By Sean Kelly, C4F1 statistician
He may not have taken pole position, but in a sport where only Sunday truly counts, Sebastian Vettel claimed top marks as Formula One re-emerged from its midsummer slumbers at Spa-Francorchamps.
It was an event where Ferrari dominated the dry running.
The Scuderia topped every practice session in a weekend for only the second time in the last 10 years (the other occurrence being the 2017 Russian Grand Prix) and then paced the field in both Q1 and Q2 only for rain to intervene in Q3, allowing Lewis Hamilton to thwart their charge for pole.
Vettel hastily atoned for this on the opening lap of the race, dragging past Hamilton on the run to Les Combes while fending off a surprise attack from Esteban Ocon. Having previously led only three laps at Spa in the entire turbo hybrid era, the German was in front for all 44 circuits of Sunday’s race, which was just part of an amazing set of coincidences tying Vettel and Alain Prost that came to the fore as the race unfolded.
It was a chaotic start to the race at Spa, as Vettel managed to snatch victory away from Hamilton— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) August 26, 2018
If you missed the action, never fear as you can catch up in 344 seconds with our race rewind #C4F1 #BelgianGPhttps://t.co/ux1P9THYHM
At the start of the day Vettel had 51 wins and 106 career podium finishes, as well as 85 career laps led at Spa-Francorchamps – all identical to Prost. Now he has surpassed Le Professeur’s career numbers, attempting to break their tie – along with Hamilton – as four-time F1 champions is surely next on the agenda.
Ferrari had not won at Spa in this decade (their last triumph was Kimi Raikkonen’s victory back in 2009) but Vettel’s third career success there gave the team a 13th win overall on the Belgian road circuit, surpassing McLaren for the venue record. On a more administrative note, it also pushed Vettel past the 1,000-point barrier for Ferrari.
His vanquished rival Hamilton had six previous podium finishes at Spa, and this was his fourth consecutive podium in Belgium. Considering those numbers, it was remarkable to note that he’d never finished second at Spa until Sunday.
Lewis Hamilton was practically blown away by the speed of Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari during the 44-lap race at Spa— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) August 26, 2018
Here's what the top three had to say after this afternoon's race #C4F1 #BelgianGP https://t.co/B2HFPscxWe
It was a statistically significant weekend for Hamilton’s relationship with Mercedes. On Sunday he made his 111th start for the team since joining in 2013. This now surpasses his career starts for McLaren (110), having already been the first driver to make 100 grand prix starts for two different constructors.
Although it would have been more enjoyable with a win, Hamilton did take his fifth Spa pole position on Saturday, breaking the circuit record first established by Juan-Manuel Fangio as long ago as 1956, and equalled by Ayrton Senna when he took four consecutive poles from 1988-91.
Third place this weekend went to Max Verstappen, a man who had never previously finished higher than eighth in three previous starts at Spa. This certainly seemed to please the huge Dutch contingent in the crowd, but it was arguably an even more momentous day for Belgium itself.
Verstappen was born in the Belgian city of Hasselt, less than 100km (62 miles) away from the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. That therefore makes him the first Belgium-born driver to officially score a podium finish in a Belgian Grand Prix since Jacky Ickx finished third in 1968! Thierry Boutsen was on the podium in 1988 only to be disqualified afterwards, meaning Verstappen’s achievement is seemingly a once-in-a-half-century event!
Very happy with this podium at Spa! A special one for me! We stayed out of trouble, the car worked well and we maximized our result. Thanks @redbullracing, and all Dutch fans for the fantastic support #KeepPushing #BelgianGP #OrangeArmy pic.twitter.com/SmhEWScuxz— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) August 26, 2018
Valtteri Bottas can celebrate his 29th birthday this Tuesday 28 August after recovering from 17th on the grid to finish fourth, with a post-race five-second penalty not changing his final position.
It was only the second time in his career that the Finn has taken a top-four finish from outside the top 10 on the grid – the other was his second place from 14th at Silverstone in 2014 with Williams.
Sunday’s race was Bottas’ 110th career start, surpassing Mika Salo for fifth on the all-time list of Finnish drivers. At Monza this weekend he will tie Heikki Kovalainen for fourth, and by the Japanese GP he will equal Keke Rosberg (114) for third.
