Analysis: How a lucky mistake helped Hamilton beat Vettel

What seemed to be a poorly-timed safety car, followed by the wrong engine mode at the restart, could have easily de-railed Lewis Hamilton in what was a tense, tight Belgian GP.

Analysis: How a lucky mistake helped Hamilton beat Vettel
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H
Esteban Ocon, Sahara Force India F1 VJM10, Jolyon Palmer, Renault Sport F1 Team RS17, Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team VF-17
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H, lead the pack in to the first corner
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG F1 W08
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG F1 W08
The Safety Car leads Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG F1 W08
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG F1 W08
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes-Benz F1 W08 at the start of the race
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari SF70H, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB13
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H
Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari SF70H
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari SF70H
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, race winner, crosses the line for victory
Podium: Andrew Shovlin, Chief Race Engineer, Mercedes AMG F1, Race winner Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1, second place Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, third palce Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing
Race winner Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1
Race winner Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1, celebrate with the Mercedes team
Toto Wolff, Executive Director Mercedes AMG F1
Race winner Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1, celebrates with his team

F1 fans have been spoiled by some dramatic Belgian Grands Prix down the years, with rain or first lap contact mixing things up.

This time, for once, there was no bad weather, and the unusual situation of the top six on the grid not only getting around La Source intact, but finishing the first lap in exactly the same order.

However, it was far from a dull race, as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel fought out an intense battle that raged for the full 44 laps. This was a case of two of the greats of the era running at the absolute limit and using every ounce of their vast abilities, with any mistake likely to prove decisive.

There was a twist in the tale in the form of the late safety car, which saw the two drivers emerge from the pits with very different tyre options for the restart. It was Vettel's big chance to get by, and Hamilton had to use every trick from his very considerable bag to stay ahead.

This was grand prix racing at the very limit, and Hamilton came out on top.

Pole proves critical

Spa might not be Monaco or Hungary in terms of overtaking opportunities, but pole proved to be critical for Hamilton. At the start he stayed safely in front of Vettel, and over the opening laps the gap fluctuated around the 1.6-1.7s mark.

Before the race a one-stopper was the default strategy, so it was now simply a question of when those single stops would happen.

And it was leader Hamilton who, with a suitable margin to Vettel, jumped first, coming in on lap 12 and moving to a new set of softs. He was more than quick enough on his out lap to guarantee that he would stay ahead of his rival.

Ferrari waited two laps before bringing Vettel in, and after his stop, the status quo was resumed.

With both drivers now on new softs, it was a question of Vettel hoping that Hamilton would make a mistake – or that perhaps the Mercedes might prove harder on its tyres over the remaining part of the race, and create an opportunity.

Indeed at one point the Brackley team observed an issue with Hamilton's right rear tyre. And just as the engineers were analysing that the safety car emerged to allow marshals to clear up the debris left by the Ocon/Perez collision.

This was the chance that Ferrari had been hoping for. It wasn't a question of closing the gap – Vettel was still right with Hamilton when the yellow flags flew – it was about the prospect of a restart opening the door for Vettel to drag past, and also the potential differences in their tyre choices for the final stint.

Hamilton was clearly frustrated by the safety car intervention, but in fact it came as relief to the Mercedes pit – the team was relieved to have a chance to change his tyres.

"I understand his frustration," said Toto Wolff. "If you're trying to maintain that gap and the safety car comes out.

"In hindsight it was good because we had a blister on his rear right, so I think once he has seen everything, he'll be happy that he had the safety car."

However, pitting was not quite a no-brainer.

"We had quite some good discussions around it. Because as the leading car you can only lose, you either lose track position by pitting and going on a new tyre, and then not recover. Or you keep your car out and then you are on the attack with Vettel from behind on the new tyre.

"I think what made the difference is that we weren't quite sure whether we had a blister on Lewis's right rear. We couldn't identify whether that was pick up or a blister, and that was the tipping argument in favour of pitting for new tyres."

Different directions for the leaders

Heading into the race, Hamilton had two new sets of softs at his disposal, and Vettel had one set of softs and one set of ultras.

So having both deployed new softs in the second stint, when they pitted under the safety car they went in different directions – Hamilton went for his new softs rather than used ultras, while Vettel those shiny new ultras.

With Vettel now sitting behind in the queue on a set of tyres that was not one but two stages softer than those of his rival, fireworks at the restart seemed guaranteed.

There were a couple of riders to that. Firstly Hamilton had been quick and confident all weekend on the softs, and secondly the delta between the softs and ultras always shrinks during races compared to the start of the weekend, when teams are doing their testing and calculations.

And in this case warmer weather on Sunday gave the softs, designed for a higher temperature working range, a boost. Having said that it was harder to get the softs up to temperature for those critical first couple of corners, so Hamilton had no margin for error.

The restart was a great piece of theatre. After they accelerated out of the chicane Vettel was right with Hamilton at La Source, and was bullying him as they came down the hill towards Eau Rouge.

Cresting it and heading down the straight it seemed inevitable that he would make it pass – but despite Vettel getting alongside at the end of straight it was Hamilton who was still safely in front.

Vettel's big chance had gone.

In fact there, was much more to how it unfolded than we could see at the time. Hamilton admitted later that he was in the wrong power mode for the restart, and that had allowed to Vettel to get closer than he would otherwise have been.

But somewhat counter-intuitively, that actually worked against him, as Vettel implied when he said he was too close.

Hamilton also opted not to use full throttle in an attempt to keep Vettel stuck behind his rear wing.

"We got into Turn 1, I had very cold tyres, so I had a small lock-up. He was on the gas before me, I could hear him.

"And then as we were going down that straight I didn't keep it full lit the whole way, I was at 90 percent throttle, just to keep him as close as possible. I knew he wasn't going to come by, because he knows I would overtake him then at the top part with the tow.

"As we were going up Eau Rouge, that's where I really gave it maximum power. We got to the top and he had no space to really propel himself, so he just pulled out alongside. It was a cool battle, but it was really great to go into Turn 5 having done just enough to stay ahead. I was really happy with that..."

The brilliant job Hamilton had done to stay ahead was put into focus by his teammate. Also on softs, Valtteri Bottas lost momentum out of La Source, and was eventually passed by both Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen at the end of the straight, dropping him back to fifth.

In theory, Vettel still had his tyre advantage for the first couple of laps, but no passing opportunity availed itself. An extremely tense few minutes passed before Mercedes knew that its soft tyre decision had paid off.

It still wasn't quite over for Hamilton, and he had to bring the car home. But he was inch perfect over the 11 laps after the restart, and towards the end, Vettel accepted defeat and dropped back.

A timely and brilliantly-judged win for Hamilton then, but one in which fortune played a little part. The safety car, and the chance to change tyres, certainly didn't hurt the Briton.

"It would have been a less comfortable race [without the safety car]," said Wolff.

"Because we needed to decide whether to pit Lewis with the blister on the rear tyre. It was not a critical blister, but there were 14 laps left, and it would have put us in a very, very difficult situation – it would have put Lewis in a difficult situation.

"So as annoying as the safety car looked at first, it was actually optimum for us at that stage of the race for Lewis."

 

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