Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg has led a lights-to-flag victory in a red-flag affected Belgian Grand Prix. Australian Daniel Ricciardo was second while Lewis Hamilton finished third having started the race from 21st position.
Hamilton was forced to make multiple power unit changes throughout the weekend which result in a 60-place grid penalty, which meant the championship leader had his work cut out for him starting at the back of the grid.
Having made his way through the field to third position, Hamilton ran out of time and pace to close the gap to Ricciardo, leaving Rosberg clear to take a comfortable win and close the gap to Hamilton in the championship to nine points.
Fernando Alonso started the race in last place alongside Hamilton and followed the Mercedes driver through the field, while the pace of the McLaren limited his overtaking towards the latter stages of the race. Nonetheless, Alonso’s drive put him in driver of the day contention as he finished in seventh position.
At the start of the race, Max Verstappen didn’t get the cleanest of getaways starting from second on the grid as he was swamped either side by the two Ferrari’s into La Source.
The teenager then dove on the inside of Kimi Raikkonen, who had already committed to his line through the La Source and swiped the front left side of Verstappen’s wing off, then hit his team mate Sebastian Vettel which spun the German’s Ferrari to face the wrong direction.
Verstappen continued to race but struggled to keep his Red Bull on the track due to lost downforce from the front wing. Both he and Raikkonen pitted after the first lap for repairs, although Raikkonen’s pit stop was considerably slower than Verstappen’s as a small fire under the Ferrari delayed the front wing change.
Nico Hulkenberg blitzed the start and jumped from seventh to second position, while Ricciardo took advantage of the messy Turn 1 to promote himself to third.
The following lap the virtual safety car was deployed after Carlos Sainz received a right rear puncture. The Spaniard had gone from 14th to seventh on the opening lap before the puncture occured, the tyre then began to tear apart which hit and destroyed his rear wing. Meanwhile on the same lap, Pascal Wehrlein and Jenson Button retired from the race after Wehrlein ran into the back of Button’s McLaren at Les Combes.
Racing resumed on lap four for another two laps before Kevin Magnussen lost control of his Renault on the exit of Eau Rouge and crashed heavily into the barriers at Raidillion. The safety car was quickly deployed for four laps where Raikkonen was able to get back his lap lost in the pits, until the race was red flagged as the extent of the damage to the barriers was too great.
This allowed the field essentially a free pit stop, as drivers are permitted to change their tyres under red flag conditions. Rosberg chose to put on a set of new mediums while Ricciardo opted for a new set of softs, as did Alonso, Hamilton and Massa.
When the race restarted, both Alonso and Hamilton had made their way through the field from the back off the grid to fourth and fifth place respectively, as the pair began the race on the medium compound tyre.
Rosberg was able to clear the danger of the DRS zone from Ricciardo and built a lead of 1.5 seconds, which he extended to 2.5 a handful of laps later. Ricciardo was in a race of his own as Hulkenberg was busy defending third position from Hamilton a further six seconds down the track.
On lap 18 Hamilton made a move stick on Hulkenberg heading into Les Combes and continued his charge to the front until pitting on lap 22 for a new set of softs. A minor delay in his pit stop saw the Briton rejoin the race in 8th position, while the following lap Hulkenberg, Vettel, Alonso and Bottas also headed for the pits.
Hulkenberg narrowly maintained his potion as McLaren released Alonso into the Force India’s line, with the Spaniard having to concede the fight in the pit lane upon exit, but not before touching the rear of the German.
Hamilton had utilised his soft tyres and got within a second of Ricciardo before making his final pit stop with 11 laps remaining. The championship leader bolted on a scrub set of medium compound tyres and rejoined the race a second off Hulkenberg in fourth, although questioned the team’s strategy by radioing the pit wall “I’m not sure that’s the right idea”.
Further down the field Vettel and Massa scrapped for seventh position, Vettel attempted a move at Les Combes but locked his brakes and had to hand the position back to Massa after almost coming together with the Williams. The following lap Vettel passed Massa easily on the Kemmel straight to secure seventh and head after Alonso for sixth.
Vettel’s pace was far greater than Alonso’s and it didn’t take long for the German to take sixth from the McLaren, getting an easy move completed on lap 36.
Despite being in the mix for a top three finish all race courtesy of a brilliant start from seventh, Hulkenberg failed to get his first podium as Hamilton easily cruised passed the Force India with seven laps remaining.
The result was still an important one, as Perez finished the race in fifth while closest rivals Williams only managed to get five points from the race with Bottas finishing in eighth and Massa in tenth. This sees Force India move ahead of Williams in the constructors’ championship to fourth position.
Image via Mercedes AMG F1 Petronas