A fascinating battle around the majestic Circuit de Spa Francorchamps in the Belgian Ardennes saw Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport overcome Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton score his 58th Grand Prix victory in his 200th start.
Lewis' 'numbers' are ever more impressive
Lewis' 'numbers' are ever more impressive. A fabulous 1:42.553 qualifying lap gave him his 68th F1 pole position, equalling the all-time record of seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher. He has therefore started slightly better than one in three of his total Grands Prix, from pole position! His wins / starts ratio is now 29% (Schumacher's was 29.7%), with only Juan Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari and Jim Clark boasting higher percentages - all from eras with fewer races.
Post-qualifying, it was an emotional moment for Lewis as Ross Brawn greeted him with a message of congratulations from Corinna Schumacher on behalf of Michael's family.
"I remember coming here in 1996, my first Grand Prix, and watching Michael come by out of Turn 1," said a reflective Lewis. "The engine just shook my rib cage, it was incredible. And that was when my love for the sport took another step. To think that I'm now equal to him on poles... it's surreal and very much a humbling experience. It's an incredible feat that Michael achieved and I feel very proud to be up there with him."
It was also fundamental to Lewis's fifth victory of 2017. If Mercedes pushed Ferrari harder than many anticipated around the high downforce Budapest circuit just before F1's summer break, so the boot was on the other foot around Spa, the longest circuit on the F1 calendar, where conventional wisdom suggested that the Silver Arrows should enjoy an advantage. After showing impressive race pace in the second session of free practice on Friday afternoon, championship leader Sebastian Vettel qualified on the front row, just 0.24s behind Lewis.
'The balance of the car felt really good'
For Valtteri, Spa had been a happy hunting ground in his Williams days, with both a top three qualifying position and a podium on his CV. But this time Valtteri was finding the 7km circuit a challenge and had to work hard to qualify third, just over half a second behind Lewis.
"The balance of the car felt really good," he said, "I've just really been lacking overall grip and losing a lot of time in the high-speed corners in Sector 2. It would have been nice to at least be second, but Sebastian got ahead."
Car set-up at Spa is always a compromise between lower downforce permitting higher straight line speeds in the first and last sectors of the lap and a little more wing facilitating better grip through the lap's twisty middle sector. Go too far in the pursuit of higher top speed and you risk wearing the tyres too much in the middle sector, something needing careful thought as Pirelli brought the softest three compounds in its range to Belgium.
Importantly, when the lights went out on Sunday afternoon, Lewis was able to convert his pole position, get through the La Source hairpin in front and protect his advantage through the awesome Eau Rouge and down the long Kemmel Straight into Les Combes. Evidently, though, it was going to be no easy afternoon: after the first couple of laps Vettel radioed in that he was able to follow Lewis quite comfortably.
Defending the undercut was the team's prime consideration
Pirelli's pre-race predictions said that a one-stop race, going from the UltraSoft onto the Soft tyre, was likely to be the optimum strategy, hence it was vital to protect against any possible Ferrari undercut. Such was the pace of the leaders that by one-quarter distance (11 laps into the race's 44) Valtteri, running third, was almost 8s behind Lewis, who had a 17.9s advantage over Daniel Ricciardo's fifth-placed Red Bull. Having successfully kept Vettel out of DRS range throughout the opening stint, Lewis headed for the pits at the end of the following lap, once he had the necessary 18s pit stop window to Ricciardo and the team felt that he was in range of the finish on a single set of Softs.
Defending the undercut was the team's prime consideration - but there were a couple of potential curve balls. First, the early stop would commit Lewis to 32 laps on the Soft compound Pirelli. Second, Ferrari could use Räikkönen - with a newly-extended contract and 6s further up the road from Ricciardo - to slow Lewis down. The team though, was confident that Lewis had the straight line speed to deal with that threat if it arose.
After a first-rate pit stop, the fastest of the afternoon (22.03s overall pit lane duration versus the 22.44s next best for Vettel at Ferrari two laps later), the status quo at the front remained, with Lewis flashing across the line still 2s clear of Vettel at the end of lap 15, both cars now on the yellow-walled Pirelli Soft. Valtteri, meanwhile, was pitted the lap after Lewis and increased his margin over Räikkönen, who pitted two laps later, to 10s. Any potential threat from the second Ferrari was temporarily extinguished when Räikkönen was given a Drive-Through penalty for failure to respect yellow flags for a stationary Verstappen, and was forced to stop again two laps later.
'Why is the Safety Car out?'
Räikkönen was later brought back into play when the latest contact between Force India drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez punctured the latter's right rear tyre, resulting in the Mexican shedding debris along the long Kemmel Straight and prompting a Safety Car.
Beautiful though the Mercedes-AMG GT S undoubtedly is, it was not a welcome sight for Lewis at this stage of proceedings!
"Why is the Safety Car out?" he asked over team radio. "There is literally no debris..."
The Safety Car appeared right at the point where those in two minds about a one or two-stop race were going to have to commit and effectively removed any decision that had to be made. Red Bull had already committed to a two-stop by putting Ricciardo onto the SuperSoft Pirelli at his first stop. But the likelihood was that the team would have one-stopped Lewis and two-stopped Valtteri.
