Nico Rosberg did his job in flawless style to win Sunday’s chaotic Belgian Grand Prix, but the real victor in an unpredictable drama played out in front of a record sell-out crowd was his Mercedes team-mate, championship leader Lewis Hamilton, who came home third.
For while the 31-year-old German Rosberg stopped a personal rot that had seen him win only once in eight outings, he was unable to capitalise fully on the 60-places grid penalty that had consigned Hamilton to start from the back row of the grid.
The defending three-time world champion had taken three new power units over the weekend, which resulted in him starting 21st alongside two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso, of McLaren Honda, who had also collected 60 penalties. In another superb drive, Alonso finished seventh.
But instead of accepting his fate, Hamilton somehow produced an inspired effort in a crash-hit race, interrupted by a red flag for barrier repairs after a huge accident that saw Dane Kevin Magnussen slam his Renault into them at Raidillon, to deliver a record recovery and finish on the podium behind second-placed Australian Daniel Ricciardo, in his Red Bull.
“I would definitely have taken third if it was there before the race,” said Hamilton. “I am so happy and proud of everyone in the team. I was not expecting it and I had no idea what we were capable of, but I had a positive mental attitude today and it worked.”
Rosberg finished comfortably clear of Ricciardo to secure his first win at the sprawling and spectacular Spa-Francorchamps circuit set in the Ardennes forests and his sixth of the season. “It’s a special circuit and a classic race so it is great to win here for the first time,” he said.
It brought him 25 much-needed points, but Hamilton remains ahead of Rosberg in the title race with 232 points to 223, a lead of nine, with eight races remaining. Next up is the Italian Grand Prix at Monza this week, the fastest track of the year.
“It's been great to get the win, but Lewis starting at the back made it easier for me,” said Rosberg. “He'll be back at Monza, as usual, and it will be a great battle and another good weekend...”
Hamilton was understandably delighted with the way the race and his weekend had unfolded, given that he had three new power units installed and was handed a massive multiple penalty for his grid position.
“I tell you what,” he said. “It was a steep mountain to climb, but as a team we came together and the guys did an exceptional job to install three units without making any mistakes.
“It’s not that easy and the car was great today. The most difficult part for me was the mental approach at the beginning – should I push or stay behind or what?
“In the end, I was kind of in between… And I was so grateful that I was able to capitalize on all the commotion and everything that happened. It is unbelievable and now I’ve got more engines than most!”
Ricciardo also revelled in the atmosphere generated by a sellout crowd, mostly local and Dutch fans camping under the trees to support local hero Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, who by starting second became the youngest front row starter in the history of the Belgian event. Official estimates said the crowd was around 100,000.
“It’s so cool,” said Ricciardo, who enjoyed another chance to fill a racing boot with champagne and offer it, as a refreshing drink, to the podium host and fellow-Australian Mark Webber.
Webber braved a sip from the unusual vessel as Ricciardo chortled with laughter and joy. “You are a legend, mate,” said the Perth racer, before returning to talk about his race.
“It was pretty messed up at the start for me, but we fixed the front wing thanks to the red flag. And then it was a race by myself, but I enjoyed setting the pace to keep Lewis (Hamilton) behind me, so I’m happy with that.”
Behind top trio, German Nico Hulkenberg finished fourth ahead of his Force India team-mate Mexican Sergio Perez, the Silverstone-based team making good use of their customer Mercedes engines and overhauling rivals Williams in the constructors’ championship.
Four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari recovered from a first corner collision with his own team-mate Finn Kimi Raikkonen, triggered by Verstappen’s rash decision-making, to take sixth ahead of two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda, who had started 22nd on the grid alongside Hamilton.
Raikkonen had spent much of the afternoon moaning about Verstappen’s dangerous defensive racing, his profanities testing the beeper system used to keep team radio acceptable for a family audience.
Finn Valtteri Bottas was eight for Williams ahead of Raikkonen in the second Ferrari and Brazilian Felipe Massa in the second Williams.
The race packed with incident and was red-flagged after nine laps when Dane Kevin Magnussen crashed heavily at around 300 kph at Raidillon, but he limped away from his wrecked Renault car with only a cut ankle that required a brief visit to a Liege hospital.
To the dismay of his fans, Verstappen, still only 18, finished 11th after a frustrating race. He started second, was involved in a first corner collision with both Ferraris and suffered car damage that undermined his race.