting a tow down the Kemmel Straight. Vettel breezed past the Mercedes but the job wasn’t quite done yet. Hamilton immediately fought back – and he wasn’t alone. Both Force Indias had benefited from the slipstream effect and we had a heart stopping moment where all four cars arrived at Les Combes simultaneously. But four into one doesn’t go, and it was Sebastian who kept his foot in to keep the Prancing Horse ahead of the Silver Arrows. Ocon was right in there for a few moments before thinking better of it and backing out. Perez took full advantage to slingshot past his team-mate into third. Kudos to the pink cars for giving us one of the few standout moments of the race after their awesome qualifying showing. Deputy dogs for sure.
Somewhere over the halo
While this was happening up front, all hell had broken loose further down the pecking order. Nico Hulkenburg, usually a safe pair of driving gloves, had a momentary lapse of talent and ploughed into the back of Fernando Alonso. The McLaren was launched way up high and skewered a few cars before landing in a heap of papaya pulp on the outside of La Source. Kimi got a puncture and eventually retired. As did Dan Ricciardo thanks to rear wing damage. The most spectacular casualty was Charles Leclerc as the airborne McLaren clunked the halo of the Sauber as it sailed over the top. Say what you will about the halo but this would have been a much more serious accident without it.
Meanwhile, back up front…
The first corner carnage brought out the safety car until Lap 4. Vettel has been known to flunk restarts in the past, and Lewis was most definitely looking racy as the safety car peeled away. But Sebastian judged things perfectly, choosing just the right moment to make a break for it. Lewis locked up at the Bus Stop Chicane which gave Seb just enough breathing space to stay ahead. After that, he never really looked back. He put in a series of fastest laps to build a comfortable gap of almost 4 seconds to Hamilton behind. He kept everything under control when Lewis started to eat away at the gap mid-race. Seb knew things would be tight after his pitstop – and Lewis did get to within 1.3 seconds of the Ferrari. But Vettel’s superior speed, level-headed drive and careful tyre management left Lewis unable to get on terms. Seb did everything he had to to win which he did pretty comfortably in the end by a margin of 11 seconds. It may not have been a spectacular win, but it was the first Ferrari victory in Belgium since 2009. It also showed that Vettel is back in the game mentally – and in a mega-quick car. That combination is likely to go well in Monza and Singapore too. While the Belgian race may have lacked some, er spa-kle, the championship continues to captivate. The Vettel-Hamilton rivalry is ramping up and the outcome is still too difficult to call. But for now, Sebastian can revel in the glory of grabbing his first Top Dog honour of the season. Great work, Herr Vettel. Have a craft beer on us.
The summer break is done and dusted and the races are coming thick and fast. Only one week to wait for Monza. Can Ferrari pull off another win in front of their adoring tifosi? Which dog will have his nose in front as we head towards the fly-away races? It’s still all to play for, so follow Badger GP for all the news, views and hot gossip in the build-up to the Italian GP. Have a great week!