Vettel’s Belgian victory was badly needed. His Ferrari team had fielded the fastest car since July, but demoralising losses to title rival Lewis Hamilton at the German and Hungarian grands prix gifted momentum and a handy 24-point lead to the Briton ahead of the mid-season break.
Arriving at the Belgian Grand Prix, a race that would set the trajectory for the final phase of the season and a race Mercedes had controlled for the past four seasons, Hamilton was threatening to deal his rival a damaging blow.
The 13th round of the season was billed as the race that would set the trajectory for the final phase of the year, and the two title-contending teams threw everything at conquering the full-throttle Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.
Both Mercedes and Ferrari brought power unit upgrades to the race, the Italians with the intention of consolidating their small but effective lead in the power stakes, the Germans with the plan to win back its traditional engine superiority.
But just as the tension ratcheted up for qualifying, so too did the clouds over the surrounding Ardennes forest swell with rain, and a brief but heavy deluge changed the complexion of the top-10 shootout before Ferrari could unleash the full power of its new engine.
Just as it had in Germany and Hungary, Mother Nature handed Mercedes a reprieve, and Hamilton timed his qualifying laps to perfection in the tricky conditions to take the sixth Belgian pole in a row for the Silver Arrows.
Vettel’s disappointment from second place was palpable, but he wasted little time striking back in the race.
Immediately applying pressure off the line, he followed Hamilton closely through the turn-one hairpin and into the fearsome Eau Rouge, gaining a powerful slipstream from the headwind slowing the leading Mercedes.
His foot buried to the floor, he powered easily around Hamilton’s left on the Kemmel straight to seize the lead and spent the rest of the race sprinting into the distance.
“He drove past me like I wasn’t even there,” Hamilton lamented. “I did what I could.”
In one swift manoeuvre Vettel had settled the engine battle and won the grand prix, and in doing so he claimed Ferrari some crucial momentum.
“A great weekend,” Vettel said. “I really enjoyed the race. To get a lot of time on this track is always very nice, in a great car it’s even better.”
The ease with which Vettel controlled the race – not a safety car restart nor strategy could prize first place from his grasp – was cause for concern at Mercedes, which had no answer to losing its long-held power advantage.
“We’re a strong team, but there are deficits which are obvious,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted. “It’s all about understanding the new power unit, calibrating and extracting all of the performance out of the software… and optimising the way you run the engine.”
The result is a fascinating precursor to this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix on Sunday (Sept 2). Mercedes has dominated Monza since 2014 with its class-leading engine, but Ferrari’s powerful advances this season will have its home fans daring to believe in the Scuderia’s first victory at the so-called temple of speed since 2010 – and then, whisper it, its first title in a decade.
The message for Mercedes is clear: in the battle for the 2018 championship, the red cars spell danger.
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