Sebastian Vettel did a brilliant job delivering an all-needed win for Ferrari and himself at Spa. Many rushed to name the Belgian Grand prix of 2018 a boring race and they may have a point. However, nothing should be taken away from Vettel’s effort and the spectacular race skills he demonstrated at crucial points of the race.
Sebastian said afterwards that he had been thinking about the start since the previous day. He sure couldn’t have planned his failed attempt at La Source or Lewis’ decisions on how to tackle his first Eau Rouge climb. What he must have remembered, though, is Hamilton’s 2017 defense tactics at Eau Rouge and Kemmel.

You can refresh your memory with this video, which was published by the Formula 1 accounts prior to the start.

And then compare with this year’s start.

Although Vettel pulled out of Hamilton’s slipstream at about the same spot (the slight bend between Raidillon and the main Kemmel straight) there has been a big difference this time. Last year he was stuck behind Lewis during the climb and at the exit.

“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”. Vettel made sure that Hamilton certainly did take the memo…

In the 2018 race, he reached the bend at the exact right moment, without having to nurse the throttle ever after leaving the hill behind. At these speeds, as soon as you pull out of the slipstream you are about to face a wall of wind resistance. Unless you have already enough of an unobstructed momentum going, you’ll end up just on the side of the other car, waiting for the braking zone to make a difference.

Hamilton defends like he did in 2017

Hamilton tried to play last year’s card. Just before entering the corner, he looks left in his mirror to check on Vettel’s distance. He stays on gear 7 throughout the climb and doesn’t shift until the end of Kemmel. He attempts to back up Vettel first and then tries to keep the revs at an optimum level. Heavy fuel load, cold tyres, a conservative pass through Eau Rouge and Raidillon and there you have it: no point shifting to 8th gear and not much speed left to reach.

Vettel’s patience and accurate execution

While Hamilton is trying to repeat last year’s double defense (it was the same at the start of the race and at the restart after the safety car later), Vettel does not bite the bait. He keeps the throttle tamed, lifting significantly and constantly monitoring his gap to the Mercedes. Having cleared the top of the hill it’s hammer time for the German. Hamilton has reached a plateau of torque, but the Ferrari still has some to give, also benefiting from slipstreaming behind the silver car. The Ferrari gets the first resisting wind blow as it pulls left but with its momentum and the available engine resources, it thrusts through the thick air while the Merc stands still. After a while, when the “wind vs Ferrari” battle is settled and the top speed is set, Vettel is already nose first into Les Combes.

(It’s not clear what gear Vettel is on, but judging from the downshift count at Les Combes and assuming that’s 3rd gear going into Malmedy, he may as well have used 8th all along the hill and the straight.)

Vettel sends the message

This cat and mouse game was ultimately what made it easier for the Force India cars to get closer. Ferrari may or may not use tricks or bells or whistles, but this maneuver and the speed difference was not a result of the engine upgrades. It has to be credited to Vettel and Hamilton can as well take notice that Vettel is an excellent student of racing.

“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”. Vettel made sure that Hamilton certainly did take the memo…