Sebastian Vettel wins Belgian GP after avoiding huge opening corner crash

Story highlights

Vettel wins Belgian GP

Huge crash on first corner wipes out five drivers

Hamilton and Verstappen complete the podium

CNN  — 

Sebastian Vettel cut Lewis Hamilton’s lead at the top of the driver standings to 17 points after a faultless performance at an action-packed Belgian Grand Prix.

But the race at Spa will be remembered for the scary and spectacular opening-corner crash which brought the safety car out and forced five drivers to retire.

Nico Hülkenberg’s brakes locked up on the approach to the first turn, causing him to slam into the back of Fernando Alonso and send the Spaniard’s car flying over the top of Charles Leclerc’s Sauber.

It meant the first four laps of the Belgian Grand Prix were led by the safety car and the trio involved in the crash were all forced to retire along with Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen, whose car was irreparably damaged in the smash.

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Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was also involved and rejoined the race a lap down after extensive repairs were made to his rear wing.

But the Aussie, who announced last week he would be leaving to join Renault at the end of the season, was eventually forced to retire.

Fernando Alonso, who recently announced he would be retiring from the sport, Hülkenberg and Leclerc all walked away from the incident but were taken for a medical examination as a precaution.

It was a case of deja vu for Alonso, who was involved in a near-identical incident at this track in 2012.

With the carnage on the track behind them, Vettel and Hamilton kept their cool to vie for first place and some stunning driving from the German saw him take the lead inside four corners and it was one he never looked like relinquishing.

“I had a great start, I’m not sure Lewis saw me,” Vettel told reporters after the race. “He pushed me quite far to the left, I knew my chance would be up the hill and I timed it well.

“It was better this year, we had less wing but timing is crucial. With the safety car it was the other way around (Hamilton hunting Vettel) but after that it was a very smooth race – Lewis pushed very hard.”

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Verstappen eager to please

Though Hamilton showed all of his skill and class in tricky conditions on Saturday to take pole ahead of championship rival Vettel, the story in qualifying came from Force India.

Drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez took third and fourth respectively – the team’s best position for several years – after their gamble to stay on the slicks paid off as the heavy rain subsided.

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It was a huge change in fortunes from the last race weekend in Hungary, during which Force India went into administration and had to be saved by a consortium fronted by Lawrence Stroll, the father of Williams driver Lance.

But Max Verstappen, who is always given a rock star’s at Spa welcome by thousands of compatriots who make the short journey from the neighboring Netherlands, was desperate to impress the vast swathes of orange shirts in the stands.

Born in Belgium to a Belgian mother, Verstappen also enjoys plenty of support from the locals in Stavelot.

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As the cars set off for the formation lap, orange smoke filled the sky above the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps and the traveling contingent were soon sent wild as Verstappen passed Ocon on lap eight to take fourth place.

Seemingly always out of luck on this track, Verstappen’s best finish at the Belgian Grand Prix was a paltry eighth place but he soon overtook Perez in the second Force India to climb into third – a podium finish was now within sight.

Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, was forced to start from the back of the grid after taking an engine penalty in qualifying, but some slick driving saw him rise to eighth place after just 22 laps.

At the halfway mark, both Vettel and Hamilton had switched onto the soft tires with the Ferrari driver coming out of the pits 1.9 seconds ahead of his rival to set up a seemingly exhilarating finish.

But all credit must go to Vettel for making the finale somewhat anticlimactic, as his smooth performance never truly gave Hamilton a sniff of the pole position he lost on the opening lap.

Sebastian Vettel celebrates his 52nd Grand Prix victory.

Verstappen held on to third place to complete the podium, much to the delight of the thousands of orange-clad fans in the stands, fending off the advances of Bottas who came from the back of the grid to finish fourth.

And it was the Force India pair of Perez and Ocon who will continue to take plaudits for their weekends’ work as they backed up the impressive performance in qualifying to finish fifth and sixth, securing the team’s first points of the season to move above Williams in the Constructor Standings and just one point behind Sauber.

Vettel’s win takes him to 52 Grand Prix victories, surpassing the great Alain Prost into third on the all time list, a feat even the German could scarcely believe.

“More wins than Alain?” an incredulous Vettel responded. “Woah.”