Coming into this Formula 1 race weekend in Belgium, it was almost certain that, no matter what happened, this would be a race worth watching. Indeed, as a lifelong F1 fan who fell out of love with the sport 2 or 3 years ago, this was the race I chose to come back to. Spa-Francorchamps has always had a flair for the dramatic, and with Sebastian Vettel looking to close in on Lewis Hamilton’s 24 point lead at the top of the Drivers Championship, the stakes were certainly high.
Free Practice and Qualifying passed somewhat uneventfully, with the only notable excitement coming as a result of the unique Ardennes climate that makes this track so special, and its ability to switch from bone-dry to flooded in a matter of metres, something which caught Valtteri Bottas off guard as he spun out on his way down a straight. Hamilton was somewhat less vexed by the unusual weather conditions, securing a pole position in what he described as “the toughest session I can remember doing”. His comments seemed to come from a place of humility though, as he beat out Vettel by 8 tenths of a second and Esteban Ocon, the surprising third place qualifier, by over 3 and a half seconds, cementing him as the underdog of the weekend and my personal favourite coming back into the series.
Not that third is a bad result for Ocon. Prior to this weekend, his best qualifying position was 6th, as was his best race finish. A positive start, then, for the new Racing Point Force India team, who’s resurrection following the purchase of Force India by Lawrence Stroll saw them lock in the 2nd row of the grid, with Ocon in 3rd and Sergio Perez in 4th. Force India were always my favourite underdog team as a teen watching the sport, and are certainly my pick for team to watch this season, although the nepotism that seems to be presenting itself in the form of Stroll’s plan to replace Ocon with his son Lance could doom this promising team.
The real excitement of the weekend, however, came on Sunday. Anyone who knows the Spa-Francorchamp circuit will be all too familiar with the reputation La Source has, with the short run into the corner from the start line and slow racing line through the corner resulting in a very bunched up pack at the start of the race and a higher chance of collisions, and 2018’s race was no exception. A lockup of the front tyres on Nico Hulkenburg’s Renault sent him into the back of Fernando Alonso with enough force to send him up and over the top of Charles Leclerc, taking all 3 drivers out of the race. None of the drivers involved suffered any notable injuries, thanks in huge part to the Halo safety feature, introduced to mixed response this season but proving its worth protecting Leclerc from Alonso’s vehicle.
Up at the front of the pack, the stakes may have been high, but for the most part the race was somewhat boring to watch, with Vettel’s overtake manoeuvre on Hamilton occurring barely half a lap into the race. A surprising push from Ocon saw him momentarily pass the two front runners before sharp corner braking dropped him to 4th, but aside from that Vettel had a smooth ride to the finish line, coming in 11 seconds ahead of Hamilton and reducing the gap to the top of the Drivers Championship to 17 points. A 6th place finish from Kimi Räikkönen and 10th for Valtteri Bottas means Ferrari closes Mercedes lead in the Constructors championship to just 15 points. Force India dropped back during the race, finishing with Perez in 5th and Ocon in 6th, whilst Max Verstappen came in 3rd, earning the first podium position of his career, rather fittingly at the same circuit Max’s father, Jos Verstappen, won his final podium in 1994.
Overall, Spa was Ferrari’s race this year. Their first win since 2009 at the circuit, and a proof of concept for a car that Hamilton said “Drove past me like I wasn’t there”. A disappointing race, however, for Mclaren Renault, with both Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne failing to complete the race. Particularly disappointing for Alonso, who’s history with the Spa-Francorchamps circuit is marred by a similar incident in 2012, when Romain Grosjean’s collision with Hamilton sent his car over the top of Alonso’s in a near perfect recreation of this weekends crash. This weekend leaves him 9th in the Drivers Championship, 5 points behind Kevin Magnussen, and widens the gap for Renault to make up in the Constructors Championship to over 150 points with just 8 races to go in what is proving to be an exciting 2018 season. No matter who wins, Spa-Francorchamps is definitely the best entry point into the Formula 1 franchise, be it new fans or returning ones like myself, and will surely continue to captivate crowds for years to come.
Race results and Championship standings can be found at www.formula1.com/en.html