Much of the run-up to the race was dominated by the future of the Sahara Force India team, and by the time the cars finally ran on-track (which in itself wasn’t guaranteed), the team had been renamed Racing Point Force India and had forfeited all of their 59 points this season.
Starting again from scratch, the team made a sensational 'debut'. Ocon and Sergio Perez took advantage of the adverse weather to line up third and fourth on the grid – both tying their best career starts, having both been knocked out in Q1 at the last race in Hungary.
It was déjà vu for Perez – of the five occasions he has started fourth in his career, THREE of them have come at Spa (also 2012 and 2015).
Also, i'm watching a very happy Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez standing next to each other in post-race interviews, at the same venue where 12 months ago they were colliding and accusing each other of being idiots. Awww bless! #BelgianGP— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) August 26, 2018
Ocon’s audacious attempt to grab the lead from Vettel on the first lap notwithstanding, the Force India drivers ended up topping what’s becoming known as the “Class B” race behind the Ferrari/Mercedes/Red Bull cars.
Perez has now been fifth three times in the last four Belgian GPs without ever finishing higher, while Ocon eventually celebrated sixth place at the track on the second anniversary of his F1 debut at the same venue.
It remains to be seen where the Mercedes-affiliated French driver's immediate future lies, but Force India’s looks brighter than it did a week ago. Despite losing all of their previous 2018 points, they’ve already re-passed Williams in the constructors’ championship and are just behind Sauber.
The “Class B” races have often been led by Haas this season, and they were once again competitive at Spa, with Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen both reaching Q3 for a sixth consecutive race.
Grosjean lined up fifth on the grid (again tying Haas’ best-ever starting position), and finished seventh, with Magnussen following him home for his first career points at Spa.
Toro Rosso had a quiet weekend overall, but Pierre Gasly – now confirmed as a 2019 Red Bull driver – has scored points in consecutive races for the first time in his career, as ninth place on Sunday followed his sixth in Hungary.
Next season Pierre Gasly will become the next driver to receive promotion from Toro Rosso to Red Bull when he replaces Daniel Ricciardo— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) August 25, 2018
Here he is discussing the move with @LeeMcKenzieTV #C4F1 #BelgianGP https://t.co/iCQ9LQ1l1y
Marcus Ericsson secured a small piece of personal history, as the Swede finished 10th, matching his result from the 2015 race and making Spa the first F1 circuit on which he has scored points twice in his career. That point had an interesting effect in the championship, as it kept Sauber ahead of the 'new' Force India in the standings.
Special mention this week goes to Sergey Sirotkin, who finished a lapped 12th. The Russian is the only driver this season who is still yet to score, but there was a mini-breakthrough as he spent 11 laps (exactly one-quarter distance) running in a points position, which he’d never previously done in a grand prix.
Retirements this week included some big names, as Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen were both effectively eliminated from contention by a first-corner collision. Ricciardo soldiered on until withdrawing on lap 29, while for Raikkonen it ended a five-race podium streak, the longest he’d achieved since winning the 2007 world championship.
All of the above achievements will probably fade in most people’s memories, but the spectacular first-corner crash is likely to be replayed ad infinitum in years to come.
"The halo has been quite useful today..."— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) August 27, 2018
That's some understatement from Charles Leclerc! The Sauber rookie was lucky to escape unscathed after being hit by Fernando Alonso's flying McLaren #C4F1 #BelgianGPhttps://t.co/NRzA3S0dgk
On a weekend where McLaren marked 50 years since Bruce McLaren delivered their first world championship grand prix victory at Spa, Fernando Alonso was literally launched into the limelight after being hit by Nico Hulkenberg.
Alonso’s car landed on top of Sauber’s Charles Leclerc, as the Spaniard’s final Spa F1 outing ended in a seventh retirement in 15 starts at this venue. For Leclerc it was a second consecutive lap one retirement, having also had a short day of work in Hungary last month.
That we are discussing such frivolous statistics may well be thanks to the introduction of the halo, which appeared to offer critical protection to an F1 driver for the first time – the Sauber’s halo was covered in tyre marks from Alonso's flying McLaren.
Sunday’s race may have been relatively unremarkable, but sometimes that’s a good thing.