Sebastian Vettel celebrates after winning the Belgian Grand Prix. Picture: Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP:

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium - Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel sped away from first corner carnage to celebrate a commanding Belgian Grand Prix victory on Sunday and trim Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One lead to 17 points with eight races remaining.

Hamilton, 2017 winner in Belgium, started from pole position but finished second for Mercedes while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen gave his army of Dutch fans something to cheer about with third. In the battle of four times world champions, Hamilton now has 231 points to Vettel’s 214.

Vettel said of his decisive pass on Hamilton: “I had a great start, I’m not sure Lewis saw me as he pushed me to the left in the first lap, but after last year I ended up short, and this year it was the other way around. As soon as I was ahead I relaxed. I had a good restart after the safety car, and after that it was a very smooth race.”

The start provided most of the afternoon’s excitement, with Fernando Alonso’s McLaren flying over Charles Leclerc’s Sauber at the La Source hairpin after being rammed by Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg. 

McLaren's Fernando Alonso and Sauber's Charles Leclerc crash at the first corner. Picture: Francois Lenoir / Reuters

All three retired as the safety car was deployed for four laps but Leclerc had reason to thank the ‘halo’ head protection system, introduced this season, for allowing him to step away unscathed. Television close-up images after the race showed the structure heavily marked by the impact.

“The Halo was a very good thing to have today. I think for him, it helped,” commented Spaniard Alonso, who will be leaving Formula One at the end of the season.

Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, a four times winner in Belgium, and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo also collided at the start and retired after pitting, Raikonen having to wait for his 100th career podium.

At the front, Vettel swiftly seized the lead from Hamilton down the Kemmel straight on the opening lap and never looked back, taking the chequered flag 11.0s clear of Hamilton.

Hamilton, who was quick to shake his rival’s hand and offer congratulations, said: “He drove past me like I wasn’t even there on the straight.

"They have got a few trick things going on in the car,” he added. “I did what I could, we did what we could so we have to keep working.”

It was Vettel's fifth win of the season, matching Hamilton, and 52nd of his career - one more than the great four times champion Alain Prost managed.

Fastest lap 

Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas finished fourth, and set the fastest lap, after starting 17th.

Force India began its existence under new ownership with a haul of points that lifted it immediately off the bottom of the standings. The team, which had started with all its Constructors’ points taken away following confirmation as a new mid-season entry, had Sergio Perez fifth and Esteban Ocon sixth.

Haas duo Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were seventh and eighth, with Pierre Gasly ninth for Toro Rosso and Marcus Ericsson 10th for Sauber.

McLaren’s Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne was last in his home race.

Results

1 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) - 1h23m34.476s

2 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +11.061s

3 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +31.372

4 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +1:03.605

5 Sergio Perez (Force India) +1:11.023

6 Esteban Ocon (Force India) +1:19.520

7 Romain Grosjean (Haas) +1:25.953

8 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +1:27.63

9 Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso) +1:45.892

10 Marcus Ericsson (Sauber) +1 lap

11 Carlos Sainz (Renault) +1 lap

12 Sergey Sirotkin (Williams) +1 lap

13 Lance Stroll (Williams) +1 lap

14 Brendon Hartley (Toro Rosso) +1 lap

15 Stoffel Vandoorne (McLaren) +1 lap

Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) - DNF

Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) - DNF

Charles Leclerc (Sauber) - DNF

Fernando Alonso (McLaren) - DNF

Nico Hulkenberg (Renault) - DNF