The famous old grand prix circuit here was covered in thrown-in towels as Sebastian Vettel won his seventh race of the season to widen his lead to 92 points over his Red Bull sidekick, Mark Webber.
Even the wildest flights of fancy that have been recently heard from Britain’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, as well as Spain’s Fernando Alonso, are now buried deep in the dark forests and rolling hills of the Ardennes.
We thought it was all over – it is now. Even Hamilton, who crashed out on lap 13 of Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, admitted as much. “Everyone should forget about the title because it is not going to happen,” he said. “I’ll get as high up as I can in the championship, but that’s it.” He left the track before the race was completed.
Hamilton is 113 points behind Vettel with seven races to go and the one meaningful challenge that is left open to him is to finish the top driver at McLaren; he is three points behind Button, who trails the third-placed Alonso by eight.
McLaren and Ferrari appeared to have closed the gap on Red Bull in the previous three races, at least in performance, but now it is terminal.
Button and Michael Schumacher provided the drives of the day. Button started 13th on the grid and dropped back to 19th after sustaining front and rear wing damage in two separate incidents but went on to grab third place behind Webber, showing glimpses of his form in Montreal.
“Turn one was mayhem caused by the guys up front,” Button said. “[Paul] di Resta hit my rear wing, damaged my rear wing, half the endplate was gone and driving to Eau Rouge someone’s rear wing came off and went through my front wing and took the mirror off. But all weekend the car felt great.”
Schumacher started last of all, in 24th place, which was hardly the way to go about celebrating the 20th anniversary of his Formula One debut on this circuit. But he finished fifth, his second?best result of the season, overtaking his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, in the closing stages.
Yet the widest German smile definitely belonged to Vettel. This was his first win since June and Red Bull’s first one-two since Turkey in May. It was one of the team’s best performances, particularly as they had gone into the race with tyres blistered from qualifying the previous day. Along with some other drivers, they lobbied Pirelli and the FIA for permission to start with fresh rubber, but their pleas went unanswered. “We had a lot of concerns going into the race after the damage to the tyres in qualifying and we took quite a lot of risk,” Vettel said. “We had reason to feel confident we should be fine, but if no one in the paddock is giving you guarantees … we didn’t feel comfortable, so we both stopped early in the race.
“The main target was to see how the tyres felt after a couple of laps, and go from there. But the car and the pace was very good. It’s good to finish the race and not crash this year!” he said, recalling his collision with Button here last season.
By lap 13 one of his main rivals had been eliminated. Hamilton had overtaken Kamui Kobayashi on the approach to Les Combes. But he appeared to be unaware of the proximity of the Sauber driver as he turned into the corner. It might be described as a racing incident but Hamilton was guilty of carelessness.
He conceded as much on Twitter: “After watching the replay I realise it was my fault today 100%. I didn’t give Kobayashi enough room though I thought I was past. Apologies to Kamui and to my team. The team deserves better from me.”
The three-times world champion Niki Lauda said: “Lewis is one of the best drivers in Formula One if he would stop making stupid mistakes.”
For Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principle, it was another hugely frustrating afternoon, partly redeemed by Button’s surge through the field. “The driver of the day was Jenson Button,” he said. “To come back from 19th to the podium was a great drive. You inevitably start to think what might have been.”
Of Hamilton, he said: “Physically he is OK even though it was quite a big thump. I’m sure he is desperately unhappy. He would have been up there as a contender as well.
“It has been one of those weekends and one of those seasons. People know they have got to commit quite heavily to get past him [Hamilton] and he is always going to commit to get past. Lewis Hamilton makes Formula One a more exciting place to be. He is a racing driver who is competitive and I am sure people were saying that through most of Ayrton Senna’s career and saying it for a large chunk of Michael Schumacher’s career. With those committed racing drivers, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Unfortunately for Hamilton, Button and the rest, it is working for Vettel most of the time.