Nico Rosberg got his bid for a maiden Formula 1 drivers’ championship back on-track with a controlled victory in a manic Belgian Grand Prix at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday.
Rosberg went lights-to-flag from pole position with a dominant display reminiscent of those at the beginning of the season when he won four straight races, yet he faced a number of challenges throughout the race.
Start-line drama and contact, a tire blow out, debris, a safety car period and even a red flag all threatened to spoil Rosberg’s day and bring title rival and teammate Lewis Hamilton back into contention.
After starting 21st thanks to a grid penalty, Hamilton made the most of the frenetic early stages to rise up to third place after his first scheduled pit stop, bringing himself into the mix for a stunning victory.
However, a lack of pace through the middle stint and a slow pit stop meant Hamilton had to settle for third place, which despite being somewhat disappointing for the three-time champion meant he left Spa still leading the drivers’ championship.
Rosberg made a clean getaway from pole to retain the lead on the short run to La Source, leaving echaos to ensue just behind. Max Verstappen tried squeezing past Kimi Raikkonen for second place, only for the two to make contact and run into the path of Sebastian Vettel on the outside. Vettel was sent into a spin while both Verstappen and Raikkonen were left with damage, forcing all three to pit for repairs at the end of the first lap.
Vettel and Verstappen were serviced swiftly, but Raikkonen’s stop featured yet more drama when a small fire broke out underneath his Ferrari. It was quickly extinguished, allowing the Finn to head back out on-track, albeit one lap down.
A Virtual Safety Car period was called moments later when Carlos Sainz Jr. suffered a tire failure, causing damage to his rear wing and leaving debris on the track. Once the mess had been cleared, the race returned to green with Rosberg leading from Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo. Hamilton, meanwhile, had risen to P12 on the medium tire.
The race went under the safety car on lap six after a huge crash for Kevin Magnussen at the top of Raidillion after losing the back-end of the car. Thankfully, the Dane walked away from the crash, albeit with a limp after a severe hit. Renault confirmed soon after that he had been taken to hospital with a minor injury to his ankle for further checks.
Many of the super-soft runners took advantage of the safety car period to dive into the pits, leaving Rosberg to lead from Ricciardo and Hulkenberg, the latter emerging from the pits in P3 ahead of medium-shod Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton now sat P4 and P5.
After three laps under the safety car, race officials took the decision to red flag the race due to the damage caused to the guardrail by the crash. All drivers were sent to the pit lane and able to change tires before the race restarted behind the safety car some 20 minutes later.
The race went back to green on lap 11 with Rosberg leading the pack on the medium tire. Mercedes teammate and title rival Hamilton opted to switch to softs in P5, and with an array of sets still fresh after cutting qualifying short on Saturday, the Briton was in a strong position.
Rosberg quickly set about creating a gap to the chasing pack, immediately moving out of DRS range for the chasing Ricciardo. Hamilton eased past Alonso for P4, leaving just two cars between himself and his teammate.
Further back, Verstappen and Raikkonen once again entered battle while fighting over 14th position. Verstappen forced the Finn off the road at Les Combes before making an aggressive defensive move the next lap, leaving Raikkonen fuming over his radio to the Ferrari pit wall.
Rosberg was able to eke out a lead over Ricciardo in the laps that followed while Hamilton toiled behind Hulkenberg, keeping a close eye on his tires. The Briton eventually battled past into third place on lap 18, but was hungry to catch the leading pair.
Hamilton was not able to make inroads to Rosberg and Ricciardo as he would have liked, though. As his soft tires began to fade, Mercedes took the decision to bring Hamilton in on lap 21 and move him onto another set of soft tires, trying to get the undercut on the cars in front. A slow stop meant Hamilton returned to the track in P9 behind Valtteri Bottas.
The battle behind Hamilton saw Hulkenberg and Perez, running net P4 and P5, enter the pits together on lap 23. A quick stop from the McLaren crew allowed Alonso to get the jump, but Hulkenberg kept his nose in around the outside at pit exit, resulting in contact. Hulkenberg got back past at the end of the Kemmel Straight, ensuring their battle would rage on.
Ricciardo came into the pits at the end of lap 26 to switch to the medium tire, coming out ahead of Hamilton who still had one more stop to make. Rosberg continued to plug away at the head of the field on his mediums, having been given the call by Mercedes to push and move to ‘plan B’.
Rosberg came into the pits one lap after Ricciardo, taking on another set of mediums that would take him to the checkered flag. A lead of 10 seconds may not have been much, but it meant that Rosberg remained in control of a race that had taken many twists and turns.
Hamilton managed to run close behind Ricciardo, but his soft tires began to fade with around 13 laps remaining. Rosberg was able to increase his lead over the chasing drivers, running around one second per lap faster than both Ricciardo and Hamilton.
Mercedes brought Hamilton in at the end of lap 32, bringing the Briton back out behind Hulkenberg and ahead of Sergio Perez in the second Force India. With another set of mediums fitted, Hamilton questioned the decision taken by Mercedes, but soon found his feet to latch onto the back of Hulkenberg ahead. The pass was completed at Les Combes, lifting Hamilton back into a podium position.
At the front, Rosberg looked comfortable. While all about him appeared to lose their heads at Spa, the German had kept his to cross the line over 10 seconds clear and record his sixth win of the season and cut the gap to Hamilton in the drivers’ championship.
Ricciardo was able to follow Rosberg home in second place, increasing Red Bull’s lead over Ferrari in the constructors’ championship with another impressive drive.
Hamilton had hoped to cut the gap to Ricciardo and secure Mercedes a one-two late on, but the medium tire wasn’t quick enough, forcing him to settle for third place at the checkered flag.
Nico Hulkenberg’s wait for his first podium finish in F1 continued as he was left to settle for fourth place ahead of teammate Sergio Perez, capping off a hugely impressive weekend for Force India.
Sebastian Vettel recovered from the first-lap drama to cross the line sixth for Ferrari ahead of Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas, the latter unable to make it through on the final lap despite closing up on the Spaniard.
Kimi Raikkonen’s rollercoaster race culminated in two points for P9, while Felipe Massa picked up his first point since Baku with P10 for Williams.
Verstappen’s home race weekend that held such promise ended without points as he crossed the line a lowly 11th ahead of Haas drivers Esteban Gutierrez and Romain Groseajn. Daniil Kvyat was 14th for Toro Rosso ahead of Jolyon Palmer, while Esteban Ocon was 16th on his F1 debut ahead of Sauber’s Felipe Nasr.