Hamilton edges Vettel in race-long battle for Belgian GP victory

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Lewis Hamilton edged out Formula 1 title rival Sebastian Vettel in a race-long battle to secure his third Belgian Grand Prix victory and move to within seven points of the championship lead at Spa on Sunday.

Hamilton was able to keep Vettel back despite a handful of passing attempts, bouncing back from his defeat in Hungary in style with a convincing win to kick-start the second half of the F1 season.

The most serious move for the lead came on Lap 34 after a safety car period, with Hamilton defending bravely to ensure his rival could not extend his championship lead, the result acting as the latest momentum swing in the title race.

Hamilton made a slick getaway from pole position to retain his lead ahead of Vettel, only for his title rival to draw near heading down the Kemmel Straight on the first lap. Hamilton defended his inside well, keeping Vettel back before getting his head down to try and create a gap.

Further back, Fernando Alonso was able to make up a number of places around the outside at Turn 1, rising to seventh, only for the lack of power from his Honda power unit to make him a sitting duck on the main straight, causing him to slowly drop back again in the laps that followed.

The two Force India drivers also came to blows on the opening tour of the Spa-Francorchamps track, with Esteban Ocon squeezing between Sergio Perez and the wall on the run to Eau Rouge, remarkably avoiding damage.

Hamilton was able to eke out a lead over Vettel at the front of the field, running 1.7 seconds clear when he dived into the pits at the end of Lap 12. Switching to the soft tire, Hamilton was angling to go to the end of the race without stopping again, leaving Ferrari with a big strategy call to make.

Hamilton’s pace on the softs was such that Ferrari had little choice but to bring Vettel in two laps after his Mercedes rival, the German emerging third on-track. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen had taken the lead momentarily but failed to hold Hamilton up as he re-took the lead with ease down the Kemmel Straight.

Raikkonen pitted at the end of Lap 15, coming back out fourth, but was quickly slapped with a 10-second stop/go penalty after failing to slow under yellow flags, dashing his hopes of another big result at Spa as he dropped to P7.

Vettel was left to lead Ferrari’s charge once again, and soon began to put the hammer down to cut the gap to Hamilton, getting within DRS range after a mistake from his rival. Hamilton was able to dig deep and open the gap back up again, running 1.4 seconds clear as the race hit half distance.

As Hamilton tried to put the hammer down and create a lead, the Force India drivers came to blows for a second time in a flurry of déjà vu, Perez squeezing Ocon out on the run to Eau Rouge. This time around though, the pair made contact twice, causing damage to Perez’s right-rear tire and leaving debris on the track, sparking a safety car period.

The leaders reacted quickly by taking a second pit stop, with Hamilton retaining his lead. However, while Mercedes fitted both its drivers with fresh softs, Ferrari opted to give Vettel and Raikkonen fresh ultra-softs, handing them a pace advantage for the final run to the line. Disgruntled at having lost his lead, Hamilton told his team it was a “BS call from the stewards” to deploy the safety car, claiming there was next to no debris on the track.

The race returned to green with 11 laps to go, with Vettel wasting little time in trying to make a move on Hamilton. Despite being tucked into the Briton’s slipstream, Vettel was unable to make a move, Hamilton defending well on the inside at the run to Les Combes. Just behind, Bottas lost two places to Ricciardo and Raikkonen, the latter making use of a double-tow to take P4.

After soaking up the pressure from Vettel, Hamilton duly pulled clear before DRS was activated again to ensure his rival could not benefit, with his hot-footing proving crucial as the Ferrari driver failed to get that close again before the end of the race.

Hamilton took the checkered flag after 44 laps to record his third win at Spa, finishing 2.3 seconds clear of Vettel in the end to claim an important victory in his hunt for a fourth world title.

Ricciardo was able to complete the podium for Red Bull, holding on to third place ahead of Raikkonen and Bottas, the latter paying the price for his slow restart with fifth place.

Nico Hulkenberg was the best of the midfielders in sixth for Renault ahead of Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa, while Ocon’s wild race ended in ninth place. Perez, meanwhile, retired late on.

Carlos Sainz Jr. completed the points for Toro Rosso ahead of Lance Stroll and Daniil Kvyat, with Jolyon Palmer taking 13th for Renault ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne and Kevin Magnussen. Marcus Ericsson was the last classified finisher in P16.

Fernando Alonso’s race proved more notable due to his radio chatter, venting his anger about the lack of straight-line speed and saying he was simply doing a “test”. The Spaniard did not get that much running, though, pulling into the garage at the end of Lap 25 and retiring from the race.

Max Verstappen’s hopes of giving the army of Dutch fans who made the trip to see him race at Spa were dashed after just eight laps, parking up at the side of the track after a loss of power on the Renault engine in his Red Bull car.

Formula 1 returns next weekend with the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the final European round of the season.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.