Twenty-four hours after Hamilton equalled Michael Schumacher’s all-time pole position record, the Briton, celebrating his 200th race, led virtually every lap at Spa-Francorchamps to halve the deficit to Sebastian Vettel at the summit of the championship.
But Hamilton’s victory, his fifth of this see-saw campaign, came under threat with 14 laps remaining after veteran race official Charlie Whiting deployed a safety car following a collision between Force India team-mates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon.
Debris from the Force India cars littered the entry to the high-speed Eau Rouge corner and the ensuing Kemmel Straight, and the safety car was sent out to enable marshals to clear the danger.
But Hamilton felt aggrieved that the decision would cost him victory, particularly with Vettel sporting the ultrasoft tyre – the quickest of the three compounds available – while he was on the soft, the slowest.
“Why have they got the safety car out?” a disgruntled Hamilton said over the radio. “There is literally no debris anywhere. That’s a BS [bulls***] call from the stewards.”
Hamilton managed to hold off Vettel for what could prove to be a crucial victory. Indeed his rival would have moved 21 points clear had he managed to win. As it is, the gap stands at seven ahead of next week’s Italian Grand Prix.
“It felt a bit like NASCAR when they kept putting the safety car out for no reason,” Hamilton said afterwards. “The front wing from the Force India was clear after we slowed down and they could have done a VSC [Virtual Safety Car] period, but I guess they wanted to see a race.
“That was for sure the reason they did that. It was unnecessary. There was hardly any debris. We did all those laps behind the safety car and it just opened up doors. In the heat of the moment I am frustrated. I did not have the ultrasoft tyre, and it feels weighed up against you.”
Hamilton spent a nerve-jangling four laps behind the safety car and, just as he did in Azerbaijan earlier this summer, and within his rights, bunched up the pack ahead of the re-start. On that occasion in Baku, Vettel hit Hamilton in the rear, and then drove alongside his rival before banging wheels. There was no such repeat here but Vettel knew passing Hamilton at the re-start would amount to his best chance of victory.
Vettel was within centimetres of Hamilton’s Mercedes as they sped up Eau Rouge and on to the Kemmel Straight at 200mph. Vettel then dived to Hamilton’s left, but the British driver placed his car in the middle of the track and the Ferrari man was unable to find a way past at Les Combes.
It was an expert piece of defensive driving from Hamilton, which would – despite Vettel’s best efforts in the closing stages – enable him to win the race and get his title charge back on track.
“It is an amazing feeling to come back into the second half of the season and start off on the right foot, given that Ferrari finished on the right foot heading into the break,” Hamilton added.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo completed the podium, but there was heartbreak for his team-mate Max Verstappen after his car broke down in front of an estimated 80,000 travelling Dutch supporters.
There was misery, too, for Fernando Alonso who parked his McLaren after 27 laps with another apparent Honda engine failure. It marked his seventh retirement of a miserable year.