Lewis Hamilton may have cut a deal with the clouds during the Belgian Grand Prix
Last year, when Sebastian Vettel had tried to slingshot past Hamilton on the same gorgeous Belgian track of Spa-Francorchamps, he was thwarted both by the British driver brilliantly ensuring Vettel didn’t get an optimum slipstream, and by the Ferrari’s lack of full-blooded throttle. This Sunday, the German driver screamed past with a perfectly judged pass.
Over the last five races of this Formula One season, we have witnessed — over sector-times and practice sessions — the increasing pace of Ferrari engines. This advantage hasn’t translated to a proportionate number of wins though, thanks to poor strategic calls and driver errors. Ferrari’s biggest foe, however? Rain.
The single-minded engineering of current F1 cars ensures that the fastest car — the one most capable of generating speed in a straight-line — is rarely the best in conditions that require it to be driven slowly. Two races ago, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel spun out while leading the German Grand Prix, failing to negotiate the rain lashing the track and allowing a resurgent Hamilton to inherit victory.
In Belgium, Ferrari had led every practice session and two qualifying sessions when rain struck in Q3. Hamilton took one of the year’s most unlikely pole positions, while Vettel scrambled his way to second place.
Cue the déjà vu. Last year, when Vettel had tried to slingshot past Hamilton on the same gorgeous Belgian track of Spa-Francorchamps, he was thwarted both by the British driver brilliantly ensuring Vettel didn’t get an optimum slipstream, and by the Ferrari’s lack of full-blooded throttle. This Sunday, the German driver screamed past with a perfectly judged pass. Later an incredulous Hamilton shook his head. “He drove past me like I wasn’t even there.”
There was a horrific crash behind them: Nico Hulkenberg drove Fernando Alonso into the air, sending him hurtling across what might have been the head of Charles LeClerc, if not for the Halo, the F1 safety ‘cockpit’ introduced this year. Now that lives have indeed been saved, this device is controversial no more.
Vettel timed Sunday right. He overtook Hamilton after that crash but crucially before the safety car was announced, handled the safety car restart with the aplomb he regularly used to show when winning championships with a class-of-the-field Red Bull, and finally held the race lead with a flawless pit-stop.
Not that he needed to sweat. He finished 12 seconds ahead, and is now 17 points behind Hamilton heading into the Italian Grand Prix this Sunday. That track is not just Ferrari’s home but also full of very fast, very straight lines.
After the race, Hamilton — who, last month, absurdly accused Ferrari drivers of intentionally crashing into Mercedes drivers — climbed out of his car and stood staring at the red car he could not match.
He said something about Ferrari using “tricks”, before back-pedalling to clarify that he wasn’t accusing them of illegality yet.
F1 Race Director Charlie Whiting laughed this off, as did most fans, but this predictable tendency to whine and pout over defeats may be Hamilton’s least champion-esque attribute. It clouds his legacy.
Hamilton needs to learn to lose. Vettel might enjoy teaching him.
(The author is a film critic and has been writing about Formula One since 2004. The views expressed here are personal.)