Lewis Hamilton hailed his start to the Belgian GP as one of the best of his season – but Mercedes remain wary of Ferrari’s speed at Spa-Francorchamps.
Hamilton said he “hit the ground running” in Friday practice as the 2017 season – and a hitherto engrossing title battle – resumed after the summer break with the Englishman fastest on both the fastest and slowest tyre compounds available this weekend.
Hamilton said it “felt like one of our strongest Fridays so far this season” after he ended second practice on top of the timesheet.
“The car felt great and a good start for a Friday,” he told Sky Sports F1. “The set-up has been feeling good and feeling good on all tyres.”
Although surprised by his half-second advantage over the field on the soft tyres, Hamilton said his smaller two-tenths advantage in the afternoon session over Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen on the ultrasoft compound was an example of the pace of Mercedes’ rivals.
“Ferrari never really show their hand on the Friday, they are always generally a little bit slower, and then the next day they start to turn their engine up,” he said. “Today they looked quite close and they were very quick on the long run, they are faster on the long run.”
Vettel, the championship leader, was nearly half a second adrift of Hamilton in P2 and admitted he “wasn’t doing the best job” on Friday.
However, it was the pace of the German in the brief window of dry long-running before a heavy late rain shower which has left Mercedes on red alert heading into the weekend.
“Vettel did a fantastic long run, which was much faster than everyone else,” Toto Wolff told Sky F1.
“I think it’s closer than you can see [on the timesheet].”
Sky F1 analyst Pat Symonds agreed: “Sebastian’s long-run pace was pretty impressive. Before we came here, we were all thinking that this was a Mercedes track but I suspect Sebastian thinks otherwise.”
The title run-in begins…
Nearly a month after Ferrari returned to winning ways with a one-two result at the Hungaroring, the season restarts with Vettel holding a 14-point lead over Hamilton with nine rounds to go.
Although the German’s advantage is equivalent of one third-place finish, Hamilton has stressed the importance of claiming successive victories in the Spa-Monza double header of the next nine days.
“I wanted to come back from this break and hit the ground running, which I have today,” said Hamilton after topping Practice Two for the first time since Austria.
“And I really want to make sure I transfer that into 25 points and 25 points. I need to get these two wins, it’s very, very important for me personally to reinstate my fight for the championship. That’s the plan.”
The fast open sweeps of Spa, F1’s longest circuit, has been expected to suit a Mercedes package which dominated on the similarly quick Silverstone layout two races ago. But Raikkonen reckons “we’re closer than many other people think”.
For his part, Vettel is focused on improving both his car and personal performance in time for Saturday’s qualifying hour.
“Mercedes looked very strong. Whenever they went out they had the possibility to go fast,” he said.
“It’s a long track and it’s not so easy to put everything together. What everyone is always looking at is the lap time but there is a bit more to it than that.
“They look very strong, no doubt, but myself I’m not so happy. I couldn’t really find the rhythm, especially on the short run the long run was better. Overall I think the car is there to do the job we just need to get it right and I need to do my job.”
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