Vettel put his Ferrari’s superior horsepower count to good use by slipstreaming behind Hamilton’s Mercedes through Eau Rouge and down the Kemmel straight, getting the job done in the braking zone.
That should have been the end of it, but chaos was unfolding behind the battling duo.
Nico Hulkenberg aced his start from 18th on the grid, but the Renault driver missed his braking zone and rear-ended Fernando Alonso’s McLaren.
The McLaren in turn whacked into Charles Leclerc’s Sauber and catapulted it into the air, rolling over the front of the Monegasque driver’s cockpit – the driver himself was mercifully protected by the ‘halo’ head protection device bolted onto the front of the cars this season – and landing heavily in the run-off area.
Daniel Ricciardo was collateral in the crash, losing his rear wing as Alonso came crashing down to earth, and the Australian in turn nudged the rear-right tyre of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, giving the Finn a puncture.
Hulkenberg, Alonso and Leclerc all retired on the spot. Raikkonen and Ricciardo returned to the pits and rejoined the race, but both were retired before the finish.
The safety car was deployed to clear the carnage, and when the race resumed on lap five Hamilton had a look down Vettel’s inside at the bus stop chicane. He was too far back, however, and the half-hearted attempt dropped him only further behind, depriving him of the opportunity to benefit from the Ferrari’s slipstream out of the first turn.
Vettel eked out his advantage tenth by tenth until he was more than three seconds ahead on lap 22. Mercedes rolled the dice, bringing Hamilton in on lap 22 to try to close the gap on the leader with a set of fresh tyres.
While Hamilton blitzed his out-lap, Vettel was executing a so-so in-lap, and as he trundled at the pit lane speed limit back onto the track the gap was visibly reduced, but not by enough – Vettel maintained a 1.5-second lead over the Mercedes, which was enough to convert into an important victory in the championship battle.
“I had a great start,” Vettel said. “I think I timed it well.
“behind Vettel aIt’s obviously we had a little bit less wing, but timing is crucial and I managed that perfectly, I thought.
“With the safety car it was the other way around, but I had a good restart and a very good exit off the first corner.
“After that it was a very smooth race. Lewis pushed very hard … but in the second stint I could turn everything down a little bit and control the pace.”
The win was Vettel’s 52nd, taking him past Alain Prost and into outright third on the list of all-time grand prix winners.
Hamilton had little choice but to settle for second, his Mercedes obviously outgunned around the super-fast Circuits Spa-Francorchamps.
“Congratulations to Seb,” Hamilton said. “We did everything we could in the race and I think we ultimately performed quite well this weekend.”
“He drove past me like I wasn’t even there on the straight. We’ve got to keep pushing as hard as we can to see if we can try to catch up.”
Max Verstappen completed the podium for Red Bull Racing. The Dutchman picked his way through the first-lap carnage to move from seventh to fourth behind Force India duo Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, both of whom he picked off by lap 10.
He was in a lonely race thereafter, too fast for the midfield to catch him but too slow to play any part in the battle for the lead, leaving him to soak up the adoration from the sizeable Dutch contingent of the crowd.
“Initially it was a bit chaotic and I had to get past a few cars,” Verstappen said. “After that we just did our own race.
“I’m very happy to be on the podium here.”
Valtteri Bottas took the chequered flag a sensational fourth after starting 17th on the grid.
The Mercedes driver didn’t make it easy for himself, nudging Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams in the first-lap chaos, requiring a lap-two pit stop to change tyres and replace his front wing.
He made decisive progress thereafter, however, and bar a short-lived battle with Force India’s Sergio Perez for fourth place in the final six laps, he had little trouble moving through the field to join his fellow frontrunners.
Force India drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon converted the team’s second-row lockout into fifth and sixth at the head of the midfield.
Ocon had qualified ahead of Perez in third and fourth, but Perez jumped his teammate on the first lap in a melee behind Vettel and Hamilton, and he maintained position for the rest of the race.
It was a morale-boosting result for the team, which slipped into administration during the mid-season break and which still has legal questions regarding its buyout and subsequent re-entry to the sport hanging over its head.
Romain Grosjean led Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen home in seventh and eighth ahead of Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly and Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson.
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