The No.77 Silver Arrow was experiencing more tyre degradation than Lewis who, at the time of the Safety Car, only had a 1.9s lead over Vettel. But Lewis also had some slight blistering to the right rear tyre that the pit wall were concerned might need changing. Despite leading the race, the team was very much on the defensive.
'It would have been a less comfortable race without it'
The problem was that if Vettel had gone for a two-stop, the fact that he was within 2s of Lewis throughout meant that there was not a big enough margin to cover him by stopping on the following lap without potentially losing track position. But, Vettel's Soft compound Pirellis were a couple of laps fresher and Lewis was going to have to defend that at the end of the race and try to keep him out of DRS range.
The Safety Car solved that but, as Lewis was well aware, gave the team another problem. Where Ferrari had a new set of UltraSofts to bolt on, Mercedes did not. Going back to qualifying, the team had used two sets of UltraSofts in Q2, while Ferrari used just one. You could argue that those two Q2 runs had given Lewis the feel to take the pole position that had given him all-important track position on Sunday - but he was now going to have to defend a Ferrari on quicker tyres at the restart...
"It would have been a less comfortable race without it (the Safety Car) because we would have needed to decide whether to pit Lewis with the blister on the rear tyre," Toto Wolff confirmed. "It was not critical but there were 14 laps left and it would have put us and Lewis in a very difficult situation. Annoying as the Safety Car looked, with hindsight it was actually optimum for us and Lewis at that stage."
At the time, though, such thoughts were not uppermost in Lewis's mind as his tyre temperatures on the Soft yellow-walled Pirelli dropped behind the Safety Car and he contemplated having to defend Vettel on UltraSofts initially more than a second per lap quicker! The restart was going to be all-important.
'I was really pleased with that'
When the Safety Car pulled in, Lewis got a decent jump on Vettel as he accelerated hard through Blanchimont, the fast left-hander before the final chicane, but then selected the wrong engine mode, so the Ferrari was upon him once more as they headed out of La Source hairpin and down to Eau Rouge. That also turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Lewis explained.
"Initially it felt like a mistake but it was actually a really good thing because, if I had gone into Turn One with that gap, Sebastian, on the softer tyre, would have had the momentum to really propel out of the corner and get a really good tow. So it worked out perfect."
But there was no small degree of tactical skill involved, too.
"Going down the straight [between La Source and Eau Rouge] I let off the power a little bit as well just to keep him on my tail. If he was further away he would have had the chance to gain momentum and pass in the slipstream and that's what he wanted, so I didn't give him that. As we were going up Eau Rouge I gave it full power and he had no space to really propel himself and he just pulled out alongside. I was really pleased with that.
'It was a cool battle'
"It was a cool battle. After that it was nine or 10 laps of qualifying - heavy, fast laps, as he was very quick and I had to do some very fast laps to stay ahead. I was just thinking: I want to win this race. I've come here, I've told you what I'm coming here for and I'm not leaving here without it. It was a real aggression feel."
For Valtteri, the re-start outcome was somewhat different. Just like Lewis, he was on the Soft compound Pirelli and facing attacks from Ricciardo and Räikkönen, both on UltraSofts. With Valtteri struggling for traction out of La Source hairpin all afternoon, both the Red Bull and Ferrari got better exits on the softer rubber and went either side of him at the top of the hill into Les Combes, relegating him to fifth.
"I was just lacking a bit of pace the whole weekend but it was difficult to see exactly where I was losing out," Valtteri elaborated. "I could see when I was behind Kimi that out of the last corner and out of Turn 1, I was definitely losing out on traction. And I felt behind the Safety Car that I just couldn't get the Soft tyre into the window and it was kind of getting worse and worse. I was just struggling with the temperature and it felt pretty much like driving on ice.
The immediate goal is another win in Ferrari's back yard at Monza
"At the re-start I had a poor Turn 1 - poor overall grip, poor traction, a bad exit onto the back straight and then the guys came both sides of me. I tried to brake late for Turn 5 but still couldn't stop the car and went straight. It took another lap to get the tyres to work somehow and then the last couple of laps it felt OK again. I just couldn't get the Soft tyre to work at the start of that stint and the guys with the UltraSofts at the restart had the upper hand. I'm really disappointed to lose the podium and obviously if two guys overtake you in one corner, it's not a very good feeling..."
For Lewis and the team, it was a great feeling to close the gap in the Drivers' Championship and extend the Constructors' Championship margin over Ferrari by five points, 392-348. But nobody left Belgium under any illusions. At a track thought to favour the Silver Arrows, every ounce of Lewis' great skill and tactical nous had been required to overcome Vettel and Ferrari throughout qualifying and the race. One of F1's truly epic seasons is 60% complete - and everyone at Brackley, Brixworth and Stuttgart knows just how taxing the remaining 40% is going to be! The immediate goal is another win in Ferrari's back yard at Monza, just days away.